That's what science is all about: thinking up questions and figuring out how to attempt to answer them. What kind of procedures do you need? What kind of materials?
But I've also been wondering something else: what does it take in yourself? We all know what the stereotypical scientist looks like: white lab coat, wild hair, thick glasses, and a vocabulary that includes lots of long words. It's true that the scientists on this ship have extended vocabularies. But nobody has a white lab coat, and I'm the one with the wildest hair and thickest glasses. While the scientists are struggling to understand what they're seeing at the hydrothermal vents, I'm struggling to understand them. What keeps them going when the going gets tough ... when the LVWS doesn't work again ... when the containers come up empty ... when the experiment doesn't come out as expected?
Dr. Shannon Williamson is one of the people who has had the most problems on this trip. She shrugs and smiles when I ask her how she's dealt with her setbacks, which include having a terrible cold for much of the trip. "You have to be persistent, even if things go wrong. Last year when I was out here, I got such great results. They inspired me. I think it's true in all science that once you get a taste of how exciting it can be, you just want to keep going so you can learn more."
Dr. Monika Bright describes a time in college when she was studying agriculture and knew it was the wrong field. "I decided to find something I liked," she says. She wound up in biology, where things go wrong, but where she feels like she's in the right place. And when things go wrong? "I tell students to keep an open mind," she says. "If you like to solve problems, if you like to think about problems, that's good." And, she says, you have to stay curious.
Curiosity is the first word Dr. Craig Cary uses when he answers the question of what keep him going. It's what got him started in science and what keeps him going. He says his curiosity about the world is what has led him from point to point all through his life, starting when he was a kid. "I drove my parents nuts. I was the kind of kid who'd walk up to something and unscrew it. My sister is still mad that I took apart her Chatty Cathy doll to see how it worked. I took off the back to find the little record and little needle."
Well, how do you get from taking toys apart to analyzing the genome of the Pompeii worm? Craig says, "My interest does not grow from genetics but from being outside all the time. I carried a microscope around in my backpack." What did he look at? Everything. "You could take a simple thing and look at it under a microscope and it would become very complex. A leaf looks green before you put it under a microscope and then it becomes much, much more than green. I wanted to look at everything."
Okay, so how do you get from looking at stuff under a microscope to analyzing the genome of the ... ?
Craig says, "If you can understand one thing you will understand it all, start off simple. Looking at everyday things is how I got started on microbiology."
Okay, so now you're interested, and you want to find out more. How can you help yourself learn, and how can you help others to help you learn? The support and understanding you need can come from a couple of places. I find that continuing to ask questions, even when you feel uncomfortable about it, is key. But I also find that asking for examples -- scenarios in which a phenomenon happens or comparisons of a complex situation with a simpler one -- are vital. Craig Cary sums it up this way: "If you find a story, something you understand, then you can get through it."
He gives an example by explaining the seemingly tricky concept of messenger RNA (mRNA). He begins with a thesis statement: "Messenger RNA is the response to an environment."
Then some factual information: "Every cell in your body has the same genetic code. All your DNA is in every cell: tissue, hair, blood. But your heart is different from your lungs and your skin. That's because the heart is not like the skin in its expression and transcript. They start with the same DNA, but what the cells learn to do makes the difference."
And now the story: "When you get hot and start to sweat, your body responds to signals that have been sent, and sends out the message 'I'm hot!' The cells responsible for dealing with heat are targeted and told to sweat. Cells express certain proteins that change the chemistry of the cells and cause them to respond."
At the simplest level, Craig says, DNA is what a cell is capable of. Messenger RNA is what a cell actually is doing. The presence of RNA in a cell is an indication of what that cell does, although it doesn't actually make the action happen; the proteins do. The message the RNA sends goes to a part of the cell called the ribosomes and tells them what proteins to produce.
For Craig, stories lead into science. To him, there's a story taking place at the hydrothermal vents, and his mission -- and the mission of Extreme 2004 -- is to figure out what that story is and to understand the science behind it. Storytelling is his strategy not just for understanding things himself, but for helping others understand it. Craig tells stories constantly!
For me, writing is my way of making something out of the garble in my head; it's my way of finding out what I know. Sometimes when I write down a concept I realize I really do get it; other times I figure out where the gap in my understanding is. Then I know more precisely what I need to find out or clarify. I have to mention here that when Mike League read this journal, he pointed out some gaps in my understanding. If you write about something, talk about it, tell your version of it, then you're in a better position to evaluate it.
I wonder if telling stories works for Craig in the same way. Anyway, I file his story away in my mind. I'm going to the main lab tomorrow to talk to Dr. Alison Murray about her work on the metagenome of the Pompeii worm, and I think I'm going to need the information Craig just gave me.
I've been hearing all kinds of stories on this ship, not just scientific ones. Many among the science team, the Alvin group, and the Atlantis crew have had incredible experiences all over the world. Chief Mate Mitzi Crane described some of her favorite ports yesterday: they include Eritrea and Hong Kong. Topics of other stories I've heard recently include life along the Alaskan pipeline, a funeral in Indonesia, ice breaking on R/V Knorr (another Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ship), coffee-growing in Sumatra, and sunrise along the border between Bolivia and Brazil. A ship is one way to see the world; science, I'm learning, is another.
If you're a storyteller or someone who dreams of travel, if you're curious and persistent and want to solve problems and understand how things work ... maybe a career in science is for you.