Hi guys! A few folks have asked what it was like to grow up outside the traditional academic route - here's a quick piece written for GHF (Gifted Homeschooler's Forum) on growing up 'unschooled'. Enjoy!
When I was homeschooled, everything was magical. My parents didn’t crack open hefty tomes and lecture me on the intricacies of basic algebra. They left us to figure out basic math on our own. Instead of a dry run through tables of formulae, Dad and I would chat about the beauties of math. How intricate, spiraling, numerical patterns could—and did—save the world on a daily basis. How we were a walking, talking summation of billions of tiny biological calculators, each calculator a cell, and each cell a miniature cosmos in its own right.
My dad painted a vivid picture of the titans of science. I idolized Archimedes, Galileo, da Vinci, Faraday, Newton, Maxwell, Tesla, Pasteur, and Darwin. I couldn’t believe they were all dead, and that I would never get to meet them and hear them talk. One living scientist that I admired, Cynthia Kenyon, was working on ways to extend the human lifespan so that these great minds, and all others, could live longer and healthier lives.
When I was 12, I met Cynthia Kenyon. She opened up the world of ‘real’ science to this starry-eyed preteen. I got to work in her lab at UCSF, at a bench, planning and performing real experiments. I got to fiddle with lasers, scoop up mounds of microscopic worms, and stare mesmerized as the modified, glowing creatures writhed and wriggled around a plate.
Cynthia taught me how to decode scientific papers; jargon-stuffed screeds turned into thrillers, hunts for elusive proteins and fragmented pathways. I got to feel the elation that comes when you discover something nobody else has seen or known, the satisfaction of clicking in the final puzzle piece.
And UCSF was wonderful place to be. I got to roam the halls, exploring intricate ribosome models and gawping at two-story-high statues of DNA. Lectures taught me what I couldn’t pick up at the lab bench. Professors and grad students were kind enough to walk me through problems and grade my attempts.
I had always wanted to go to MIT. Richard Feynman’s alma mater had to be a great place to imbibe scientific knowledge, and I was already using online MIT lectures in a self-structured curriculum. I scraped together the necessary test scores, muddled through the online application, and stuttered past the requisite interview. Wes Beach, a California-based expert at translating homeschooling experiences into fitting admissions applications, helped me shape my curriculum into a readable transcript.
A year later, I started freshman year as an MIT biology major. College had ups and downs; I’m most thankful for a wonderful stay at the Weiss Lab with mentor Adrian Slusarczyk and a thrilling semester exploring quantum mechanics with Prof. Allan Adams and Prof. Scott Hughes.
But the most valuable lessons I’ve learned still come from my dad and my science mentor Prof. Kenyon, both still in awe with nature, and both insatiably curious to know more. If you are homeschooling parent, please, share that awe with your child. We can take it from there.
- I'm a budding biologist and aspiring entrepreneur. I've wanted to cure aging since I was eight. Now, with support from Peter Thiel's 20 Under 20 program, I'll be in Silicon Valley for the next two years developing ways to commercialize anti-aging research and extend the human healthspan. We'll see where this adventure takes me, but I'll try to chronicle the journey on this blog, What a Wonderful World. It'll be a mix of real-life updates and vignettes about the wonders of science. Shoot me an email at ldeming[dot]www[at]gmail.com
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Time to wax poetic about a new scientific beauty:
You’ve heard of them. They are a set of four fundamental principles. They link up electricity and magnetism. And they are a few of my favorite equations. Feynman explains them far better than I can. But I’ll try to explain why I think they’re incredibly cool.
It’s best to learn them after you learn how to ‘see’ math equations. Which takes a bit of multivariable calculus. But after that, you can turn equations into mental artwork.
The equations are math ‘workers’. Feed them a picture of an electric field, and they’ll craft a magnetic counterpart. Feed them the right electric field, and light pops out.
They illustrate a symmetry. A wonderful, fundamental symmetry between two fundamental forces. (Well, almost. It would be perfect if we could find elusive physical phenomena termed ‘magnetic monopoles’. But more on that another time.)
Maxwell’s equations are elemental. They’re powerful. They underlie every bit of tech we’ve created. But they’re short, simple and beautiful, in a funny physics way. I think they’re our equivalent of ‘magic’. Learn to manipulate them, and you’ve mastered a fundamental force.
Maxwell’s equations sum up an entire field of physics. Imagine the intellect it took to condense them. I’d love to spend a day with Maxwell, Faraday, and Tesla. What would the world be like if we’d known how to extend the human healthspan while they were alive?
While we’re on the topic of formidable intellects, this is a great chance to say thanks. Thank you to the mentors who’ve done so much to help me get where I am now.
Thank you Cynthia Kenyon and Jasper Rine for introducing me to biology. Every time I get excited about glowing cells, or Mendel’s tragic tale, I think of you.
Thank you Wes Beach, and MIT, for a wonderful two years in college. And thank you Adrian Slusarczyk, for an incredible lab mentorship.
Thank you family, for the loving support. And thank you Peter Thiel and the 20under20 foundation.
Science is too cool. Maybe I should be a physicist.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
What makes biology beautiful?
Let me count the ways.
1. It can be a mystery. A detective story on steroids. A search for a macromolecular culprit, buried in the midst of a pile of data. Working in a lab can mean months spent hunting down a rogue protein. If you’re working to cure a disease, the protein might leave telltale tracks. So biologists get to explore the cell for clues.
We investigate the polypeptide suspects, making changes to the genome to narrow down the possibilities. We interrogate potential partners in crime, other cellular citizens shown to interact with the protein in different contexts. And when we solve the molecular mystery and find a protein that gets mutated to cause a disease, or a protein that can cure an ailment, we’ve saved more lives than Sherlock Holmes could ever hope to save. We’ve caught the criminal before it commits the crime.
2. It’s ‘real’ magic. It’s exhilarating to be at the bench, eyes glued to the microscope, and watch a tiny worm grow, and glow green, because of the the genetic changes you’ve engineered. We get to manipulate invisible strands of information.
Biologists inscribe things in the book of life, a book so tiny we’d have to shrink to 10^9 times to glimpse it. We get to craft glowing mice, grow organs from scratch, code computer programs into DNA, and get the double helix to play origami. Life is magical – and we can make it more so.
3. It’s beautiful. Ever seen a 3D model of DNA? It’s a twirling chaos of color, a structural alphabet captured in the interplay of two strands. Try pondering that heavenly helix without lapsing into a moment of unabashed awe at the chaotic order underlying all of us. I was eight when I saw DNA for the first time.
It was a magical moment; I remember being feeling a bit reverent towards the towering molecular visage. Imagine what it would be like to stroll around a cell. We wouldn’t be able to see – but if we could, if there was some analogy for sight? It’d be a bag of chaotic happenings, molecules whirling around, dancing with the random grace that hallmarks Brownian motion.
Textbooks teach us to believe that the cell is a simple, ordered, geometrical progression of chemical events, a series of colored puzzle pieces fitting into matching holes to affect a chemical reaction. But the wonderful chaos we see, the crowded, cramped, bulging bag of molecular happenings, is a far cry from ordered. It is beautiful in its complexity.
4. It is powerful. I’ve yet to learn what it means to spend 10 years working on a drug, hunting down a protein target and taking a targeting molecule from the cell to the marketplace. But I can’t imagine a higher calling. Careers that involve saving a human life command an automatic respect. Saving one life is an incredible feat; a biologist can save 10 million.
We use the word ‘life’ so often that it is easy to forget how incredible our existence is. We’re a bag of chemicals, a conglomerations of atoms that walks, talks, breathes, and thinks. We are a population of self-aware, segregated bits of information. And we’re figuring out how to reprogram our basic genetic bylaws.
How cool is that?
Welcome to a WWW (What a Wonderful World),
My name is Laura. I’m a budding biologist; I grew up working in a biology lab, and can’t imagine a better place to be.
I’ll be in the California for the next two years, working, blogging, and learning in Silcon Valley. I’ll post more about my projects later, but for now all you need to know is that I’m interested in the financial side of science. I’d like to find better ways to fund the science projects that save lives.
This blog will be part science, part journal, and part experimental writing. It will evolve with time – but I’ll keep it entertaining. Thanks for visiting WWW. Hope you leave, just a bit more in love with the wonderful, infinite, jumble of rules and models we call ‘science’.