Posted By Caulimovirus on July 23, 2009
“Wake Up, Go To Canada, Eat Lunch, Go Home, Go To Bed”
.: Last week I was the first to correctly identify Monday’s Molecule #129 over at The Sandwalk. (The molecule was the product of the src gene in the Rous sarcoma virus, and its machinations cause cancer in chickens infected with the virus the harbors it. Here’s a cute overview that explains the significance of this particular monstrosity of nature.) The prize for correctly identifying a Monday’s Molecule is a complimentary lunch provided by the proprietor of The Sandwalk, one Dr. Laurence A. Moran. Sadly, many of the winners aren’t able to collect their lunches since Larry is in Toronto and they, often, are not.
.: I, registered dependent of an airline pilot and presently unemployed student, am not restricted by such geographical constraints. Not one to let a free lunch pass me by, I booked a day trip to Toronto and met up with Larry and Alex Palazzo, a fresh addition to University of Toronto faculty and the blogger behind the currently on-hiatus Daily Transcript.
.: I was caught off guard by the customs agent at the airport. “Personal,” I learned, is an insufficient response to “What is the purpose of your visit?” The agent pressed for more information. “Uh, I’m meeting a professor.” “Why?” “I, uh . . . won a contest.” “What kind of contest?” “It’s about molecules. You . . . um . . . the professor has a website, see.” She did not see. “And he puts up different molecules. Well, images of molecules. Anyway, I guessed the right one.” “Right. Enjoy your stay.”
.: Making my way from the airport to the bus to the subway, I met Larry at the end of the Philosopher’s Walk, and he gave me a brief tour of the campus. The university library, I was told, is the third largest library in North America and contains a separate tower for old and rare books (evoking in my mind imagery from The Name of The Rose). Next he led me into an older building to show off The Dragon. We arrived right as a student guide was explaining the significance of The Dragon (which is “part-dragon, part-griffin … I guess”) to prospective students and their parents. Legend goes, back in the Fifties the students were organizing a blood drive for a local Red Cross-like charity, and the goal was to get every student to give blood. Those rascally engineering students hijacked The Dragon and refused to return it until everyone had given blood. We knew the quota was met since we were looking at The Dragon as the tale was told. “So U of T students could say, ‘We gave our blood for The Dragon.’”
“I’ve never heard that story in my life.”
.: Next we stopped for a chat in his office, talking about blogging and science, specifically how one influences the other (see next post). We shared brief histories of what got us interested in blogging and our different approaches to it. Larry showed me the voice recorder he uses for his posts; unlike cheap-o voice recorders, this marvel of gadgetry automatically creates typed transcripts of recordings downloadable directly to the computer. He didn’t tell me if it handles biochemistry vocabulary, but if that thing can knockout “alpha-ketoglutarate” without breaking a sweat then it’s worth the $300.
.: One impression you get from meeting Dr. Moran in person (and I suppose from reading his blog as well) is that he wants to disagree with you. Well, maybe not want, exactly, but he’s going to. Talk to him long enough and you’ll hear the words “Oh I don’t think so…” followed by the reasons why he doesn’t. He thrills at the prospect of debate – I guess he thinks it’s more interesting. I can’t blame him; it is.
.: I forget which restaurant we went to, but it was a nice Thai place that served glorified pork rinds that deserved to be glorified. The topic of conversation turned to the different ways of doing science and the different ways of teaching science. Larry, the teacher and lecturer, thinks theoretical biology is vastly underrated. Alex: “I am vastly underrating you.” We discussed the relative importance of lectures and labs; I’m of the opinion that undergraduate teaching labs are mostly worthless, whereas undergraduate research labs are indispensable for one’s education. Alex thinks that there’s a certain quality to doing science that can’t be taught; in fact, if a mentor could be said to have taught a pupil this certain quality, then it could equally be said that it was the mentor simply doing all the work. I’m not expressing his idea well, but I’m in agreement with it.
.: The hands-on/lecture divide in teaching science segued nicely into the experimental/theoretical divide in doing science. Larry brought up Francis Crick as an example of a brilliant theoretician who couldn’t hold a pipette to save his life. Alex seemed to have trouble following his reasoning; Alex was thinking Francis Collins by mistake. Hah! I asked Dr. Moran if he could give an example of the flipside to Francis Crick: a well-known experimentalist who has no grasp of theory. “Kary Mullis,” without any hint of hesitation. Later, he added Francis Collins to the same category. “The best people seem to say about him these days is that he’s a good administrator.”
.: I mentioned my preference for the more technological side of science over the more traditional (and more respected!) discovery side of science. I’m more enamored with the tools of discovery, I explained, than the actual discovery. I count among my heroes Frederick Sanger, whose research and innovations made it possible to sequence both proteins and DNA. Larry disagreed, opining that while the drive to discover will naturally result in the creation of new tools, it is nevertheless the exploration of the unknown itself that is paramount. Yes, Sanger’s innovations are important, but the question that lead to their creation was even more so: “Do proteins have a definite sequence?” To ignore the importance of the underlying questions you’re trying to answer is to shoot yourself in the foot, scientifically. Not by coincidence, Larry doesn’t seem to be big on DNA microchips.
.: When I told Alex my undergraduate was at Baylor, he related the story of a well-known Baylor professor who managed to bring a lot of money to the NSF (I may be mistaken about this, since I’ve forgotten the name of the professor and am unsure if it was the NSF or some other funding agency – correct me if I’m wrong, Alex!). Anyway, this professor had been trying catch Tom DeLay’s ear for the longest time without any success. Then one day, by chance, the professor found himself in an airplane seat next to DeLay, and he made his pitch to the congressman explaining the importance of their projects and what it is they actually do. Apparently, DeLay had trouble with all the godless aspects of science and was reluctant to support such an enterprise, thus the spurnings. I wish I knew what the professor said because after the conversation DeLay was a supporter. Or maybe there were just other reasons why he didn’t want to talk to a professor from Baylor in the first place.
.: Moving briefly away from science-related topics, Larry ranted at length about the Canadian healthcare system; specifically, how he’s had to wait 17 years for a mustache transplant, how Canadian doctors ruthlessly kill patient on both dare and whim, and how he has all this annoying extra money piling up with no insurance company for him to give it to.
.: After the restaurant, we walked across the street to a pastry shop and Larry treated me to one of his favorites: an almond cookie that isn’t so much a cookie as it is a loose matrix of crumbs. “You’ll want to keep it inside the bag because it’ll explode.” It did.
.: Finally, to mark the end of my first visit to Canada, we visited that icon of Canadian coffee and doughnuts: