My first week in the lab, my boss plopped a book with the bold title Ignorance: How it Drives Science. And now, as I wrap up writing my dissertation, she has given me its sequel, Failure: Why Science Is So Successful. Preternatural optimist that she is, she did not gift these books out of pessimism or wry passive aggression. Rather, she believed they contained important lessons. Lessons that perfectly bookend my Ph.D. career.
My time in the lab began with ignorance—not the wide-eyed, first-year graduate student variety, but the rigorous brand that embraces an open question. A great conundrum in modern biology is how life’s great diversity stems from four letters—A, C, G, and T—arranged in a near-infinite array to compose life’s blueprint molecule: DNA. Now, consider that every cell in your body contains the exact same complement of DNA. Yet a heart cell looks and acts completely different from a brain cell which looks and acts completely different from a skin cell. So how did a heart cell, a brain cell, and a skin cell arrive at such different biological fates when given the exact same set of molecular blueprints?