Science Essentials

The following three short clips are the Science Essentials section in the first edition of the College of Natural Sciences’ alumni magazine. For these pieces the participating faculty had two options: they could write something up that I would edit or I could interview them and ghost write something for them to look over. All of them chose the interview option. Regardless of the approach, the short articles will appear in the magazine authored by the faculty member but the interview, tone, organization and editing are from me. I worked with the professors to narrow their focus and pull their thoughts together into an easy-to-understand narrative. 

Science Essentials: Exoplanets
By Bill Cochran, Astronomy

There was a time when we thought we were special, that our sun was the only star with planets. Now, we know better. When I started in this field, we were just barely predicting the presence of exoplanets — planets that orbit other stars — and now we have proven the existence of more than 1000. The count is climbing every day.

As we looked at the sun and wondered why we have planets here, we compared the sun to other stars and were a little disappointed. We realized the sun is not special. The sun is just like all of these millions of other stars out there. There’s absolutely nothing about our star that would lead to us to think there should be planets here and not elsewhere.

So when we started looking and finally figured out how to take the measurements and do the calculations correctly we figured out that all of those other stars out there also have nice planetary systems around them. Current estimations say that every star has at least one planet orbiting around it.

It sort of puts our role in the universe into perspective — we really aren’t that special. You know this is one of the last places where humans can do exploration. Hundreds of years ago people would jump in a ship and find new worlds and now I go up to my telescope to find new worlds.

Science Essentials: RNA
By Chris Sullivan, Molecular Biosciences

RNA has come a long way in just a few short years. Once the ugly stepchild of the nucleic acids, it was thought to be a boring and simple message decoder (Remember the Central Dogma?). RNA, a polymer composed of four different nucleotides connected by a sugar ribose backbone, took a backseat when researchers discovered DNA was the genetic material.

RNA does serve as the intermediate between DNA and proteins, decoding the DNA and then being translated by the ribosomes that make proteins, but that is only a sliver of its diverse set of functions.

The molecule has very interesting structural and enzymatic functions, making it similar to proteins. A large amount of what was once thought of as “junk DNA” is actually transcribed into RNA and used for a variety of functions. Given the vastness of these RNA and their potential to unravel numerous mysteries of biology, collectively the RNAs have been referred to as the “dark matter” of the genome.

Regulatory RNA, for example, seem to turn on or off certain genes. These small RNAs can be synthesized and used to silence any gene, and this has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry known as RNA interference.

MicroRNA, another type, serve as dimmer switches during gene expression, and are involved in almost all aspects of development and disease. Despite this, we only understand the functions of a miniscule fraction of RNA, so clearly more fireworks await discovery.

The vast functions of RNA have even led scientists to theorize that life started in an “RNA World,” where RNA came first because it can perform so many processes and DNA evolved as the genetic material later.

Science Essentials: Scanning Tunneling Microscopy
By Lauren Webb, Chemistry

Our understanding of the structure of an atom hasn’t changed since the early 20th century, but the way we visualize them certainly has. Scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) is now the norm, and it is a critical tool we use to visualize atoms and molecules and understand their structure.

We have all learned how electrons occupy regions of space around atoms, called “orbitals.” However, it turns out these electrons sometimes move outside of their atomic orbitals. This happens in such a predictable manner that if you put two objects very close to each other they will begin to share electrons. In STM, we literally take an electrode and bring it very, very close to the surface of the material we’re studying. We get it so close that the materials begin to share electrons, which in turn creates a current. This current is what we can measure.

The properties and function of a material are determined by its structure. We used to not be able to see the individual atoms and molecules of these materials, but now that we can using STM, the mysteries behind many materials have been solved. That’s really what chemistry is all about right now — understanding how the properties of individual molecules combine and work together to create new properties in both artificial and biological materials.

Some, for example, have used the technique as a tool to pick up and drag individual atoms and molecules, literally organizing them. If we could do this on a large scale, it opens up all sorts of completely new fabrication and synthesis mechanisms.

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