"Curiouser and curiouser," cried Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Last week I was at a conference at Stanford that brought 15 science educators together to learn and explore the world of nanotechnology. I had a few experiences in the past where I felt like I dropped down a rabbit hole into a bewildering land that I was unfamiliar with. One such experience that fits so vividly in my memory is when I was first dropped off in a rural village in Tanzania.
Listening to graduate students who had designed and used instruments that not only image atoms, but are able to manipulate them and the properties and forces within and between them, was humbling to say the least. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and they'd be going on and on about the exciting possibilities of discovering room-temperature superconductors, speaking in a puzzling language that sounded like English, but somehow wasn't. Although I could pin a meaning to practically every word they used, I didn't understand anything they said, or how those words connected to each other in a practical everyday use. I was as lost as any accidental tourist, wandering aimlessly in a very foreign country. It was disconcerting, yet invigorating.
There was a noted difference in the communication abilities between the faculty and their graduate students. Most of the PI's were well versed in the world of formal presentations, published papers, and public outreach where they constantly had to explain, defend, and evaluate their work to a myriad of different audiences. Thus, they were able to display the human sides of their work. However when we were speaking with the graduate students, in the throes of their work, the things that were missing among the rows of austere symbols and lines of dense type and barely legible mathematical formulas projected on the screens of their powerpoint presentations was what their work is all about-how and where their individual piece fit in the overall fabric in nanotechnology.
To the outsider, in this case, a few science teachers, nanotechnology represents unknown territory. It's borders are heavily protected by dense thickets of technical terms, and it's landscapes are strewn with cryptic equations and inscrutable concepts. I felt like I was digging to find the provocative ideas and useful notions.
I did find a few groups that were doing work I had a vested interest in. I skimmed through the physics lectures with a benign appreciation; but when a group came in to talk about using Atomic Force Microscopy to map, manipulate, and eventually simulate transmembrane cellular proteins I was intrigued. My undergraduate work was in cell biology, studying a particular transmembrane protein that was involved in cell migration, and proliferation: in our lab we said we were studying cancer. Well, these guys have been able to build probes using inorganic materials in order to interact with and identify where certain receptors lie on that area that protects the cell from the outside world; the cell membrane. They've been able to take pictures of this area that I could only imagine before. I was excited, like a little kid.
I came out of the conference with newfound friends, and a rekindled desire to probe deeper into the world of science. Maybe grad school one day? I don't know. But it was certainly stimulating.