Transitions

It seems to be the trend now that the ultimate goal of a formal education is a job. While I certainly understand the importance of a good job that gives a person joy and satisfaction, along with an income, I believe that it is shortsighted to limit education to this goal. 

Many large universities, my own included, encourage young students to chose majors early in their first year or even first semester and discourage them from changing majors. I understand the reason for this: there is a huge demand for a college education, especially an affordable one, because it is nearly impossible to get a good job without it. Public universities receive (ever decreasing) money from states, who have an interest in improving the economy and tax base of the state. It just doesn’t make economic sense to have students flit from major to major, sampling everything from art to literature to history to religion studies to Chinese linguistics to math to science. The assumption now seems to be that if economic growth is the goal, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is the desired path. And the shorter that path, the better. 

I think that colleges and universities should be graded on how often students change majors, the more the better (up to a point…). We should celebrate when a student discovers a nascent love of Chaucer, philosophy, Ancient Greek, or knot theory. This is the point of education: to expose people to new ideas, not to train them for a job

Drawing during my transition from art to chemistry major

After dropping out of (my now favorite) college twice, working as a shoe repairman and then saddle maker, I was initially an Art major at the University of Utah when I decided to return to school to become a medical doctor. I loved my art classes. My drawing class made me feel like I saw things for the first time. It is very interesting to look at life while imagining how to draw it in 2 dimensions in pencil. 

I was completely content in my art classes until I met Dr Grant and Dr Epstein. I was hoping that I could get through chemistry classes and never imagined that I’d like the subject. I already knew that I hated it. Though they were completely different people who even worked in different areas of chemistry, Drs Grant and Epstein opened up a world that I never knew existed. I took trips to Southern Utah with Dr Epstein to collect sagebrush, which I still can’t walk past without smelling. The sagebrush makes a bunch of chemicals called monoterpenes, which smell wonderful! Limonene is one of the monoterpenes that gives oranges and limes their nice “citrus” smell. There are thousands of different monoterpenes, which all have 10 carbon atoms arranged in different ways and thus smell different. My research was to chemically isolate monoterpenes from sagebrush and figure out what they were using big magnets and a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) with Dr Grant. I fell in love with science!

One of the many “nails in the coffin” in my plans to go to medical school came when I went to a seminar as an undergraduate student by a visiting scientist named David Lynn, who was then at the University of Chicago and is now at Emory. I often forget talks a few hours after hearing them, but this one has stuck with me for over 25 years. His lab studies a plant parasite called Striga, which lies dormant in the soil for a long time. When a fresh corn root grows close to the Striga seed, the parasite is “turned on” and then grows towards the corn roots. When it reaches the corn, it penetrates the root and lives off of the food from the corn, causing a great loss of crops and food. How does the Striga know that the corn is there? How does it know which direction to grow? How can it measure the distance between itself and the corn?? Once it starts to grow, Striga only has 2 weeks of energy available, and it can only grow ~3 mm (a bit more than 1/10 of an inch) during that time. Lynn’s lab discovered a chemical produced and released by the corn root into the soil. This corn chemical starts as a “semiquinone” at the corn, and when it diffuses through soil it changes into a “quinone” through the exposure of oxygen in the air. Guess how far it moves through the soil before it changes into a quinone? That’s right: ~3 mm. Guess what form of this chemical tells Striga to start growing? You got it: the semiquinone. Striga can measure how far away it is from corn so that it doesn’t start growing until a corn root is close enough to reach in 2 weeks!

How can anyone not be completely thrilled by this story of a plant that can measure how far away it is from its food? When I heard this talk, any residual thought of medical school or even continuing as an art major complete vanished. I had been exposed to a wonderful new world of science, where the little details in the world become more interesting the closer you look. 

That is what education is all about!

4 responses

  1. People with grasshopper minds (such as you) are the most gratifying to hang out with. I’ll bet you’d love the company of blacksmiths. They are all about finding out and figuring out.

    • Hi Janet, yes blacksmiths are fun. I once almost went to blacksmith school. Maybe there is still time in the future for that… (I had to lookup “grasshopper mind”; could be good or bad, I guess). Thanks for visiting!

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