Rough Neighborhoods

Monday, June 3 was my first day as a Blavatnik Fellow at Yale. Consequently, it was also the day I fell off my bike and dislocated my shoulder while biking in my new neighborhood.

I had been biking to meet a friend for climbing when I hit a nasty bump that knocked the bike lock into the front wheel of my bike and took me down in the middle of the street. I don’t remember much of the immediate aftermath, though I was conscious. I was just operating on instinct. I scrambled up and looked around; the car behind me had hit its brakes and people were gathering and asking if I was okay. With surging adrenaline, I lugged my bike to the side of the road and told them I was fine, but the accident must have looked pretty bad because people kept at it. One guy insisted on getting me water from a nearby store. Someone else waited with me while he went off, which was good because I experienced a minor bout of lightheaded-ness.

Ten minutes and a few gulps of water later, I felt better and a bit embarrassed about all the fuss, including a few offers to drive me to the hospital. I found a bit of blood seeping into my pant leg at the left knee and my right hand was scraped, but nothing seemed amiss. I could track a finger and wasn’t seeing double (and had been wearing a helmet. I did a lap around the store parking lot to test my body and my bike, and partly to demonstrate to everyone that I was fine. The guy who got me water insisted I take his phone number just in case I needed to go to the ED, and I tapped it quickly to save what little phone battery I had.

I left the parking lot and biked north toward the climbing gym, at first thrilled at having escaped without serious injury and annoyed I was so late to meet my friend. But three blocks up, I noticed that my left shoulder felt off. It started with a tightness, and then an odd sense of compacted crunchiness. I tried to lift my left arm and immediately felt nauseous. I pulled over and sat down hard on the sidewalk, waited for the feeling to pass. At first I was torn between biking onward, going back home, or going to the hospital. But that rapidly transitioned into trying to stay conscious, so I lay down on my back and put my feet in the air.

At some point a woman pulled up at the light nearby and asked if I was alright. I said I was just a bit dizzy, and I was fine, thank you. She responded I shouldn’t rest here because it wasn’t a safe neighborhood. I thanked her again, but she was insistent and began yelling it wasn’t safe. It was enough to knock up my adrenaline, and I got up and limped off in the opposite direction to get away from her.

I managed half a block before I had to sit down again. I called my friend at the gym to say I probably wouldn’t be coming because I fell off my bike and should go to the hospital, but had no serious injuries (she would probably like it to be known that I only
got her voicemail, or she would have been the one to drive me to the ED). I called my significant other, to let him know I was going to the hospital and to ask which was in network (he, being the gracious human being he is, stayed totally calm).

Then with my final percent of battery, I called that saint of a guy who got me water to ask if he’d still be willing to drive me to the hospital. Against all odds, he picked up the phone and came back to drive me to the hospital. He even helped me lock of up my bike near the hospital and get checked into the ED before leaving.

Five hours, two x-rays, and a few happy reunions later*, I was discharged with a diagnosis of a grade 1 acromioclavicular separation (a mildly dislocated shoulder likely not requiring surgery, or a cast, or anything beyond rest). I’ll be fine.

It’s interesting to reflect on how I felt toward the people who wanted to help me in the aftermath of the accident. Everything above took place in what would be called a ‘rough neighborhood’, though I doubt this is a reference to its crime rate so much as to the predominant race and ethnicity (black and Hispanic) in the area. I even had a (white) woman yell at me from her car that it wasn’t safe, which was more agitating than anything else that happened post-accident.

And why? Though the guy who ultimately drove me to the hospital was South Asian, almost everyone else who offered help was black. Everyone I encountered after my accident was deeply concerned and offered help. Nobody tried to take advantage of my very visible vulnerability, and I never felt like I was in danger. So I don’t get the labels of ‘rough’ and ‘dangerous’ for my neighborhood — if anything, it was a neighborhood full of regular people who care and want to help in an emergency.

* Through some grand luck, a good friend of mine from graduate school (who is also the husband of the climbing friend I was biking to meet) happened to be on shift in the ED. When I didn’t show up at the climbing gym and she got my phone message, she let him know I was coming and came to the ED herself. My significant other (who hadn’t seen either of them for ages) also drove down, and the four of us had a mini reunion in the ED.

Synthetic Biology and Social Discomfort

On the way home from mushroom hunting, someone in the foraging group asks what I do for a living. That’s a tricky question. I could respond with the research I did for my PhD, which would be something like “biology” or “bioengineering” or “synthetic biology”, but none of these answers hold much meaning for people. So I go for the simplest answer that’s interesting. I tell them, “I built life.”

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Some of the living things I’ve built.

I’m not exaggerating. My PhD was five and a half years working on engineering organisms that would improve human lives while using less of Earth’s resources. That goal is hundreds of separate projects in several lifetimes of work, so I focused on the part that serves as a lynchpin to them all: if we create a living thing with a function, how do we ensure it works as intended in complex environments? Like the plastic insulation protecting electrical wires, engineered life needs an isolating barrier protecting it from the surrounding natural life that could cause a short-circuit and stop working. Physical isolation tools exist, but they need to be maintained and have limited use. So for my PhD I engineered genetic isolation directly into cells, an insulation that they always carry with them. This genetic insulation protects the engineered cells from nature and vice-versa. And it means that we can one day use these engineered cells to create medicines, renewable energy sources, and environmental protection and repair systems.

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A forest in Australia. It’s one of the many ecosystems I hope to preserve by creating living tools that help people live with more while taking from the environment less.

Back in the car, the response I get from the group is a mix of awe and horror, which is normal. Because I’m with a group of foragers, I can accurately predict the next step in the conversation. “It is just my opinion, but I don’t think we should be changing life, messing with it,” says the man beside me. I nod politely. Though the old knowledge of traditional cultures and new knowledge of academic research are entirely compatible and built on the same scientific methods, a mutual distain keeps the practitioners of these two camps aligned against each other. As scientist of academic research, I’ve lived this conversation a thousand times already. But it’s an important one, and it’s not about me convincing this guy that his opinion is wrong. It’s about understanding why.

By and large, people are uncomfortable with engineering life because they consider it special. We divide the world into living and non-living, and then spend much of our memorable lives interacting with the living: family, friends, pets, nature, food. We consider there to be some mysterious spark to life that we haven’t figured out, both philosophically and scientifically. To say you’re changing living things naturally raises hackles; the assumption is that in order to do that, you must have sacrificed your belief in the sanctity of life. That you don’t care about the consequences. Or, as quoted from Jurassic Park: “so preoccupied with whether or not [you] could, [you] didn’t stop to think if [you] should.”

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Life is pernicious and controlling it can be hard: here, algae grows on the inside of a plastic cup on the beach.

But the truth is that we scientists think constantly about “whether you should.” It is the undocumented part of our lives, the part spent away from the laboratory equipment that everyone associates with us. In this time, four sources prompt us to consider the meaning and significance of our work. The first is from ourselves; as we’re naturally inclined to think (and overthink), we find ourselves imagining scenarios in which our research could be misused or go awry. The second is our peers and colleagues, who carry a mandate to question our work and ensure it is safe. The third is in grant proposals, where we meet the scrutiny of scientists and policy-makers who fund our work. And the fourth is in scenarios like the one occurring right now in the car, questions from our communities. Every one of these sources drives us to think about the impacts of our research and what could go wrong.

Yes, the conversations I have with people about my work “building life” can be uncomfortable. It’s not fun when someone tells you that your life’s work is objectionable, distasteful, an affront to society, or a one-way ticket to hell. But these conversations are important. They tell me what people are worried about, and by extension, what I should worry about in my work. These conversations are also a brief chance for me to explain how much we scientists care about the impact of our work, contrary to scientist stereotypes. It’s not easy, but somebody’s gotta do it.

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My research on creating genetic insulation for engineered organisms. If you leave here with one thing, know that we scientists hear and share your fears. It’s why we do research.

[This is a cross-post from my current main blog, Neverending Everywhere, where I document travelling around the world.]