My PhD research was on transcription factors. These are proteins that physically grab on to DNA and, through a mechanism that’s not very interesting because I didn’t study it, either turn on or turn off a gene. One protein I worked on was a phage repressor, a transcription factor used by viruses that infect bacteria to control, like a light switch, whether that virus stays off and lays dormant in a cell or turns on, reproduces, and kills the cell.
The rest of the time I worked on a protein called ETS1. I’m telling you its name not because it’s famous and you might’ve heard of it (it’s not and if you have you are a scientist who I probably know personally) but because I’ve spent the better part of the last decade working on this protein and could be considered a world expert on it. I’m ready to declare myself a world expert on this. Scientists hang their hats on the smallest of pegs so if you meet a scientist and they tell you something like “I discovered that rocks in Nebraska have a 2% higher iridium content than the rocks in Iowa and that took six years to figure out,” give them a hug. ETS1 is interesting because most of the time it physically rolls up in a ball like a scared little pillbug. But, when it bumps into another protein, ETS1 relaxes, unfurls, and both proteins latch on to DNA. Here’s one paper on that. Here’s another.
My first research experience was a summer I spent working for a group of soil scientists. In a group of professors and lab scientists, my job was to drive an old pickup truck around the farms of upstate New York. Farmers gave us small plots of land to test experimental fertilizers on. To find our plots I consulted the neighborhood mosquito swarms, who were not very helpful but extremely interested in me. I then moved on to poorly drawn maps made by god knows who and searched among the rows and rows of corn, which gave me papercuts as I went past. In return I hacked them down with a rusty machete, making strategic piles as I went. I carried the piles over my shoulder to the truck, where I weighed myself and the corn. We also took soil samples using a soil probe, a device made of two hollow metal tubes welded into a T that I rose above my head and plunged into the earth like I was staking a vampire. Hot, dry days were terrible because the fields turned to sand and didn’t stick to the probe. But, the day after a pleasant summer rain the fields smelled sweet, the soil was soft and packed in your hand like snow, and the work was easy.
I then worked in a cell biology lab, then a tomato lab (I was the greenhouse janitor, a job I manged to get fired from). I went to grad school at SUNY Buffalo to become a high school teacher (the only thing I could think of to do with my life). I joined a biochemistry lab (Jerry Koudelka’s) and stayed for five and a half years until they gave me a PhD.
Afterward, I got a job at the USDA’s National Animal Disease Center in Ames, IA. Many days it smelled like manure. I worked on prion diseases like Mad Cow (prion disease of cows) and Chronic Wasting Disease (in deer and elk) (proper prion researchers do not use the phrase “Mad Cow Disease” because it is too evocative. This is true. It’s more precise and proper to say “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy,” aka “cows’ brains swell and develop holes like a sponge” disease. Knowing that, it’s unclear why a terrifying name like “Chronic Wasting Disease” is okay but whatever).