August 16, 2013

No Easy Science

by Michael Fernandopulle

Michael Fernandopulle '14 is a Royce Fellow working on characterizing a cellular structure known to be essential for the persistence of tuberculosis.

I remember reading those words about a year ago as I studied the elaborate collage of word magnets on my friend’s refrigerator door.  Some phrases were funny and others nonsensical, but this one stuck out to me as uniquely pithy.  When I read it, I envisioned someone struggling over a problem set at the SciLi, trying to figure out how to attack a challenging set of questions.  I laughed to myself, thinking, “So true.”  I recalled courses such as organic chemistry, genetics, and biochemistry, agreeing that, past a certain point, there really was “no easy science”.

Looking at that same cluster of words today, I envision another scene entirely.  Bacterial culture plates with no growth.  Falsely positive preliminary results.  Failed DNA sequencing reactions.  And the painful four-day wait for spore production in Streptomyces bacteria.  My work in a Brown molecular microbiology laboratory this summer has been riddled with obstacles, delays, and frustrations.  As I work toward characterizing a cellular structure known to be essential for the persistence of tuberculosis (a close relative of the model bacterium Streptomyces), results have come slowly and with great difficulty.  After over two months of work, I am still unprepared to do my project’s culminating experiment!  Forget problem sets and exams—when it comes to lab work, “no easy science” is the ever-present, overarching, ultimate, and indefatigable truth.

It’s so easy to dwell on those three words.  After all, much of what is done in the lab just doesn’t work.  It’s easy to forget the larger goals, beyond tedious technicalities, that are supposed to drive a scientist.  “Now you know you can’t do this job without passion,” my lab professor recently told me.  “Science is just too hard.”

I began the summer motivated to begin and finish my project before the start of the semester.  I was going to isolate the cellular targets of a protein-degrading enzyme called the proteasome, helping to elucidate the molecular basis for tubercular persistence and possibly yield attractive new drug targets.  I would need to disrupt three genes, engineer a synthetic version of one of those genes whose product could be biochemically purified, and then identify the purified proteasome substrates.

As the summer draws to a close, I am about one-third of the way there.  It’s certainly a slog, but the thought that my work could one day lead to effective new TB treatments is a constant motivation.  As I am currently applying to MD/PhD programs, I am simultaneously aware of the enormous global health impact of this disease as well as the interest in elucidating its molecular machinery.  My passion lies in bridging the gap between medicine and science by translating innovations from the lab into new clinical solutions.  I am hopeful that my work will contribute toward that goal.

So while there may indeed be “no easy science” in the realm of the laboratory, one need not despair.  Genuine passion coupled with dogged determination will lead to progress, no matter how slow or strained it may be.


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