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I wrestled open the door, juggling the unwieldy fruits of my labor. Here I was again at Sequencing, that cavernous machine-laden room on the 15th floor of the Alkek Building in the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center, repeating the same procedure followed with every set of cloned DNA that I created. I shuffled past the rows of Applied Biosystems 3730xl DNA Analyzers, those mechanical gods that demanded their daily sacrifice of genetic material. I continued on past the temple attendants in white lab coats to the sacrificial altar, a nondescript white freezer where DNA samples to be sequenced are placed. I dumped the pile of DNA trays, filled in the requisite information on the sign-in sheet and turned to go.
For three weeks I had been doing this. For three weeks I brought my humble little trays here and never saw them again. Before reaching the door, I looked out the window across the expansive Houston cityscape. On the horizon I noted the smokestacks and cracking towers of the great petrochemical complexes to the south and east, steady streams of condensation billowing from their heights. On a fundamental level, is this building so much different from the ones in the distance? I came to do research, to change the world, perhaps. Yet here I was, just a cog in a great machine, working in a factory, not of oil and steel, but of nucleotides and reagents. I cloned, I sequenced, I compiled the results, and I passed them on. I didn’t know what I was working for or what I was creating. Was I creating anything at all? Sitting on the bus, heading home, staring blankly out the Plexiglas window, I remained troubled. I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to learn, to know, and to discover.
I realized that I didn’t feel like my efforts had meaning because I was seeing but a small piece of the puzzle. I was now determined to see the whole picture. The very next day, I casually asked my principal investigator what all of the work I was doing went towards. He casually informed me that we were working towards discovering the genetic components of epilepsy. My efforts were part of the search for mutations, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, affecting nerve cells’ ability to effectively transmit signals. This was incredible. This was fascinating. I had to know more. I threw myself with renewed passion into my work. The tiny tubes filled with patient DNA were no longer mere solutions to be manipulated. They were hopes and dreams, collected, concentrated, poured into diminutive bottles, and frozen to await their fulfillment. The readouts on the cold computer screens were no longer endless strings of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs; they were mysteries to be solved and battles to be won against those minute mutations that control the fate of so many. And when I brought those trays to the sequencing machines, I was no longer presenting sacrifices to heartless, unfeeling idols. I was helping to create something greater than myself. I was working towards knowledge, discovery, and progress; this is what I was creating, and this was enough for me.
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