[Paleopsych] CHE: The Economist as Biologist
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Fri Oct 7 01:07:55 UTC 2005
The Economist as Biologist
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.10.7
By PHILIP N. JEFFERSON
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
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
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
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
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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