A PhD, a Science paper, and a new article!

After more than five years at UC Berkeley, I’ve finally completed my PhD! And just in time, my paper on a type of inflammasome—a cluster of proteins that’s part of the immune system—came out in the journal Science. I owe a lot to all my coauthors, but especially my co-first author, Jeannette Tenthorey. She was responsible for most of the biochemical work reported in the paper, while my job was to determine the structure of the inflammasome.

Here’s a video I made of the inflammasome structure described in the paper:

I also wrote an article for the Berkeley Science Review about what life was really like in my lab. Spoiler alert: I stayed up all night in a cold, dark basement with only an electron microscope and a rogue spider to keep me company.

Why do so many Nobel Prizes go to scientists working on fruit flies?

Illustration of Drosophila melanogaster (public domain).
Illustration of Drosophila melanogaster (public domain).

“As night fell, astronomer Jean Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan watched a plant’s leaves, symmetrically arranged side-by-side on a stem, clamp shut. It was 1729, and he was studying the dramatic nocturnal movement of Mimosa pudica. Strangely, he found that the plant behaved the same way even when it wasn’t exposed to natural cycles of light and dark, making his observation the first known example of a circadian rhythm that didn’t depend on external stimuli. Circadian rhythms are biological cycles that repeat daily, matching one full rotation of Earth. After this discovery in a weedy creeper, the planet would rotate tens of thousands more times before scientists studying the daily habits of a household insect exposed the mechanics of the biological clock.”

To continue reading, click here! This article is a revamped version of one I previously wrote for the March for Science’s blog with a new focus on the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Repairing the retina

My latest article in print, published in Berkeley Optometry Magazine, highlights one lab’s efforts to develop gene therapies to cure blindness. So far, the article is only available as part of a PDF containing the whole magazine (on page 9 of the PDF or page 15 of the magazine), so I’ve reproduced the text here with permission.

A mouse, soaking wet, is scooped up in the warm hands of a researcher. It has just paddled its way through a tub of water and climbed onto a platform, getting a welcome break from swimming. The researcher had trained it to associate the hidden resting spot with a nearby flickering light, and if this were any other mouse, the fact it could remember how to find the platform using visual cues would be a testament to the animal’s ability to learn. But it wasn’t a typical rodent: the mouse used to be blind.

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Why scientists care so much about gnats, weeds, and brewer’s yeast

By Becker1999 from Grove City, OH (March for Science, Washington, DC) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph by Becker1999 from Grove City, OH (March for Science, Washington, DC) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
On Earth Day, 2017, hundreds of thousands of people marched in major cities around the world in support of science. Right before the event, I was asked to write a guest post for the March for Science’s blog highlighting the importance of fundamental research, a topic I’m very passionate about. I focused on the model organisms—a humble collection of creatures including dung-eating gnats and beer-making yeast—on which so much of biology is based. Check it out to learn more about why we care about these seemingly lowly (and really, sometimes kind of gross) species!

Color by numbers

“Bottles of vibrantly colored chemicals line dimly lit shelves. On a bench below, a Bunsen burner flickers beneath a flask of deep red liquid, illuminating the face of a scientist perched on a stool nearby. The scientist swirls a glowing, neon blue liquid, scrawling observations in a notebook.

The movie ends. You return to reality. In our nonfiction world, the substances that decorate many laboratories—and the chemicals of everyday life—are most often colorless. The rare colorful materials are the paints on nature’s palette. Plants contain thousands of different chemicals, but it only takes a single substance—chlorophyll—to make a leaf green.”

Click to keep reading my latest feature for the Berkeley Science Review, Color by numbers, which explores the nanoscale phenomena that make our visual experience so vibrant. By delving into the fundamental science behind color — from quantum physics to evolutionary biology — as well as applications inspired by this science, such as solar cells and futuristic displays, I invite readers to take a new perspective on our colorful world.

Research by UC Berkeley Professor Nipam Patel (left) and graduate students Ryan Null (middle) and Rachel Thayer (right) is highlighted in the article. Photo credit: Michael Wan, BSR design team.
Research on butterflies by UC Berkeley Professor Nipam Patel (left) and graduate students Ryan Null (middle) and Rachel Thayer (right) is highlighted in the article. Photo credit: Michael Wan, Berkeley Science Review design team.

Can gene drives survive in the wild?

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Image credit: see page for author [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What if we could eradicate mosquito-borne illnesses with a simple trick of molecular biology? Human-engineered gene drives have been getting a lot of media attention lately because some believe they will allow us to do just that. But will gene drives live up to the hype? My latest feature for the Genetics Society of America addresses this issue. I interviewed experts in population genetics to get a better understanding of how gene drives might work in the wild, and what I learned left me with an even stronger appreciation of the power of evolution.

Radio interview and new articles on the way

Things may seem a bit slow lately, but many new articles are in the works!

Refilling the liquid nitrogen on the electron microscope instead of writing blog posts.
The author is seen refilling the liquid nitrogen for the electron microscope instead of writing articles.

On March 1st, I was interviewed on the radio program The Graduates, so if you want to listen to me sound extremely awkward discussing my research and outreach activities, you can take a few minutes to listen to that. At the moment, I’m writing another feature for the Berkeley Science Review and several more posts for the Genes to Genomes blog, trudging along toward my doctorate . . . and planning my wedding, which is in less than a month. Now that I think of it, I need to get back to work!


The original origami


The paradox of protein folding

A paper crane appears impressively intricate, especially to a novice origami maker struggling with the first creases. But fumbling hands and crumpled paper belie a different type of folding expertise. Imperceptibly, legions of molecules inside the origami maker’s body constantly confront a much more complex folding task. These molecules, called proteins, reliably fold into one out of an enormous number of possible structures in a fraction of the time it takes to make a paper crane. With no hands to guide it, each protein molecule must traverse the pathway to its correct shape with superhuman speed and precision. And while poor origami technique results in wasted paper at worst, the consequence for failed protein folding can be death.

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The false controversy of GMO safety


It’s difficult to imagine a future in which people don’t question scientific findings. For the most part, this skepticism is a good thing: it spurs debate, fosters discussion between the public and the scientific community, and ultimately increases public understanding of science. But when these inquiries are based on ideological judgments or fear, as is the case with the widespread apprehension about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), both scientists and science communicators must carefully craft public statements to prevent dangerous misinterpretations.

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Science costs money: Fighting for publicly funded research

After eight years of higher education, it had never occurred to me that I had the right to speak with my representatives. I voted in every election, but that’s as far as I thought to take my involvement in politics. It wasn’t that I was indifferent. I felt strongly about political issues, especially improving the dismal outlook for publicly funded scientific research. But meeting with lawmakers, in my mind, was reserved for important people in expensive suits with briefcases full of important documents—or cash.

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