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frogfish

Rekindling Scientific Research

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Rekindling interest in science

Richard Hollingham, who has been reporting science for the BBC for more than 10 years, went back to school to study biology for a month at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Scientists can bring the subject alive for students

I slipped into the swamp, my feet sinking a couple of feet in the mud, the water darker than the surrounding night.

A few tentative steps and I am up to my armpits in the cold soupy liquid, my shoes caught on decaying vegetation, arms scratched by dead branches. My overactive imagination already had me dragged under by some hideous snake-like creature in the manner of a 1950s B-movie.

I was not, however, foolish enough to have waded into a swamp alone.

There were at least half a dozen other fools around me. Our only protection against the night: funnels and lighters.

At the instruction of our tutors, we were recreating an 18th Century biological experiment. The murky sediment was laden with methane producing micro-organisms, known as methanogens.

By placing the corked funnel's open top in the water, we could collect some of this natural gas. Then, with a deft movement, remove the cork and light the top. The result is spectacular - a giant column of blue flame and a very satisfying "wumph".

Morning lectures

Hanging around in a swamp is not everyone's idea of a fun night out, but if you are trying to get people enthusiastic about microbes, it is a good place to start.

My fellow participants were among the world's brightest students - graduates from the likes of Harvard, Berkeley and Princeton. It was intimidating company - they were in Woods Hole to study applied microbiology. As a biology graduate who chose to be a journalist, I was here to see what I was missing.

The excitement of discovering new things, that passion of intellectual debate, is anything but dull and made me wonder why more of us don't do it.

The next morning I am sitting in Bill Metcalf's lecture - near the front because I am keen.

Bill is a world expert on methanogens and a very good lecturer.

But by about the fourth slide I am completely lost in a maze of chemical pathways and equations.

I try to give the impression I am listening intently by nodding occasionally but really I am thinking about my plans for lunchtime. Then I realise it is no longer only Bill that is talking.

One of his colleagues, Jared, is objecting to something.

They start to discuss the chemical process in question, their voices rising as they counter each other's arguments with scientific evidence.

Their disagreement now has the full attention of the class. Jared stands up and begins to write frenzied equations on the board, Bill counters with an equation of his own. I half expect it to get physical with chairs and laptops flying across the classroom.

The discussion continues as we break for coffee.

For me this has been a revelation. Not only are there many things scientists do not know about the world around us - they can get extremely passionate about their subject. I sense this is what it is like to be at the cutting edge of knowledge.

If only I had understood what they were arguing about.

Mystical affair

One of the greatest innovations in modern biology has been the ability to decode the complete genetic make-up of an organism - its genome.

The process is known as sequencing - the "sequence" is the list of individual chemicals, or bases, which make up the DNA.

I had become quite attached to these little blobs on the Petri dish

Our knowledge of the human genome should ultimately lead to cures for major diseases.

Other genomes could help provide new drugs or, at the very least, a better appreciation of the chemical basis of life. Some scientists are even planning to use DNA sequences to build simple organisms.

I have been reporting DNA sequencing for the last few years - and it has always seemed a somewhat distant, even mystical affair. And, truth be told, I have never fully understood what it was all about until I had the opportunity to do it myself.

During our daily laboratory sessions, I had grown cultures of bacteria taken from soil just outside the lab.

I had become quite attached to these little blobs on the Petri dish. I was even beginning to ask some reasonable scientific questions - like, what exactly are they?

So, under supervision, I extracted some cells and followed the procedure to sequence their DNA. This involved a good deal of measuring and adding chemicals before my sample could go off to be fed into the sequencing machine.

A day later I was handed a long printout of repeating letters - the genetic code, it turned out, for Bacillus drentensis.

It is a common enough organism apparently but I find it staggering that you can take a soil sample, extract bacteria and then decipher its genetic code. I came away from the lab beaming with pleasure. OK, so I had not found the cure for cancer but I had sequenced my first DNA!

When I chose to spend a month "doing" science, rather than just reporting it, I had hoped to get a sense of what the scientific process was all about.

There is no denying science is hard and experiments can be, yes, boring and repetitive. But the excitement of discovering new things, that passion of intellectual debate, is anything but dull and made me wonder why more of us don't do it.

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The last paragraph portrays why I research...for the thrill of finding something new...Thankfully, I have had that thrill many times, with help from a great group of people.

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