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Weird Science? : The gap between the ‘brains’ and the rest of us seems only to grow. But at Caltech, they’re trying to bridge it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a brightly lit laboratory at Caltech, Jasmine Anderson uses a red marker to hastily sketch what appears to be a ladder. Excitement laces her explanation of research involving DNA, which many of us are familiar with at least in context of another set of initials: O.J.

We understand that DNA is important to Simpson’s forthcoming murder trial, that it has something to do with blood and hair samples and what might become of a flickering football star.

But beyond that, many of us know nothing.

Anderson is a peer coach in Caltech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships program, SURF for short, which reflects researchers’ attempts to make technical information more understandable to those of us who fled high school science classes with our Cs and Ds and never looked back.

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For many of us, our view of science is nebulous, similar to our view of tax laws--too complicated to deal with, too unapproachable, too easily deferred to accountants. For this, we pay. We are gulled by advertisers’ scientific half-truths and confused about researchers’ conflicting findings. Is Chinese food good for us or what?

We are vulnerable.

Despite all that, we sense that work being done in labs like this is important. We hope for cures. We hope for ozone. We hope for sweet and sour that won’t kill us. We hope that the people we elect to public office--with their MBAs, their law degrees, their real estate licenses--understand science better than we do as they decide critical issues involving the Earth, which has become a more technical place with each spin on its axis.

Most of us have not kept up. We might recall high school encounters with frogs, lifeless and supine, tentatively sliced to smithereens, chemistry experiments that belched fumes and smelled bad. But little else.

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The project Anderson is working on is titled “Sequence Selective Cleavage of DNA by a Synthetic Rhodium Complex in vivo .”

Which brings us back to the ladder.

Anderson, 20, is a senior chemistry major at Caltech. By fourth grade, she was reading Discover. By fifth, she was writing computer programs to help teach first-graders to read.

She is spending this summer as a peer coach in the SURF program, which attracts students from all over the country--most of them enrolled at Caltech. Students submit project proposals, which are reviewed by a faculty committee. The 219 students chosen, ranging from humanities and social science majors to Jet Propulsion Laboratory students, receive stipends and funding for the 10-week program. It’s an opportunity to work among people who share their passion for the mysteries and discoveries of research.

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At the end of the 10 weeks, they must make presentations in competition and be able to communicate not only with peers and judges, but with those with little or different scientific backgrounds.

Because students come from diverse fields, biology majors must make their work understandable to those studying chemistry or engineering, political science or economics. The process reflects researchers’ attempts to make their work more accessible to the general public. No simple task.

“We have developed a language that allows us to speak to each other in shorthand,” says Caltech Vice Provost David Goodstein, a physics professor. “In the end, however, it allows scientists to only communicate with other scientists, and even we don’t always understand each other. We have to be able to undo that.”

Jeffersonian principles of democracy in an increasingly technical society require scientific literacy, Goodstein says.

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The general public must be able to comprehend technical information not only to have a better understanding of the universe but also to play an active, responsible role in government, he says. “You really wonder if people are well enough educated to make those decisions.”

“It’s scary,” Anderson says of the public’s limited understanding. “Science is an intricate part of people’s lives. The fact that when you stand up, you’re on the ground, that’s science, you know, gravity.”

There has to be a halfway point, she says. Scientists must make their world understandable to people who lack scientific backgrounds. But we--the lacking--must make an effort to learn.

As Anderson continues to explain DNA through her drawings of ladders, it becomes apparent that somewhere down the road she is hoping to find information useful in the search for a cancer cure.

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Anderson’s work involves adhering a rhodium complex to DNA. When the complex is exposed to ultraviolet light, it cuts the DNA. She will attempt to design the complex to bind to a specific sequence of DNA present only in cancer cells. The research also involves other complexes that do not require ultraviolet light, a critical step in being able to apply the concept to the human body.

The excitement shows in her voice. She would like to share it with others, but many people, she says, view scientists the same way they view science--from a distance.

“When people ask what school I go to and I tell them I’m studying chemistry at Caltech, I can kill a conversation just like that,” she says. “I hate that.”

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Adele Shakal won second-place in last year’s SURF presentation competition. The title of her project was “X-ray Crystal Structures of Hyperthermophilic Proteins.” Her subtitle was “Growing a Forest to See a Tree.”

A junior geology major at Caltech and SURF peer coach, Shakal, 21, is considering the field of technical communications, helping narrow the distance between science and the public.

At the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo last year, her parents drove up from Greenwood, Ind., to hear her speak.

“My mom came up to me afterward and gave me a big hug and said, ‘I understood what you were talking about,’ and that was very exciting for both of us, because bridging the gap between technical research and general understanding is sometimes difficult.”

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It is a gap Shakal knows well.

Growing up, she found it difficult to share her excitement for science with friends. It was something she kept to herself like a horrible secret. Rather than go into a lot of detail about the science camps she attended in the summers, she would simply tell friends she was “going to camp.”

“They assumed I was going to live in the woods for two weeks. I had the feeling it would be misunderstood, and socially it was more comfortable not to tell people.”

It has to do with adolescence and the “N-word.” No one wants to be considered a nerd.

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“I spent summers doing the usual things, but I always knew that somewhere during the middle of summer, there would be these two or three magical weeks where I would be exposed to all these new ideas and all these other people who thought the way I did, and that was a breath of fresh air. . . . Finding a niche is a rather important feeling for a kid growing up.”

Caltech is a comfortable setting for her, she says. Here, she has found a world of possibilities, and she has felt not only the thrill of discovery but the thrill of sharing discovery.

And that is what fuels much of science.

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Roshan Kumar, a senior majoring in chemistry and biology at Caltech, is working on a project titled, “Synthesis and Transport of Cell-Specific Imaging Agents for MRI Using Transferrin-Polylysine-DNA Conjugates.”

The analogy he uses to describe his work involves a terrorist camp somewhere in a city. Current cancer treatments, he explains, are sort of like taking out the whole city to make sure the terrorist camp is taken out. In the process of killing cancer cells, innocent, non-cancer cells also are destroyed. The purpose of his project is to find a way to attack only the bad guys.

Undergraduates find themselves caught between two worlds. To be accepted in their fields of study, which are very competitive, they must learn the language. And as they use the language, it becomes one more thing that makes them different, which in their recent past may have been a difficult aspect of growing up.

“In general, the vocabulary just obscures things,” Kumar says. “The words are there in English to make it understandable. When you just start out in the field, you don’t know the vocabulary, but once you learn it, you become so familiar with it that it’s sort of a trap. It becomes your language even though you could explain things a lot simpler and a lot of times better without the jargon.”

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Mary Ann Smith, a communication consultant, instructs the SURF peer coaches on how to help participants prepare their oral presentations. She stresses simplicity. The ability to simplify complex information is indication the student understands the subject matter, she says.

“It’s very difficult and sometimes we forget how specialized the projects are. In some cases, there may only be two or three people in the world doing similar research.”

You can simplify, but you can’t stuff science down people’s throats. There are, however, ways of making it inviting. The Simpson trial likely will include a lesson for us in DNA, which is complicated enough without lawyers being involved.

But it’s not the lawyers or the expert witnesses who will decide Simpson’s fate. That responsibility rests with the jury, people like us, whose backgrounds in science may extend little beyond the horrible things we did to those frogs a long time ago.

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