Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Cost of Chemistry: The Struggle Between Amateurs and Professionals

Biochemistry: Investigating Organism's Chemical Reactions

It was during my final year of high school that I had my first real-world chemistry test.  I had been working in a university laboratory when the head professor showed me a list of gases that my test subject was producing and asked, “Which of these chemicals burn?”  He caught me open-mouthed.  You try picking from a list of twenty chemicals that include names like “Perchloroethylene” and “1,3-butadiene”.  I wanted to ask him if he would make it a multiple choice response. Hurriedly, I scanned it and was relieved to see something I recognized from the gas station: octane.  “Octane,” I replied reservedly.  “Good.  What else?” he responded.  As a university student majoring in biochemistry, I have quickly recognized that chemistry is an exclusive field because of the complexity of the subject matter, the academic language and the cost.  However, amateur scientists have made significant discoveries in the past and will continue to do so. Although expertise in the field of biochemistry is important, the chemistry community needs to improve their academic and organizational infrastructure to accommodate amateur scientists because, with cheaper emerging technologies, amateur scientist’s work can lead to breakthroughs in the field.
We don’t need to look too far back into our history to see the impact of amateur scientists.  The first people to try their hand at explaining chemistry were the Greeks.  Empedocles, Democritus, and Aristotle all had their own theories about what made up the world.  However, they were philosophers, not scientists.  What we think of as modern hypotheses and experiments began with the Renaissance scientists.  University education, especially in scientific fields, was rare so many used their own
"The Father of Microbiology", Antonie van Leeuwenhoek
money to make instruments and fund experiments.
  The Netherland’s Antonie van Leeuwenhoek may be considered the first modern biochemist because of his breakthroughs in microbiology.  Using a homemade microscope during the seventeenth century, he was the first to observe bacteria, muscle fibers, and blood vessels.  His trade?  He made window drapes.  The scientist often called “the father of microbiology” made his living doing a blue-collar job. 
                In spite of chemistry’s long history, biochemistry is relatively new.  The advent of biochemistry can be pinpointed to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure by Watson and Crick.  Since that time, biochemistry has become science’s best kept secret.  Through research in this field, it has identified the complete human genome, giving us the starting point for gene therapy and reversing diseases.  More effective drug delivery systems are being developed to kill cancer instead of using painful, and possibly deadly, chemotherapy.  Extending outside the realm of medicine, biochemistry has engineered genetically modified plants, such as corn and rice, that produce greater yields, are more nutritious and are more disease-resistant.  Developing nations are being given these species to cultivate in order to feed their growing populations.  What began in the 1950’s as a theoretical experiment has now turned into a bonafide field which affects what we eat and how we cure our bodies.
                With all these breakthroughs and surely more to come, biochemists should be welcoming more scientific involvement, but there are many barriers.  First, a lack of advanced education is a limiting factor.  Biochemistry is a complex field.  Professionals argue that you can’t expect some basement scientist to mix a couple of chemicals and discover something new.  Anybody who can contribute to biochemistry has rigorously studied chemistry in college and probably graduated in that field, they say.  Safety is also an issue.  A chemical experiment gone wrong could lead to fires, explosions or the release of harmful chemical agents or diseases.  Plus, where are they going to dispose of all their chemical waste?  Lastly, the necessary equipment is too expensive for the average person to afford.  Only well-funded universities and chemical research institutes have the resources to buy high-end instruments.  Shoddy equipment only contributes to shoddy research which could hardly be worthwhile and productive.  These arguments are the most common when the suggestion is made to make biochemistry more accessible.
                But on the contrary, amateur interest in biochemistry will continue to expand with or without professional scientists’ blessing.  Although professionals will almost always spearhead groundbreaking research, there are always intelligent people who take interest in a subject they don’t dedicate their lives to.  Biochemists can influence the caliber of research that amateurs do, but they cannot determine whether or not amateurs participate. 
Unfortunately, there are many potential amateurs who are interested in the concepts of chemistry, but are intimidated by its complicated language.  Chemistry itself may be manageable conceptually, but it also scares off many people who could make significant contributions because of the vocabulary common to biochemistry. 
Learning how to speak and comprehend chemical language is like learning a second language.  Of course, chemistry language is more precise and convenient once you understand the language, but the academic community seems to use it as a barrier from the rest of the world.  
A (relatively) Simple Reaction
“If you can’t understand our language, then you’re not included”, goes the thinking.  From this spawns the misperception of biochemists as nerds in lab coats locking themselves inside to do research, something that the average person can hardly relate to.  If the chemical field was able to provide a resource that could explain chemical processes in an intelligible way, then people would become more interested and accepting of biochemistry.  
One possibility is that the biochemical community could sponsor open forums, for example, TED talks.  TED talks are speeches given by experts in a variety of fields.  In order to accommodate all the listeners, the speakers must use day-to-day vocabulary to explain their findings or experiences.  Whenever I have listened to a well-given TED talk, my attitude has changed from apathetic to appreciative to passionate.  While biochemistry must retain its academic language, it would do well to also adjust its language so the average person can understand basic concepts and be inspired by new ideas.
Subject Matter
Another problem facing emerging scientists is the lack of available current information in their field.  The main way of communicating scientific findings is through scientific journals.  These journals may be published once a month or once every three months.  They are current, but they are expensive.  A single article can cost as much as $20.  A journal, $70.  To stay up-to-date, a researcher has to pay exorbitant amount of money, unless of course, the university or institute where they work picks up the charge instead.  This has bottlenecked biochemistry research into the professional arena and made it difficult for amateurs to make significant contributions.  Making academic journals more affordable would allow amateur scientists to stay current instead of conducting after-the-fact research. 
When it comes to the necessary equipment, innovation and business have made the materials much more affordable.  For instance, you can extract DNA from a banana using nothing more than a test tube, a stir rod, a coffee filter and rubbing alcohol. 
The $900 MinIon DNA Sequencer
During my laboratory experience, one of my samples seemed promising because of the gases it produced.  I divined the gases by the very expensive process of smelling them with my nose and then seeing if other chemicals in the lab smelled like them.  I then extracted and sequenced the DNA using a sequencing machine and analyzed it using a free program that I downloaded from the internet.  The most expensive piece of equipment was the sequencing machine, which cost tens of thousands of dollars. But recently, a company announced a compact $900 sequencing machine(Hayden, 2014).  With just this machine a few other household items, we can analyze DNA from a variety of different organisms.  Gene-splicing, or removing the genes that make the desired chemicals, is only a step away.  It is clear to see that with modern technology the cost of chemistry is declining rapidly.
                Finally, the question of safety.  With more scientists, there will be more waste.  This is where prominent chemistry organizations, such as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), should step up.  Currently, these organization hold conferences and distribute research funding.  Training amateurs and regulating experiments and waste should be another responsibility of these organizations.  There is a balance, though.  Regulatory organizations nowadays are suspiciously seen as Big Brother-types.  To keep a good image, these organizations should offer grants and scholarships to amateur scientists.  This way, the organization can maintain a positive image and select which projects they choose to fund at the same time.  This will require both a change in organizational infrastructure and attitude, but the benefits will be felt across the field.

The Essence of Biochemistry
          Though many think of chemistry as a nightmarish subject in their high school and college careers, our daily lives are surrounded by inventions and medicines developed through biochemistry.  There is a current misconception about academic life in this field, but with the rise of amateur scientists the world will soon realize that daily life and biochemical research are linked more than they thought.  In order to optimize this change, the infrastructure of the biochemistry world will have to adapt to train, regulate and sponsor amateur work that contributes to the research of professional biochemists.


Hayden, E. C. (2014, February 14). Data from pocket-sized genome sequencer unveiled. Nature, p. 38.
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