4th Quarter, 2005
Science Scholarship Winner
A Portion of Elizabeth Winning Essay:
“Mommy, why is Grandma sick?”
Little did I know the impact that that question would have on my life. I was no older than eight, and very curious for my age. For my entire life I had seen my grandmother either lie in bed or sit in a wheelchair, and she could never move without assistance. Her illness was normal to me since I had never seen her otherwise. However, I eventually realized that she could not have always been this way.
“Mommy, why is Grandma sick?”
My mother carefully explained that my grandmother suffered from a disease that made her lose the ability to move on her own. Grandma had been sick for many years, long before I was born. Her illness was called multiple sclerosis. To help me understand the disease she pulled out a family medical textbook from the bookshelf and showed me the section on MS. I read it, not quite understanding all of it, but fascinated nonetheless. From then on, I was hooked. I loved opening the book up to a random page and seeing which disease or condition was described on the page. I especially enjoyed reading about birth defects and fatal diseases. Perhaps that sounds morbid, but it really interested me. I quickly developed a passion for medicine and decided I would be a doctor when I grew up so I could help fight Grandma’s disease.
And so for upwards of eight years, I wanted to be a doctor. I wasn’t sure which kind of doctor, but I knew that that was what I wanted to be. That is, until I stumbled upon astrobiology. Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe; for example, where did life come from and is there extraterrestrial life in the universe? It is a little-known name for a fairly well-known field, and it fascinates me even more than medicine does.
In both elementary and high school I excelled in my science classes. During my sophomore year of high school, I decided that I wanted to compete in the local science fair. I had competed in the seventh and eighth grades and had been a finalist both years but did not place. Having no idea what to do my project on, I did what any self-respecting high school student would do: I went to Google.com and typed in “science fair projects.” Naturally, several million hits came up. Using one of the many suggestions I found, I decided to do a project based upon the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment that tested a theory of the origin of life. Not only was it interesting, I was fairly certain that no one else would be doing the same project.
While I did my research, a funny thing happened. I would read about the project, and I would get excited. Nothing else had ever piqued my interest as much as this did. Not even diseases! I quickly became very enthusiastic about my project and spent a lot of time on it. I caught the attention of some of the teachers in the science department, and they regularly checked in to see how it was progressing. I suppose my enthusiasm was contagious!
Initially, I had wanted to do a replication of the apparatus that Stanley Miller and Harold Urey had used fifty years earlier. They were able to successfully synthesize amino acids by simulating conditions believed to be those found on prebiotic Earth. At that point, many researchers believed that Earth had a reducing atmosphere, though scientists today tend to lean towards the idea of an oxidizing atmosphere. In any event, due to my high school’s limited collection of glassware, my “replication” soon morphed into a “modification.”
Did I synthesize amino acids? I honestly do not know, to this day. I was able to produce a strange oily substance, which I tested for five different amino acids using thin layer chromatography. TLC is similar to paper chromatography, but more sensitive. There are currently 20 known amino acids, but the kit I had only tested for five. Though the substance did not test positive for any of them, there was something present on the testing strips that I could not identify. Consequently, I labeled my results inconclusive.
Without any solid results, I was doubtful of doing well at the fair. To my astonishment, I earned second place in my division. I ended up going to the state competition but did not get past the second round of judging. However, I was more than satisfied with winning second place in the local fair. Since my results clearly did not earn me second place, I believe my enthusiasm and passion for my project shone through in my presentation to the judges.
During the initial months of my project, I had kept Grandma updated with all the details. She also found my project fascinating and was excited for me. Sadly, her health deteriorated rapidly during those months and she passed away from complications related to multiple sclerosis one month before the fair. It had been painful for me and the rest of my family to see her so debilitated, but I truly believe that it was her illness that sparked my interest in medicine, and consequently, science.
My interest in astrobiology has not waned since then. After my science project three years ago, I switched my career aspiration from doctor to astrobiology researcher. I now attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which offers a minor in astrobiology (something very few schools have). I began college as a biochemistry/biophysics major, but I soon learned that that research in that area deals primarily with such subjects as protein folding and enzyme activity, which I am not interested in. Consequently, I switched my major.
Although astrobiology is a fairly specific area of study, it has applications of every science, including biology, chemistry, geology, physics, and astronomy. Since there are so many related majors to choose from, I do not yet know which specific one is best-suited for me. Instead of choosing one, I switched my major to interdisciplinary science, which is a conglomeration of all the areas in the School of Science (which also includes mathematics and computer science). This major will allow me to choose a concentration of one science while also giving me the opportunity to sample all of the others. If I happen to find one I am truly passionate about, I can pursue a dual major with that as well as the interdisciplinary science degree. As expected, I am also minoring in astrobiology. I believe that this plan will give me the opportunity to explore all the sciences while also offering me the flexibility of focusing on one if I so desire.
After college I will work towards earning a doctorate, presumably in the area of astrobiology that fascinates me the most. Eventually I would like to do research at an institution affiliated with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. If I can approach my work with the same excitement that I feel when I read about astrobiology, it won’t feel like work at all.
The thing that draws me the most to astrobiology is the fact that so little is known about it. The universe is wide open for discovery, and I would love to be among the people who discover life on another planet or figure out how life on Earth first arose. I would like to think that if I do well in life and accomplish my goals, perhaps something positive will have resulted from Grandma’s thirty-five years of quiet suffering.
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