The Art of Experimentation: The Scientific Method and Everyday Living
by Ameurfina D. Santos
2008 Concepcion Dadufalza Awardee for Distinguished Achievement Awarding Ceremony and Lecture
Science is a methodical process, just like life. However, both can yield a lot of unexpected twists and pleasant or unpleasant surprises. There are five general steps to the scientific method, and I will show you how this has applied to my research and to my life.
1. Ask the right question
In any research, you first begin not just by asking questions, but by asking the right questions.
Scientific research in the Philippines involves trying to alleviate problems faced by a third world country. In the Medical Biotechnology and Genome Research lab in the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, our antibody project aimed to contribute to decreasing breast cancer statistics, of which the Philippines has reportedly the highest in Southeast Asia.
If you asked any of my thesis students back then, they would explain their projects by first telling you how an antibody, the molecule in our immune system, looks like. This molecule is V-shaped, with the two arms serving as binding sites for the antigen that is specific to the type of antibody.
The question was: How could we improve the effectivity of the antibody?
In addition, science in the Philippines involves maximizing the use of what has been given us. Our country is blessed with an abundance of natural resources. Among them are venomous marine snails whose toxins are potential drugs. The most extensively studied are the Conus snails, but their relatives are equally interesting. Much interest has been given to the toxins that these snails produce to subdue prey and to ward off predators.
The question asked is: What is the nature of these toxins? What is the nature of the genes encoding them?
Prior to these questions, I was faced with more practical ones before I did my doctorate. I was teaching Chemistry, and I constantly asked myself if this was my path for the rest of my career. And when the opportunity to do graduate studies came, my question was: wasn’t I too old to study again for a PhD? How would my learning efficiency be considering my age? How will I cope being away from family once I pursued my dissertation research abroad?
When you have nauseated yourself with asking all these questions, it is time to make some assumptions. And so we go to our next step:
2. Formulate your hypothesis
a) If opposite charges are placed in each of the two halves of two different antibodies, a bispe.cific antibody (i.e.,with two different binding sites) may be formed
b) If a gene construct with pertinent domains joined by the correct linkers is made, a functional multivalent antibody (with more than 2 binding sites) may be formed from it.
c) If an antibody fragment is conjugated to a drug-filled liposome, the liposome will be properly guided to its target.
Venomous Marine Snails:
a) The venom must contain many different toxins to interact with many different kinds of physiological targets
b) There must be a pattern unique to the genes that encode the snail’s toxins
c) Toxins may be identified by studying their genes
I also permeated my life with several hypotheses. I knew that if I studied in UP, I would have better opportunities after school. I taught chemistry because I believed that the best way to better learn a subject was to teach it. I hypothesized that if I was to remain in the academe and that if I wanted to grow, I must pursue graduate studies. I’d contribute to science if I did research. I’d broaden my perspectives and hone my skills on leadership and interpersonal relations if I held an administrative post.
3. Experiment and get out of the box
Once you have obtained information, asked questions and made certain assumptions, the fun begins: performing experiments.
When you are a scientist, the ”fun” of doing experiments may decrease as your time in the lab increases. When there is a blackout and your freezer shuts down, this can result in massive loss of data; this can be very frustrating. As any of my students will tell you, you have to spend hours in the laboratory doing experiments and testing your hypothesis.
What did I experiment on in life?
Notwithstanding my “young” age, I took a leave from teaching Chemistry and enrolled in the PhD program of MBB on its first year of implementation. It was a new field and a challenging one for me. I had to take undergraduate courses offered by the Institute of Biology such as Bio 140 -Genetics and Bio 150 -Cell Biology, with classmates who were my students, and teachers who were my colleagues.
Later, I had to do my dissertation in the University of Utah. I had to cope with being separated from family, with very cold weather during winter. Worse, as anyone in science will tell you, experiments don’t work 100% of the time. But every cloud has a silver lining, and eventually the experiments worked, and letters and phone calls from back home alleviated the loneliness.
When I came back to UP and obtained my PhD, I found myself leaving home once more, this time to the National Institutes of Health in Maryland to do my postdoctoral research.
I also enrolled in cooking, dancing, aerobics and swimming classes. We need to experiment on different things to give ourselves new perspectives.
4. Document and learn from your results
a) Yes, a bispecific antibody was generated by putting opposite charges on the two halves. But the electrostatic attraction was affected by the nature of the molecule (amino acid) that carried the charge and by the location of the charge.
b) Yes, with a correct gene construct, a multivalent antibody was generated that folded correctly thus was able to interact with 4 targets; increasing the antibody’s relative binding ability.
c) Yes, the antibody directed the liposome with the anticancer drug to its target cancer cell.
Venomous marine snails:
a) Indeed, the genes encoding the toxins showed characteristic sequence patterns
b) More toxins were identified by studying the genes
c) The different toxins in the venom interact with different physiological targets – a strategy of the slow-moving snail to subdue its prey real fast, not to mention to ward off predators and competitors.
There are two important things I’ve learned in the course of my career, and I believe this will apply to you, regardless of what profession you are in.
The first is that age does not matter. I did my PhD when I was already an assistant professor with three teenage daughters. I did my post-doe right afterwards at NIH. As long as you are passionate about what you do, then being old or young should not be a factor. Prof. Ching Dadufalza herself was a testament to this, she continued to be very active even way past her retirement age.
The second most important thing is that balancing is key. There are challenges that a female scientist faces, with the most obvious being the time needed to raise a family while running one’s own lab, writing grants, teaching and looking after thesis students, doing admin work. In fact, the Nobel Prize-winning developmental biologist Christiane Nusslein-Volhard gives some female scientists small stipends that will allow them to afford babysitting money and other family-related fees.
5. Retestr relearn and relive
When you have lived as long as I have – which isn’t that long, but as the students here are slightly younger than I am, I would need to pass these on – things happen that seem cyclical. Life is a whole experiment that is composed of several smaller experiments, so much so that it seems we come full circle in many parts of our lives.
I would tell young students to keep learning. As I mentioned earlier, science works very much less than 100% of the time – it requires endless repetition of experiments, and studies can go on for years before you can graduate. You have to persevere, and at the same time learn from your mistakes. What you learn today will be helpful the next time you encounter certain challenges. Sometimes life requires you to rise to the occasion and perform certain tasks you never thought you could do. This is one of the important things I have learned as Director of the Office of Admissions. Every year, the Admissions staff look after test development, ensure the delivery of UPCAT materials to all testing centers in the country and oversee the execution of the UPCAT – a’ huge responsibility to make sure that the best students enter UP.
I would tell young students not to be in such a hurry. Almost everything is better when you are older. Even sex. Especially sex. Sometimes you have to pause to take stock of what you have already done in life, and where to go from here. At times, you will find that there are things that you are meant to face.
I was meant to face Prof. Dadufalza whom I evaded like the plague while in college because I was warned about her as a terror. When I was already teaching, there was a group of alumni who idolized her, then I realized I missed a lot by not being her student. My second daughter though, became her student – so even if I was never under her tutelace, my genes were, at least. Then I became close to Ms Dadufalza who openly showed her admiration for my pursuit of a PhD even at a not-50-young age. And now,finally, I can’t believe it, I am giving a lecture as a Dadufalza awardee. It should just be a coincidence that her grandfather and my grandfather were brothers.
Sometimes, life is not what we initially thought it would be. Buckminster Fuller once said that “There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.” I was once a chemistry student who thought I was going to be a topnotch chemist in some big multinational company, but life turned out quite differently and I have no regrets. Life has given me joy and fulfillment especially as a teacher, because my students inspire me to do better each day. Manang Conching Dadufalza’s fulfillment came from being a great educator. The best tribute to her as awardee is to give one’s best whether as a teacher, researcher or administrator.
Maraming salamat po sa inyong pakikibahagi.