Molecular Biology: Not So Sexy Science

A couple of things recently have got me thinking. Following the success of BBC Stargazing Live, @xtaldave on Twitter jokingly suggested the BBC should commission Molecular Biology Live. There followed an amusing round of tweets about what that would include. Mostly a lot of pipetting, and waiting around. With the occasional cup of tea. TheLeadingEdge also posted his second lab frustration post, in which he detailed things that bench scientists find frustrating in the lab. 

The point of this is really that while what molecular and structural biologists study is fascinating, exciting and important, the general public are not that engaged with it, because day-to-day it is often frustrating and often repetitive and slightly dull. It’s a shame, though. And it got me thinking what our problem is. 
First, I think we’re stuck in the middle, size-wise. The things we’re studying aren’t big enough to see, so they can’t be gazed upon with ease and their beauty marvelled at, like the night sky can. Equally, they’re not small enough to need really cool sounding experiments requiring half of Switzerland to study, like quantum physics. You can study them in a lab, but much of the time you rely on experiments that will indicate the presence of things you can’t see, unless you’re a structural biologist, you often won’t see exactly what you’re working with. And even as a structural biologist, you may spend years or even decades trying to ‘see’ it.
They can be TERRIBLY pretty when you do see them, though.
Take me for example, in my MRes project I’m trying to find the structure of a protein that inhibits the cell death pathway. It’s interesting because the cell death pathway often doesn’t work properly in cancer, and understanding why will slowly inch us closer to understanding what’s going on in cancer cells. When I tell people this, they get excited. And it is exciting, but it’s very long-term exciting. Despite what the media says, there will likely never be one big discovery that will rid the world of cancer, it’s brilliant to be involved in trying to understand it, but there can be no illusions that this work will save the world. It’s simply one more piece of a hugely complicated puzzle. 
On the other hand, I think it would be immediately and hugely exciting to uncover the structure of a molecule that no-one has ‘seen’ before. The reason I’m persisting in trying to get my protein to settle down and behave so that I can shoot X-rays at it and get a computer to do some complicated maths for me is that I think it would be amazing to be one of the first people to really see what this molecule looks like. Not because it might save the world, but because it is an unknown, to be the first to ‘know’ it would be cool. To a certain extent it is discovery for its own sake (the driving force behind much of science!) 
This is not how I look in the lab. For a start she looks like she knows what she’s doing. 
What I’m getting at is that what I’m doing is kind of awesome, but it’s hard to show people WHY that’s so. If you followed me in the lab day-to-day, you would be bored senseless (apart from that Friday night when everyone else had gone home and I was dancing to Bloodhound Gang around the centrifuge, you might have enjoyed that). So what I wanted to ask, this very cold Friday afternoon, is this… to the non-scientists, are you interested in molecular biology? If not, why not? What might GET you interested? And to the scientists, especially my molecular massive, how do you think we can get people more interested in molecular biology? Or do you think that we simply can’t? 
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4 thoughts on “Molecular Biology: Not So Sexy Science

  1. I think people don't know they're interested in molecular biology. Take for example the public discussion surrounding the avian influenza transmission stuff, vaccine safety, gene therapy and the human genome. These are all proper biology firmly based on molecular thinking. I feel the problem is that journalists (bar some very good ones) don't understand molecular biology so just ignore it. If they understood it and communicated it well, I think people would enjoy it.

  2. Good point, I think you're right, people are very interested in molecular biology in some circumstances, without knowing what it is they're interested in! It would definitely help if journalists had better understanding of what it is, because when it's communicated right it is fascinating. It's so easy to ignore it though, and focus only on the results, which often leads to a misunderstood cycle of hype-and-let-down. When I worked (briefly) in TV, they were always firmly against anything molecular being mentioned because they regarded it as a massive turn-off. I thought it was such a shame, and that it's a subject crying out for a decent communicator!

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