Educating the Life Scientist for the 21st Century
by Ponzy Lu
In this century, the study of life has undergone two paradigm shifts. First, all life is molecular. Chemist Linus Pauling predicted in 1949 that sickle cell anemia is caused by a change of less than two dozen atoms out of over 12,000 in the molecule of hemoglobin. In 1953, geneticist Watson and physicist Crick deduced the double helical structure of the DNA molecule.
These discoveries opened up the field of molecular biology, the study of information as it flows from DNA to create and maintain an organism. Today, the biological chemist or molecular biologist, using technology based on the physics of the molecule, has obtained the structures of thousands of proteins and their DNA genes. Since all of life is based on the same molecules undergoing identical chemical processes, biology has turned from classification and description to understanding the molecular origin and diversity of life.
The second paradigm shift is occurring now. We can determine the DNA structures in organisms. Life scientists now start experiments by exploring the genome structure, letting their fingers do the walking on computer keyboards to consult existing databases. In addition to determining the whole genome structure, experimental biologists are pulling and pushing single molecules, using a range of techniques developed by physicists and chemists for nanotechnology in the manufacture of computer parts. Experimenters also tag individual molecules, using our knowledge of macromolecular information flow, and follow them in a cell as an ecologist follows migrating birds.
The question for us at the research university is, How do we train the next generation of life scientists? Tomorrow's life scientists, today's undergraduates, will be those who learn all science in depth: mathematics, physics, and chemistry--as well as biology. With this foundation, they will not only manipulate living things for health and wealth, but tell us how molecules organize themselves into clusters of cells that think.
Chemistry Professor Ponzy Lu is chair of the College Biochemistry Program and director of the Vagelos Scholars Program in Molecular and Life Sciences.