Crossing the Membrane

By Diane Patricia Genereux '99 / January / February 1999
November 19th, 2007
Our study table in the Sciences Library was in chaos. Thick textbooks and copies of research articles were buried under papers that two classmates and I were folding into three-dimensional models of cells and organelles. With colored pens, I tried to construct a phospholipid bilayer. My friend Leila used her fingers and palms to represent integral proteins, and across the table Nolan was adding detail to a sketch of a polarized amino acid. At times during this recent study session for Biology 105, The Biology of the Eukaryotic Cell, we became so excited with our growing comprehension that we attracted the attention of an entire floor of students.

This was a far cry from the first day of my first biology class three years earlier. Walking into Wilson Hall that January day, I felt even more out of place than I'd felt while watching my parents drive away after freshman orientation. Most of the students entering the classroom carried calculators, mechanical pencils, and graph paper. The textbooks peeking out of their backpacks were encoded in the foreign, intimidating symbols of physics and organic chemistry.

I, on the other hand, was a confirmed humanities person. In high school I'd been editor of the literary magazine and a tutor in writing, French, and Latin. At Brown I assumed I would concentrate in either English or history, delving occasionally into political science, education, and anthropology - subjects in which even unfamiliar concepts are presented in language I could understand. I had planned to steer clear of such areas as physics and biology, whose technical dialects had convinced me, sadly, that science would always remain beyond my comprehension.

But after reading Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle the summer before I came to Brown, I became intrigued by the course-catalog description of Biology 48, Evolutionary Biology. I suppressed my science- phobia and signed up, hoping it would give me insight into Darwin's nineteenth-century observations. The first lecture, though, confirmed my old fears. Professor David Rand drew a Cartesian plane on the board, labeling the x-axis with t and the y-axis with N. Fifty minutes later, the board was awash in cryptic symbols, along with diagrams of something called chiasmata. I was lost, to say the least.

Standing up to leave, I glanced down at my notes to see if I could understand my transcriptions of Professor Rand's graphs. I was alarmed to discover that I hadn't even drawn them in my notebook. Instead my notes looked much like the ones I had taken in an American history class earlier that morning: long sentences and phrases stretching across the page. In some cases, I had written entire paragraphs.

I realized that somehow my mind had sifted through the sea of statistics on the board and translated them into familiar words. "Small populations are more susceptible to random change than are large populations," I had written at the beginning of the lecture. "Deleterious mutations tend to accumulate under regimes of asexual reproduction." "Natural selection acts on random mutation." I actually understood the lecture! Was it a fluke?

On the second day of Biology 48, I saw that my unexpected comprehension was indeed real. More importantly, I saw why. Throughout the lecture, Professor Rand carefully paired each statistic he wrote on the board with a clear statement of its significance. W meant the fitness of an individual; m symbolized migration rate. While Professor Rand wrote in the language of math - which remained, for me, mysterious - he spoke in words I could understand. I left the classroom a biology convert, entranced by my newly found access to science.

It was language, not subject matter, I realized, that had kept me away in the past. And, sadly, I am not alone. When scientists speak in statistics and technical terms, they exclude individuals who have not yet learned to express themselves that way. Of course different disciplines must have different dialects, each with its own distinct beauty. A piece of string music invariably loses some of its resonance when performed by woodwinds, and it is impossible to fully appreciate the elegance of a cell membrane without understanding such terms as hydrophobic and glycosylated.

But there is a place between specialized jargon and oversimplification. I was lucky to find a teacher who understood that. If more science professors were able to introduce concepts first and terminology second, they would open their doors to more students, whatever language they speak. I, for one, am overjoyed to understand the cell membrane, even if I must first translate it into the language of colored pens and folded papers.

Diane Patricia Genereux is a biology and history concentrator from Swansea, Massachusetts.

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January / February 1999