‘You don’t know algae’

Our neuroscientist contributor on finding a universal language of science — and its limitations

I love working for “TechKnow” because it throws me into amazingly diverse situations that appear on the surface to be completely out of my comfort zone. (Predictive policing, anyone?) But by the time we’re done with the interviews and investigation, I am always reminded that — beyond the minutiae and the specialized vocabularies of each story — the language of science really is universal.

In order to prepare for our story on the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus, I dove into research. Very quickly, I felt I was definitely an algae convert. Their long evolutionary history! Their efficiency in acting as production factories for oils, antioxidants and more! The beautiful colors reflecting the light-absorbing compounds they produce so effortlessly!

So imagine my chagrin when I met my first interview subject, Professor Milton Sommerfeld, and was told in no uncertain terms, “You don’t know algae.”

It’s true that after only a week, I may not have appreciated the nuances of what makes algae awesome, but as I said before, beyond the minutiae, the language of science is universal.

The biochemistry and molecular biology in an algae lab is not so different from my previous work with bacterial and mammalian cells, and I can recognize and appreciate light absorbed by a conjugated chemical compound as well as the next chemist. When I saw a gorgeous display of algae in a rainbow of colors, I became rapturous. (Really. Ask my producer.) I could go on all day about chemical conjugation, light absorption and perceived color.

Suffice it to say, apparently I did learn something in grad school. (This is a joke. I learned many things in grad school and am very thankful for the years I spent receiving an incomparable scientific education at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutes.)

But I can understand why Sommerfeld, after dedicating his career to algae and energy sciences, would look askance at any neuroscientist claiming to understand his research.

I love that “TechKnow” is committed to using real scientists, engineers and data analysts as correspondents, and I love meeting people who have a set idea about science in the media and proving that scientists can be good communicators too.  

Sommerfeld was an amazing source of detailed knowledge about algae and how they can and should be harvested to feed humanity’s needs, and he shared his knowledge with a profound respect for his topic as well as an endearing sense of humor. I learned so much simply from a half-hour interview with him, and despite that gruff beginning, I’d like to think I was able to win him over.

Professor that he is, he ended the interview with a test. After the cameras stopped running, he slyly handed me a flask. It was filled with 200 milliliters of saturated algae culture.

(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

“How many cells do you think are in there?” he asked. I tried to demur, but he wouldn’t let me off the hook. “Just take a guess.” 

Rapidly trying to remember how many cells would be in 200 milliliters of a saturated culture of Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells as a point of reference, I figured algae cells were smaller than mammalian CHO cells but larger than bacterial E. coli cells. I took a guess: “On the order of billions?”

Sommerfeld’s face lit up with surprise and pleasure. I’d guessed more accurately than he thought I would.

“Very good!” he said. Then he told me the correct answer. “There are probably about 10 billion cells in this flask.”

I was off by an order of magnitude, but I’d proved to myself once again that the language of science is universal, and I felt as proud as one of his students that I had been able to make him smile.


To learn more about algae cultivation and uses, watch “TechKnow,” Saturday 7 ET/4 PT.

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