Barbara explains that the bacteria are pretty big: "Usually you look at bacteria under 100x magnification, which shows them 1000 times their actual size." The bacteria we're looking at are so big that the scope can show them at just 40x.
It's exciting to see the bacteria that so much of this ship's research is based on -- right before my very eyes! But when Barb starts telling me more, I get into trouble.
Sometimes this sort of thing gives me a funny feeling in my stomach. I ask myself 'Am I supposed to know this already?' It's something I've wondered often on this trip, surrounded by people who understand each other's work, understand each other's world, and speak each other's language: Cultured Alvinella symbiont. Gene expression. Genomic engineering. Amplifying DNA. Posttranscriptional modification.
I gulp a little, force myself to breathe, and ask, "I understand the bit about symbiotic association between the bacteria and the Pompeii worm. That means they need each other, probably, and one can't live without the other."
Barb, along with Dr. Craig Cary, is trying to figure out that relationship. So is Dr. Alison Murray. So is Dr. Joe Grzymski. Michelle Phillips, Charles Lee, Mihailo Kaplarevic, and Alison Kelley are involved, too. It's the central research topic of the Extreme 2004 mission. It's really important work, and it's very complex, and when they talk about it -- whew! I get lost easily in a wave of words.
It reminds me of two things. One: last night, I was sitting in the bow of the ship and watching the sun go down. As often happens, some seabirds came flapping along and scoped me out to see if I was edible. One of them managed, after five tries, to land on the antenna in the bow. The other six kept trying, jealous maybe, but didn't succeed. What dorks, I thought. Can't even land on an antenna! Pigeons back home have no trouble at all. Then again, how many antennas do you see in the middle of the Pacific? It was amazing that these birds -- who never go near land -- would think of landing on something so strange. No wonder they couldn't do it; they weren't inept, just inexperienced.
Same with me. Barbara Campbell has devoted the last 25 or so years of her life to understanding biology. How can I expect myself to understand it completely in 25 days?
If you've ever sat listening in a science class and didn't understand what was going on ... If you've ever read five words in a row that you couldn't define and felt your eyes glaze over ... If you've ever thought, I'm just not smart enough ... patient enough ... hard-working enough ... interested enough ... If you've ever thought, I'm just not cut out for this... Well, come sit by me.
And listen to my second story. Every night while we go to our post-dive meeting, there's a ruckus going on in the galley next door. Lots of laughs. What's going on? Kazumi Baba, a Japanese woman, is studying English with Kevin Threadgold. Other crew members who stop by get involved, too. I asked Kazumi how long she had been in the United States (this is an American ship, even out at sea), and she said, "since February." Has her English improved in that time? "Oh yes!" I don't think anyone on the ship speaks Japanese, so Kazumi has been immersed in English. It's like being immersed in the ocean; you have to swim or you'll sink.
It's funny. Today, I asked three scientists what made it difficult to explain things to people, and they all said the same thing: language.
Frank Stewart said, " It's tough to break the language barrier. It's huge. I think there's trial and error inherent in anything. Some projects are more smooth than others." Others seem to be projects that you think you understand, but you find out you don't. Like me, with my understanding of cultured bacteria.
Barbara Campbell helped me to see that the definition of every word or phrase in her description of her work involves an understanding of a complex concept or process. She added to the idea that scientists, too, struggle to see what's going on. "Some people are gifted. Whatever they do turns out right the first time. I am not one of those people. In my third year of graduate school, things just got tough. I couldn't get my research to work. I asked myself 'Do I really want to do this?' She answered her own question: Yes.
I ask Craig Cary why it's so hard for people to understand what scientists are doing, and he says, "It's like learning a different language. Every discipline and science has its own language."
All this wins a big sigh from me. But I remember a favorite poem that begins this way: "Always begin right here where you are. If adrift, feel the oar in the lock..." To me, that has always meant, step back in the maze to the place where you knew where you were.
All right. I go back to the bio lab where Barbara is working to culture the Alvinella bacteria. Culture means grow. "Why do you want to grow them?" I ask. "They're already growing at the vents."
The answer is a little tricky, but I begin to get it. Sure the bacteria are growing at the vents, on the back of the Alvinella. But why? That's the ticket: if you can figure out the circumstances under which the bacteria grow, then you can understand the circumstances... So Barbara tries to get them to grow in the lab, knowing that once they do, they'll have a clearer understanding of just what these organisms require to live.
I need to know more. But what? "How do you start?" I ask.
The first thing to do is find media in which the bacteria can grow.
"What kind of media?" I ask, hoping that the answer will help me define media. I know she's not talking about TV, radio, and newspapers. Those I understand. Just because they say there are no dumb questions, doesn't mean I don't feel dumb asking them. But I've learned something by talking to these scientists, something that goes beyond understanding their work, something that helps me understand how much they love their work. If I say, "I really want to understand what it is that they're doing," then it's their turn to stop, take a breath, and spread it out before me in terms as black and white as an English-Japanese translation. If you keep on flapping your way toward it, you can eventually figure out how to land on the antenna.
Media is the plural form of medium. It's a noun, not an adjective, and it means a substance or path through which something can happen. In this case, what Barb wants to happen is growth, so she looks for materials to include in the media that she thinks bacteria need in their environment: salts and vitamins that combine to make artificial sea water and materials such as metals and chemicals that simulate the Alvinella environment.
In the middle of the morning, Barb came into the Computer Lab to find me. "Do you want to see what gets microbiologists excited?" she asked.
Loaded question. I follow her into the Bio Lab, where she shows me two test tubes of water. She holds up the first one. "This is what it looks like when you start," she says. The tube is clear. "But look at this one." She holds up the second. It's cloudy.
"Does that mean it's cultured?" I ask.
Barb just smiles. She leads me over to her microscope and sits me down. I peek through and see things moving around. "We don't know for sure what it is," she says. "But it's alive."
Getting enough to move forward is the name of the game out here -- for scientists who are trying to make breakthrough discoveries, and for those of us who are trying to break through whatever keeps us from learning more about what they're doing, whether it's language, process, or just being scared that you can't understand.
Today, I feel a little bit clearer on biology, a little less dumb, a little more brave. I'm off to ask some more questions.