Biology almost lost me


It was the worst thing that could exist, or so I thought, approximately 15 years ago. I hated biology with a passion, and had wished everything related to it would burn to ash. But I had no choice, it was a compulsory subject for the first public examination in my hometown, if one wants to stay in the science stream.

In high school, I believed I was a hardcore scientist (spoiler: I still am). In classrooms, I would have naïve debates with my peers about time dilation and whether it was purely a matter of perception. We would make fun of the stupid electron rings poorly drawn for the chemical equations on the blackboard and compete to name the most elements other than the 20 that we were required to remember. We loved how we can relate calculus to the rate of filling a curved glass with coke while we binged on it. Every science subject was alive.

But not biology.

It was a lifeless talk about life. All we had to do was to memorize random facts. A question in the exam paper would go “name 5 characteristics of an ENZYME”, to which you answer “protein, biological catalyst, water-soluble, exhibits substrate specificity, contains active site”. This is not even correct, says ribozyme. It was all about cramping books into your head. I barely survived my peril with great pain. The bad news was, I had to stick with biology for my second public exam before entering university. I mean, seriously?

Then as I expected my sufferings to persist, I met another teacher.

She painted biology like nothing I imagined before. Within a year, biology changed. Even the world changed.

Under her guidance, we embarked on mind-boggling journeys. How does this string of DNA molecule, dead and unintelligent, make exactly one extra copy of itself with the help of various (but definitely not random) balls of polypeptide, which are equally dead and unintelligent? What makes leukocytes, most certainly without a soul, stop travelling around the body and start pub crawling along the inflamed tissue and eventually squeeze in to join the right party? How do our ears, without being told by our eyes, realize that we are standing, or lying down, or regretting on a roller coaster?

The more she challenged my mind, the more I realized how fascinating biology is. I just did not see it.

Today I can appreciate that: individually, atoms, molecules, proteins and even cells obey nothing but the laws of thermodynamics, are restricted only by Newton’s laws of motion, and at times utilize principles from the quantum world. But together they create complex beings with sophisticated minds, a perfect demonstration of the Chinese Room thought experiment. Indeed, while being obsessed with artificial intelligence, some seem to forget the fact that “living” cells also live by meticulously executing all the pre-defined instructions using a pre-specified set of tools (genome) carved into their central processing units (nucleus). The genome is also visionary enough to include policies for adaptation to new environmental cues, as well as to allow plasticity to reform through various means including mutations. To me, life is not the organism itself, but rather the miraculous wisdom that orchestrates the assembly of the lively organism from mere organic materials.

Life is not the organism itself, but the wisdom that assembles it.

I now love biology.

This is what led me into doing biochemistry at university. And here I am today, doing a postdoc at KI and not stopping. I can confidently say that our relationship will be lifelong, whether or not I stay in academia forever.

But what really struck me is how influential one’s perception on science could be. The wonders of biology have always been there, it is just a matter of a stimulating insight that welcomes you in. Without my teacher, I would have crossed path with biology and left without giving it a glance, hence losing sight of the grand horizon of life. Reflecting on my own experience, I feel the terrible need to inspire and communicate the science we love instead of keeping our heads down at our lab benches, so that we will not lose anyone on our way.

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