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Unorthodox approaches to science:
will you be the leading strands?

[keynote address for the 2013 NWABR Student Bio Expo]

Good morning, everyone! Itís great to be here.

Today we celebrate you and your projects. Iím looking forward to seeing as many of your presentations as I can. But before we get to those, I want to tell you why I value the Student Bio Expo, and why I volunteer as a mentor and judge.

I wonít keep you in suspense. For me, there are 13 things that make this expo special: the 13 different categories of projects.

You all know about these categories because you had to pick one for your project, and then you had to fulfill the corresponding requirements. I just hope that, while you were doing all of that work, you didnít lose sight of the fact having a choice of 13 categories is really great!

At many science fairs, you do NOT have the option of doing a project in Art, Career Pathways, Creative Writing, Drama & Dance, Journalism, Lab Research, Molecular Modeling, Multimedia, Music, SeaVuria, SMART Teams, Teaching, or Websites. For many science fairs, you simply collect some data and analyze the data, and thatís that.

Let me be clear: itís awesome that science fairs provide opportunities for students to collect and analyze data. But itís equally awesome to acknowledge that science goes beyond doing experiments and creating models, and that different people approach science from different perspectives. As I see it, the Student Bio Expo is a much-needed showcase for these diverse perspectives. Itís a reminder that each of us processes science in our own way, and itís an affirmation that we all have something to contribute to the world of science, regardless of which classes weíve taken or what our current or future jobs might be.

Personally, I am especially fond of the expoís Music category. I can trace this back to my 9th grade biology teachers, Mr. Welch and Mrs. Golubjatnikov.

At the end of the fall, they gave us an extra-credit assignment in which we could rewrite a Christmas song with new lyrics about biology. I woke up one morning and the words just started flowing:

You better watch out; you better not sneeze.
You better not cough ícause youíll spread a disease.
Viruses are coming to town.

And so on.

That was over 25 years ago. Why can I still remember that song?

There are probably multiple reasons. One is that my song wasnít just a regurgitation of lecture material; I thought about the material, digested it, reorganized it, and presented it in a format that I found compelling. I made the material my own, just as you have done with your expo projects.

A second possible reason is that the music provided additional pathways through which information could enter my brain. People can learn really well through means other than traditional lectures and textbook readings Ė another point that this expo demonstrates clearly.

I want to try something with you now that may further illustrate how music can help us learn and remember scientific material.

Do any of you know what Okazaki fragments are?

When DNA replication occurs, the two strands of DNA separate at places called replication forks, and new DNA is synthesized by an enzyme called DNA polymerase. This enzyme can only work in one direction -- the 5í-to-3í direction. As a result, it makes the new DNA continuously on one side of the replication fork, as a so-called ďleading strand,Ē but makes short segments of DNA on the other side of the replication fork, as a so-called ďlagging strand.Ē These short segments of DNA are called Okazaki fragments in honor of Reiji Okazaki, who discovered them. The Okazaki fragments of the lagging strand are eventually joined together by the enzyme DNA ligase.

I just recited a large amount of information. Can we make it more accessible and more memorable with music? Letís try.

Letís make this half of the room the leading strand, which is synthesized in one long continuous sweep alongside the template DNA. We can represent that long, continuous process by singing a long, continuous vocal line:

The leading strand elongates toward
The moving replication fork;
Continuously it extends
Out from the primer to the end.

Did you all get that? Try it with me:

The leading strand elongates toward
The moving replication fork;
Continuously it extends
Out from the primer to the end.

The other half of the room will be the lagging strand, which includes those short pieces of DNA called Okazaki fragments. We can represent the Okazaki fragments like this:

Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki! . . .

Note that each ďOkazakiĒ is not yet connected with the other ďOkazakis.Ē Try that with me.

Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki! . . .

Now letís put the two strands together. Weíll let the leading strand sing one round by itself, and then Iíll point at the lagging strand to bring you guys in.

[the 2 parts are sung simultaneously]

Can you hear the difference between the two strands? How one is made continuously, and the other is made in short segments?

Recall, however, that the Okazaki fragments donít stay fragments forever; they get linked together by DNA ligase. Hereís one way of conveying that ligation process:

Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki joined by ligase!
Okazaki joined by ligase!

Try that with me.

Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki! . . .
Okazaki joined by ligase!
Okazaki joined by ligase!

Now letís bring the leading strand back in.

[the 2 parts are sung simultaneously]

After this little sing-along, some of you are going to remember Okazaki fragments for a long, long time. For others, this may not have been effective. Thatís why we have the 13 categories. Each of you can do what works for you.

To reminisce just a bit more, as a college biology major, one of the courses I took was Introduction to Neuroscience, and one of the other students in the class was a theatre major named Purva Bedi. She lived in my dorm, and it was hilarious to watch her study. Sheíd be like [with exaggerated motions], ďÖAnd then the neurotransmitter SPURTS out of the axon terminal and RACES across the synaptic cleft and BINDS to the postsynaptic receptor, causing sodium ions to RUSH into the dendritesÖ.Ē It seemed pretty weird to me at the time, but thatís how she took ownership of the material. And you know what? She aced the exams and got the highest grade in the whole class.

Anecdotes like this one suggest that tackling scientific material in unusual, interdisciplinary ways can have profound benefits. Being a pioneer of new approaches also comes with some risks, however. When we combine science with something like music or drama, we risk being called names; we risk being mocked; we risk being dismissed as intellectual lightweights. I say that this could happen to you because it has happened to me.

Two years ago, United States Senator Tom Coburn issued a report on supposedly wasteful spending by the National Science Foundation, or NSF. In this report, Sen. Coburn and his staff identified and ridiculed about 50 NSF-supported projects that sounded silly to them. One of the targeted projects was a pilot study of biology-related music, in which I took part. A full page of the report was devoted to mostly erroneous speculations about how my colleagues and I were spending the NSF money. The report concluded, ďNSF should stick to science and leave music and rap to the recording industry.Ē

There are many things in this report that we could discuss. For example, note the recommendation that NSF stay away from ďmusic AND rap.Ē Apparently, Sen. Coburn thinks that rap does not qualify as music, which is interesting in and of itself. But the larger issue, of course, is the reportís stern disapproval of nontraditional approaches to science. How dare we contaminate science by mixing in some music Ė or, heaven forbid, some rap!

We will never convince everyone of the value of unorthodox learning experiences like those highlighted at this expo. Nevertheless, we can and should be proud of what weíre doing here. We can and should challenge those who define science in their own narrow terms, thus excluding our work. And so, in closing, Iíd like to offer a song of affirmation, directed at the skeptics, from the TV show Glee, with a few of the words changed to make them more relevant. Please sing the chorus with me if you can!

Yeah, you may think that Iím a zero.
But hey, I can party overtime
Putting research into rhyme.
You may say that Iím a freak show. (I donít care.)
But hey, there are many more like me
Who sing about biology.

All of the dirt youíve been throwiní my way --
It ainít so hard to take. Thatís right.
ĎCause I know one day youíll be screaminí my name,
And Iíll just look away. Thatís right.

Just go ahead and hate on me and run your mouth
So everyone can hear.
Hit me with the worst you got and knock me down.
Baby, I donít care.
Keep it up and soon enough you'll figure out
You wanna be, you wanna be
A science geek like me!
A science geek like me!

Everybody needs to know some science.
Hey, you donít need a PhD
To do a little chemistry.
What if we all formed a new alliance,
Serenading data and
Helping others understand?

All of the dirt youíve been throwiní my way --
It ainít so hard to take. Thatís right.
ĎCause I know one day youíll be screaminí my name,
And Iíll just look away. Thatís right.

Just go ahead and hate on me and run your mouth
So everyone can hear.
Hit me with the worst you got and knock me down.
Baby, I donít care.
Keep it up and soon enough you'll figure out
You wanna be, you wanna be
A science geek like me!
A science geek like me!
A science geek like me!

Science should be one big tent.
What kind of project will you present?
Labwork? Models? Creative writing?
Which format is most inviting?
Global health with SeaVuria,
From over there to over here?
Dancing, teaching, website builds?
So many ways to show your skills!

Just go ahead and hate on me and run your mouth
So everyone can hear.
Hit me with the worst you got and knock me down.
Baby, I donít care.
Keep it up and soon enough you'll figure out
You wanna be, you wanna be
A science geek like me!
A science geek like me!
A science geek like me!

Thatís all Iíve got. Good luck to all of you today and beyond. Iíll see you at your posters.