Universality and Diversity

March 5, 2018

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend an event sponsored by the Wadsworth Center, New York State's Public Health Laboratory, for Joachim Frank. Dr. Frank won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017 for work that was largely done at Wadsworth. I sat in awe at his presentation that described a lifetime of brilliant work.
Dr. Frank advanced the field of cryo-electron microscopy largely through the use of insightful and creative mathematical approaches to image reconstruction. His methodology allows biological samples to be imaged to molecular level. This was a feat that I thought was impossible because that resolution would violate the laws of physics. Apparently not, as he was able to push this technology to be comparable to X-ray crystallography, the gold standard in molecular structure determination. 
Dr. Frank's work provided insight into the structure of the ribosome, the complex molecular machinery that translates the genetic code in messenger RNA and makes proteins. Not only did he show the structure, but he also helped elucidate the mechanism of action during protein synthesis. Through a series of molecular snapshots, he was able to show that the ribosome acts like a little, molecular machine that undergoes a ratcheting motion as it reads an RNA strand to make protein.
Shortly after Dr. Frank had elucidated this structure, he was driving through New England to attend a Gordon Conference to present his result. He related that as he was driving through a Vermont forest, he looked up at the trees and had the vision of every cell in every leaf of every tree being chock full of ribosomes, all busily working away using their ratchet motions to make proteins. And this process, of course, was not only happening in trees, but simultaneously happening in virtually every living thing. Dr. Frank spoke eloquently about how, in this moment, he felt the universality of life.
The evening of that same day, I attended a student event for Black History Month. While the event was ostensibly an ice cream social, it was really a venue for a deeper conversation about race and privilege. As we entered the room, everyone picked a plastic spoon for their ice cream. When we went to get ice cream, the color of the spoon dictated what the servers would give us. One color spoon got ice cream and syrup, one color got just ice cream, and a third color got nothing at all! The group of students and faculty had a good and honest discussion about divisions in our society and how they impact our daily lives.
This evening was particularly poignant for me after hearing Dr. Frank muse about the universality of life. Despite the fact that we have so much in common, we seem to find ways to amplify our differences. Our knowledge of the human genome shows that we are 99.9% alike. The human genome is composed of 3 billion base pairs. A Single Nucleotide Polymorphism or SNP (single base pair difference between individuals) occurs every 300 base pairs. So there are 10 million SNPs. So instead of saying that I am 99.9% similar to the person sitting next to me, I could say I potentially have 10 million points of difference. Traditional racial characteristics make up very few of these SNPs, and there is as much SNP variation within a race as between races. This leads some to contest that there is no genetically logical way to define race.
The power of SNPs is that they can be important biomarkers for genetic diseases and for the propensity to chronic conditions. However, such genetic analysis is still in its infancy and not always available to providers. Consequently, race has often become a surrogate marker. At another Black History Month event, our students, in conjunction with students from Albany Med, held an insightful workshop that discussed how this practice is fraught with problems. Providers often slip into the behavior of basing medical diagnoses on race, and this is a dangerous and misleading practice. The students had a great discussion and really dug into this issue. Their awareness and depth of knowledge on this issue was impressive.
The point is that all the stigmas and stereotypes associated with diversity are social constructs and ultimately the solution to overcoming them is social and not scientific. That is why conversations like the ones we had during Black History Month are so important and should be ongoing. I am proud of the detailed and thoughtful programming that our students put together over the course of the month. These conversations serve all of us well.

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