[Paleopsych] CHE: The Economist as Biologist

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The Economist as Biologist
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.10.7


    That feeling of being inauthentic hit me in the small hours of the
    night, early this year. It comes on me every now and then, when the
    gap between what I truly know and what I teach gets too large.
    Redesigning my econometrics course to incorporate experimental
    concepts and methods had pushed me over the precipice this time.

    I knew I could read more about how to interpret particular social
    events as quasi-experiments. There are hundreds of papers in economics
    on that. But further scholastic scrutiny was not the remedy to what
    ailed me. The problem, while not deep, was fundamental: The precise
    understanding of what an experiment is had faded from my mind. How was
    I to get out of that bind?

    The answer to my problem came at a faculty lunch in March, when the
    biologist Amy Cheng Vollmer discussed her concern about the
    Balkanization of disciplines that often takes place at colleges and
    universities. She felt that at our institution, Swarthmore College,
    the natural sciences were seen as somehow different from the
    humanities or social sciences. She worried that faculty members
    outside of the natural sciences believed that almost all
    natural-science majors were headed for medical or graduate school, and
    thus humanists and social scientists might be advising some students
    not to take natural-science courses. How could the faculty eliminate
    the incorrect perceptions that could limit the range of students'
    intellectual experience at Swarthmore?

    Amy concluded her talk with a startling proposal. She would open her
    microbiology laboratory to any faculty member outside the natural
    sciences who was willing to spend some time over the summer actually
    doing biology. The idea was to break down a perceived barrier by
    having nonscientists do what they would normally keep at a distance.

    My first thought upon hearing Amy's proposal was that she was way off
    the farm. It was easy to understand her concern, but academics are who
    we are: specialists. We can and probably do read across disciplines,
    but why would we want to work across disciplines?

    But after ruminating on my own conundrum for a couple of days, I
    thought of Amy and her daring idea. Perhaps working in her
    microbiology lab was a way to close my authenticity gap.

    I met her for lunch, and we clarified our objectives, defined
    parameters, and set timelines. Luckily for me, another colleague,
    Cheryl Grood of the mathematics department, was already working in the
    lab. Cheryl was refreshing her knowledge of biology from courses taken
    long ago. She and I would form a mini-team.

    A great advantage of having a mathematician as a partner is that all
    of your measurements and calculations are likely to be precise -- even
    if the conclusions are precisely wrong! I could not have wished for a
    better partner.

    Amy explained that our project was to use established methods of
    genetic engineering to see if we could make bacteria that were
    sensitive to ampicillin, an antibiotic, resistant to it instead. We
    would isolate a plasmid -- a small, self-reproducing element
    containing DNA but outside the chromosome -- from ampicillin-resistant
    bacteria. Subsequently, we would manipulate an ampicillin-sensitive
    strain of the same bacteria so that it would absorb the plasmid. The
    hope was that the plasmid would transform the recipient's DNA so the
    bacteria would exhibit resistance to ampicillin.

    Was she serious? First, how do you pronounce DNA's full name,
    deoxyribonucleic acid? Second, what is to prevent me from combining
    the DNA of the ampicillin-resistant bacteria with my own DNA, thereby
    rendering me resistant to antibiotics -- and likely to catch all kinds
    of ailments from my students, who sometimes come into class coughing
    and wheezing? Third, given that the plasmids, cytoplasm, chromosomes,
    genes, and all the other stuff inside the bacteria cells are too small
    for me to see with the naked eye, how will I know if any
    transformation has taken place? And fourth, don't you need some kind
    of license to engage in genetic engineering?

    Obviously I had some reservations about actually doing microbiology.
    But it took me only three days of continuous practice to solve the
    pronunciation problem: dee-ox-ee-RYE-bo-new-clay-ick (the "acid" part
    was easier).

    Because no known pathogens are handled in Amy's lab, the odds of
    contamination are extremely low. My qualms about absorbing bacterial
    DNA were thus unwarranted.

    Although the transformation we were trying to accomplish could not be
    seen by the naked eye, the result -- the expression of a gene or trait
    -- can be confirmed by experimentation. And as a novice, I needed only
    a mentor, not a license, to make sure that my work in the lab was well
    within ethical bounds.

    The return from doing science hands-on is high. The experiments
    required care and precision. How do you set up a control? Are you sure
    that the background conditions -- the medium used to suspend the
    plasmids, the settings on the spectrophotometer, the size of the
    pipettes, the agar, etc. -- are exactly the same for the control and
    the experimental specimens? How do you measure, assess, and interpret
    your results?

    Can an amateur possibly get all that right? More important, can an
    amateur steeped in a foreign intellectual tradition -- in my case,
    social science -- possibly comprehend or appreciate the elegance and
    power of the scientific methods employed?

    Amy made everything possible. Taking more time than I could have
    imagined, explaining every concept, showing how every piece of
    equipment worked, answering every question (many of them more than
    once), enduring every mistake, she led Cheryl and me through the
    processes of plasmid isolation and gel electrophoresis. Not only did
    we succeed in those feats of genetic engineering, but we also
    confirmed that the ampicillin-resistant trait was due to the presence
    of the added plasmid DNA, given that we were able to re-isolate the
    plasmid from the newly transformed bacteria.

    My econometrics course will be different from now on. Not because the
    material or the text or the statistical software will be new, but
    because my understanding of one small slice of applied science has
    been refreshed. I now have new comparisons, examples, interpretations,
    exercises, and thought experiments to use with my students in the
    social sciences.

    Experiments in the social sciences will never be as clean as they are
    in the natural sciences. But I feel much better about teaching
    quasi-experimental concepts now that I have worked in a real

    If my professional life allowed it, I would like to spend more time in
    a lab. That may sound strange coming from a social scientist, and I
    realize that many faculty members in the humanities and social
    sciences would not agree with me. Before the desire to refresh my
    memory of what an experiment was became a pressing matter for me, I
    thought the idea of my doing science was impractical.

    Now, however, I have joined Amy off the farm on the issue of
    communication and collaboration among the disciplines. You know, the
    air out here is fresh, the sky is clear, and the company is very good.

    Philip N. Jefferson is a professor of economics at Swarthmore College.

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