The daily grind of basic science: Solving tomorrow’s issues today

Rachel Burge
March 15, 2022
Chalk drawing representing peppermint syrup.
Graphical representation of a peppermint syrup bottle.

Editor’s note: The following series of stories highlights the contributions of basic science research to modern medicine. This is part two. Read part one here. Read part three here.

Yesterday, my friend called from the auto mechanic to let me know she was getting an entire wheel replaced. She hadn’t noticed that her tire was flat, despite the emergency light being on all morning and an extreme pull to the left.

She had been driving around on the rim and turning up the music to drown out the grinding and screeching noises. How is it possible for someone not to notice that?

Plato once said: “Science is nothing but perception.” Observations drive Basic Science research forward, in the same why that noticing warning signs in your car, like a flat tire alarm, can keep your car running smoothly. In the last blog post, I introduced the idea that Basic Science is the espresso of modern medicine, but it is also the espresso for a variety of breakthroughs in new and exciting ‘coffees’ that we use in our everyday lives.

The most successful Basic Scientists have a few things in common: their passion for developing knowledge, an innate, unquenchable curiosity, and their ability to connect the dots to advance technology or medicine using the scientific method.

How do you like STEM apples?
Some of us may be familiar with the scientific method or have at least heard the concept, but if you, like me, were too busy playing hooky, you might have missed that day in class. The story of Sir Isaac Newton - English mathematician, physicist and astronomer - and the apple tree exemplifies the steps of the scientific method.

In the now famous story, Newton is hit on the head by an apple. WHACK. After his tears subside, he eats the apple and begins to wonder…

1)      Newton asked a question: Why did the apple move from the tree to hit my head? Looking around, he didn’t see anyone that could have thrown it, so what could have caused the apple to move?
2)      He constructed a hypothesis – an explanation for why the apple fell: There are unseen forces that act on objects like apples.
3)      He tested his hypothesis: Newton conducted many mathematical experiments (physics and such, I missed that day at school too) and noted that without this unseen force, the moon would fly away from earth.
4)      He analyzed the data: Newton came up with his theory of forces acting on each other, whether they are apples or planets.
5)      He drew a conclusion and reported his results: Newton called this force “gravity” and shared it with the leading scientists of the time and published his famous tome Philosophiӕ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy).

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but, 'That's funny ...’”

-- Isaac Asimov

You might be surprised at the number of “accidental” discoveries that Basic Science has contributed to our lives over the years! Being observant and curious plays a large role in some very important discoveries. Those character traits, work ethic and a tiny dash of luck, can lead scientists to the next foundational discovery.

Penicillin Peppermint Mocha: Past the cell-by date
In 1928, Alexander Fleming, who worked with bacteria, left a pile of unwashed lab glassware and some Petri dishes (small plastic plates filled with nutrient-rich broth for growing bacteria) in the sink over the weekend.

Coming back to work, Fleming noticed that there was a strange mold that had contaminated one of the dishes. Just before he threw it out, he stopped, noticing that there was a tiny bacteria-free circle around the mold.

I would have said “ew” before immediately throwing it in the trash, but Fleming asked, "Why did this happen?" After many tests, he discovered that something in the mold stopped the bacteria from growing, naming this new compound penicillin.

Isaac Asimov said it best: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but, 'That's funny ...’” Without Fleming’s basic science acumen, bacterial research expertise, observational skills and curiosity, we would not have antibiotics.

Velcro Vanilla Cold Brew: Basic Science is all over the space
A Swiss engineer was frustrated because every time he went out for a hike, burrs would cling to his pants and his dog’s fur. After inspecting the hook makeup of the burrs under his microscope, he discovered that they would stick to anything shaped like a loop. Eight years of experiments and developments later, Velcro was invented.

Deriving from the words “velvet” and “crochet”, Velcro did not gain a grip in the fashion industry. However, in the 1960’s, NASA became interested in this new and exciting invention: a fastening system that functioned in zero gravity and could be used on space suits! Exciting right?

"I am always trying to let curiosity lead my research. If I am only focusing on the end goal, I might walk into my lab, and unlike the discovery of antibiotics, throw that dirty plate of bacteria away."

-- Rachel Burge

DNA Dirty Chai Latte: Sitting in the lab of luxury
X-rays, the microwave, corn flakes and even Viagra were originally invented or discovered for a different purpose. More recently, the tiny fat droplets called lipid nanoparticles, were researched by basic scientists 40 years before being used in the COVID-19 vaccine to surround and protect mRNA. A basic scientist studying gross bacteria found a system that acts like a pair of DNA scissors. These scissors have enabled us to cut genes out of cells to understand and treat diseases.

Basic Scientists continue to pursue fundamental knowledge, without an obvious direction of where that knowledge will end up.

Hopefully by now I have convinced you that Basic Science is essential and offers society invaluable resources.

I spy with “why” little eye
My little sister is on track to be the next famous scientist because she never stops asking “why”. You know the stage, when the only word coming out of a toddler’s mouth is why? I’m exhausted trying to field the hundreds of why questions: Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why does the Easter Bunny bring eggs when rabbits don’t lay eggs? Why… why.. why?

But her curiosity is always a good thing. Maybe if my friend had asked why her car was making such strange noises, she wouldn’t have burned through her tire.

As a graduate student working towards my Ph.D. in the Biomedical Sciences, I am always trying to let curiosity lead my research. If I am only focusing on the end goal, I might walk into my lab, and unlike the discovery of antibiotics, throw that dirty plate of bacteria away.

Although I am answering questions that have disease-related end-goals, I constantly need the reminder that we can’t always see the future of our Basic Science ‘espresso’. That's an exciting part of being a scientist: our findings may be the basis for a new and exciting coffee that we could never have imagined.

Want to learn more about basic science? Check out episode #25 of the ScienceNever Sleeps podcast with guest basic science researcher, Dr. Lori McMahon.