The Science of Not Knowing
Materials and Methods
Ever the diligent pupil, Tara Murty ’14 walked into UMass Amherst’s Gierasch research lab last summer having done what homework she could. “I had done a little bit of reading about the general ideas of what was happening in the lab,” she recalls. “And my mentor had sent me a couple papers.” Tara would be looking at chaperones—proteins that help other proteins to fold properly. When they don’t, they can aggregate with other proteins, which in turn contributes to a variety of bad scenarios—including Parkinson’s and cancer. But chaperones weren’t on Tara’s plate on the first day; Tara’s first day was all about orienting herself. “I was shown around—looked at what people were doing, where we grew the e. coli, where we did some protein extraction experiments. Then my mentor said, ‘Why don’t you test things out, see if you can get the right numbers?’ So the first thing I did was figure out where everything was in the lab.” Tara pauses. “It felt pretty symbolic of what happened that summer, actually,” she reflects. “I was given ideas of what to do, and then I went on and learned what to do myself.”
Jade’s mentor also gave her some free rein. Like Tara, Jade was looking at a similarly small piece of molecular biology that could also have far-reaching results.
“It was previously thought that if you starve a tumor cell, it will start dying— but that isn’t always the case,” Jade explains. Researchers at Harvard had found instead that some cells, at least in lung tumors of mice, are sensitive to dietary restriction, but others are resistant. Plus, there’s this: “Ectonucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase 5,” says Jade. “My mentor noticed that bronchiolar cells had higher levels of entpd5, so I studied the connection between the expression level and how it affected the sensitivity of the cells to dietary restriction.”
- Electrostatic Model, Undocked DnaK
Thus Jade spent her summer in the lab, as did Tara and Nina and more than a dozen other Deerfield girls and boys, foregoing other summertime pleasures in the name of searching for answers that may not exist, on projects for which they would receive no grades.
They would, however, be asked to share their work with the Deerfield community. One evening in late September, with summer but a fading memory, Tara, Nina, Jade, and other summer research participants gathered in the Garonzik Auditorium to talk about their experiences with one another, Dr. Hills, and other faculty.
“It’s actually one of the keystones of our new science curriculum,” says Dennis Cullinane, chair of the Science Department and a faculty member whose classes provide rigorous research opportunities for students during the school year. “Critical thinking, working as a team, problem solving . . . and presentation of your work. Deerfield has made a concerted effort for kids to be stepping up and presenting, and I think it’s paying off.” With this expectation comes encouragement for students to organize their thoughts and articulate the point of their work. It’s one thing to show up to the lab every day, after all; it’s another to have a nuanced understanding of the research happening there, and to be able to explain it to someone else.
Walking up to the podium, Tara stood before her peers and pointed out that the work she’d done on protein folding could have far-reaching results—extraordinarily far reaching. When a protein is being bound to a chaperone so it can fold properly, looking at the differences in their peptide binding will help to find ways to specifically inhibit the one that’s in cancer cells. “So that was my overall goal—to find the specific differences that could specifically target certain proteins,” she explained at the symposium. “Because then it could potentially . . . cure cancer.”
Tara laughed a little at that last statement, but everyone at the symposium got what she was saying. Would her work cure cancer? No. But it could make a contribution toward that larger question—a huge, gaping question that has no answers, one that we’re not even quite sure how to ask. That’s what scientific inquiry is—delving into the unknown, with little guidance, no roadmap, and no certainty that you’ll come out the other side with any clear data. Students at Deerfield are learning to become comfortable with this kind of discomfort—partly because their teachers are deliberately creating a lab-like environment for them on campus, but also thanks to access to summer projects in actual labs.
“On a departmental level, our goal is to expose kids to science the way science is done in the real world. That’s the way they learn,” Cullinane points out. Imagine Deerfield is perfectly in line with this mission. “Pro research, pro projects, pro problem-based learning, experiential-based learning, inquiry-based learning,” ticks off Cullinane. “The summer research program is exactly what we’re looking for—a culmination of a Deerfield education—like our research classes that we teach in house; they’re designed to be the capstone of a Deerfield science career.”
Hills agrees wholeheartedly. “That’s part of our philosophy: get students to think critically, and to use those skills to tackle a problem that on day one they cannot see the answer to, but they have the skills in place to work toward it,” he says. That’s why seeing his students a little vulnerable at the start of the summer was, in Hills’ opinion, exactly what they needed. “The world is changing at such a fast pace that we can’t be certain the education we’re providing will be relevant years from now,” he admits. “The best thing we can do is prepare students for a world that may be significantly different, but allow them to achieve in that world. That requires a love of learning, because they’ll have to be self-teaching all their lives.”