Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Scientist's Conclusion, Part 2

(continued from part-1.html)

It was with the realization that Sung Lee did not, in fact, understand the importance (or even the purpose) of controls that Carl came to appreciate the enormity of the undertaking to which he had committed himself. That realization came about after Carl's suggestion that a drug effect on Sung's tumor-cell line might have been caused by increased cell membrane permeability or by increased levels of a calcium-binding protein in the cells as a consequence of the drug treatment.

Sung Lee thereupon went to the library to find methods to assay those parameters. After more than three weeks of hard work and experimentation, Sung came triumphantly into Carl's office with the announcement that Carl had been right on both accounts. Carl asked the obvious questions concerning the time-course and dose-dependence of the effect, and it was clear that Sung had either not considered these questions, or else he did not have the courage to say: "These are just preliminary data." It was as if Sung expected Carl to be so pleased at being told that his ideas were correct that the methodology would not be questioned. Then Carl, in what he thought was an inquisitive (not inquisitorial) tone, asked Sung:

"Why do you think your data show increased calcium-binding protein in the cells rather than increased binding of calcium to the protein that's already there?"

"No, calcium-bind protein increase," said Sung emphatically.

"How could you determine that it was increased protein rather than increased affinity?"

"Everybody say so.  Anderson do same experiment on amoebae and say calcium partition coefficient directly proportional to amount of calcium-bind protein."

"Yes, but that's in a non-permuted system. Let me see your data."

Sung hesitantly gave him some graphs and Carl asked for the counter tapes. He noticed that, on the first tape he looked at, the counts were all quite similar.

"What counts are these?"  Carl asked.

"They calcium counts from drug-treated cells," said Sung proudly.

"Where are the controls?" asked Carl.

"Controls in other experiment," explained Sung.       

"What do you mean, other experiment?" Carl's voice rose through incredulity to anger. "You don't know a God-damned thing if you don't run controls with every single experiment! For Christ's sake, what do you think a control is for, anyway? Do you have any idea?"

Sung was mute--stunned.  There was nothing in his background, nothing in his training, nothing in his cultural heritage that had prepared him for this outraged outburst by one who was supposed to be his guide and protector.

"Well...I asked you, what do you think a control is for?" demanded Carl, impatiently.

Confused, ashamed, and unable to understand why such an apparently trivial matter assumed such importance for his mentor, Sung answered, "I don't know."

"Oh, for God's sake. Come back to my office at two o'clock tomorrow afternoon and we'll talk about controls." Carl didn't have the mental energy to deal with the subject at that moment, and he also knew that Sung had become so alarmed and defensive that any further discussion of the matter at the time would be futile.

In the interim, Carl confided to some colleagues that he had serious doubts about Sung's ability to do the work necessary for a Ph.D. degree and, more importantly, he wondered whether or not Sung had the mind to be a scientist at all. One of the colleagues in whom Carl confided was the departmental graduate advisor, Dr. William Bock. Dr. Bock suggested that Carl postpone Sung's comprehensives until the next scheduled exam, which was six months hence.

The next installment of this story is here.

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