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Tom Galli

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I just completed a most unusual intellectual assignment—evaluating molecular biology and pathobiology research grant applications.  When I learned of my assignment, I wondered how I’d make the academic stretch from civil engineer to biologist. 

Sure, on a good day, I can spell pathobiology correctly without aid of a spell checker. Why would someone deliberately assign me to review molecular biology stuff?  I’d forgotten.  I was a lung cancer survivor and expert, not by education but by experience.  Those who survive have relevant first-hand experience that can’t be learned in any university.  Some research grant institutions require a “consumer” evaluator to assess the impact of applications.  In the case of lung cancer, the consumer is a lung cancer survivor.

My experience came in handy.  We were asked to score the impact of each proposal.  Even basic science research has discernible impacts.  Knowing, for example, Squamous Cell Lung Cancer does not benefit from adenocarcinoma-targeted therapy enabled me to assign higher impact scores to proposals aimed at immunotherapy advances against Squamous Cell Lung Cancer.  Might scientific researchers know this?  Perhaps, but I know it; I live with it every day.

In a pre-evaluation conference, a veteran consumer evaluator suggested I start a technical term dictionary, capturing definitions of technical terms in a spreadsheet for easy reference.  My biology vocabulary is substantially expanded by understanding hypermethylation, epigenetic, methylation, and cytosine to name a few.  Technology makes understanding these terms simple—Google the term and add the word “definition”. 

Modern technology astounds me.  I was a “slide rule jockey” through college going blind multiplying, dividing, and deriving roots and powers.  But it was slide-squint-copy, and rinse and repeat.  Now one Googles up the equation, substitutes values, and presses enter!  Try it yourself.  Google “what is the square root of 2356875.6”  Simple!

So computer-aided understanding allows even a novice to discern the complexities of biological expression.  And, our participation in evaluating research is essential.  Why?  Because there is a vast difference between experiments performed in vitro vice those performed in vivo.  We are the in vivo!  We should be a check and balance before a path of discovery is established that subjects us to poking, prodding, discomfort, or worse.  After all, we are not concrete. 

Stay the course.

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