Ode to that Perfect Blot

(A scientist’s – very loose – play on Ode to the West Wind by P.B Shelley. Shelley, I can only apologize.)

By Hema Manjunath

2017.10.09_Ode to that Perfect Blot


1Molecular biologists are scientists who study the unique molecules that make up life forms on Earth.
DNA, is one such molecule. As are RNA and proteins. 


A technique that molecular biologists use to detect and ‘see’ proteins is called a Western blot

The procedure is a little involved, but the bare bones of it is this: you break open cells to get the proteins, arrange all the proteins from heaviest to lightest on a piece of paper (spread them out, as it were) and then highlight the protein you’re interested in. If you’ve done it all right, your protein will be a little black mark on an image with a white background. You can find out whether your protein is there or not, whether there’s more of it than normal or not enough and a good number of other things.


Tl;dr version: Sciences have a thing for puns.

L;r version: This technique was named the ‘Western blot’ in 1981 by W. N Burnette for an unconventional, ‘punny’ reason.

compass-vector-clip-art-imageAt the time, a similar technique that was used to detect DNA was called a ‘Southern blot’, after the man who invented it – Edwin Southern. Burnette heroically gave up the chance for personal fame (Burnette blot, anyone?) and decided to make a pun for the ages by choosing another direction for this technique to detect proteins. And thus was born the ‘Western blot’.

The tradition caught on and years later, when a similar technique was developed to detect RNA, it was christened the ‘Northern blot’.


Mechanism is a beautiful word in science-speak. It is what scientists are almost always chasing. It is often the most frustrating, most elusive, most maddeningly-interesting part of a research project.

Here’s the thing – biologists don’t want to tell you that leaves are green. They want to want to tell you why leaves are green and what that means to a plant. They want to find and tell you a story – they want mechanism. A discovery is just the beginning of that story.

So, next time you talk to a scientist, don’t ask them what they found. Ask them about ‘the mechanism’. They’ll probably be surprised that you asked, but they’ll appreciate it and be really excited to tell you how much of the story they have so far.


Meeting Jane Johnson

Interview with Jane Johnson, who studies nervous system development at UT Southwestern

After graduating from University of Washington, with a degree in Chemistry, Jane Johnson continued her studies with a PhD in Biochemistry at the same University. She Picture1then moved south, from Seattle to Pasadena, to embrace a postdoctoral position at the California Institute of Technology studying neural development. It was there where she discovered Ascl1, an essential transcription factor in nervous system development that plays a key role in the research of her laboratory. Johnson joined UT Southwestern in 1992, where she is currently a Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Neuroscience, Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, and holds the Shirley and William S. McIntyre Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience.

Continue reading

Let’s Talk Science!

“If you cannot explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself” –Albert Einstein

We, as scientists, spend a lot of time and effort on our experiments. However, we don’t spend much time as we should be in communicating our science.  As an attempt to reconcile this, I grabbed one of the only seats left at the generously populated CoNNECT seminar series. The CoNNECT (Cultivating Narrative for Effective Communication) program is a pilot course in science communication for UTSW trainees. The goal of the program is to teach biomedical trainees to clearly explain their work and its significance through narrative, or storytelling. This seminar was on “How to design an effective talk” by Dr. Shannon Behrman, Associate Director of Scientific Training and Education at iBiology. Based at University of California, San Francisco, iBiology is a nonprofit organization that produces free videos and online courses about life science research.

Dr. Shannon Behrman

Continue reading

Understanding the speaker Dr. Jamie Vernon as he talks about “understanding the audience”

Jamie Vernon
Dr. Jamie Vernon

“He is very young for his job as the editor-in-chief of American Scientist magazine, intelligent and opportunist. You must meet him!” – Dr. Beth Schachter described Jamie Vernon to me as I was showing off Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture to her in UT Southwestern’s NC building. I have known Beth for more than two years now and I certainly value her advice. So the moment I saw Jamie Vernon was giving a talk on “Understanding the audience” as part of Ashley Lakduk’s CoNNECT seminar series at UT Southwestern, I made a mental note to cover his talk.

Continue reading

Meeting Ann Stowe

Interview with Ann Stowe, who studies the neuroimmune mechanisms underlying stroke recovery at UT Southwestern

With PhD in Molecular & Integrative Physiology at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Ann Stowe embraced translational research by pursuing postdoctoral training in a one-year clinical trial at the Landon Center on Aging, at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She then moved to Washington University in St. Louis to continue postdoctoral training in neurophysiology. Stowe joined UT Southwestern in 2010, where she is currently Assistant Professor in the Neurology & Neurotherapeutics Department. Stowe is invested in Science communication and Policy.

Continue reading