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.


2016 Nobel laureates: who they are and what their contributions are to mankind

History has shown us that often the difference between a useful tool and a deadly weapon lies not in the object itself, but the manner in which it is used. This was the case of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer who figured out a way to turn nitroglycerin, an unstable and unpredictable explosive, into a safe and controllable compound: dynamite. While revolutionizing the mining, oil and railway industries, it also boosted the armament business into a new, more powerful era. In his last days, regretting the consequences of his invention and his own profit from it, Nobel decided to devote his fortune to a set of prizes for those people who “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. That is how the Nobel Foundation was created, which, together with renown scientific institutions, nominate and award every year outstanding people from all over the world. In this article, we will take a look at the Nobel Laureates of 2016 and the work for which they are recognized.

Continue reading

“Improv for Scientists” Workshop Recap

Last week SPEaC held the second installment in our series of workshops: “Improvisation for Scientists”. This workshop series aims to help graduate students and postdocs improve their communication skills through fun and interactive improv-style games and activities. The focus of this workshop was to help our trainees recognize and eliminate complex scientific jargon and instead communicate in relatable stories and analogies. Continue reading

The 3-Minute Thesis Challenge

Communicating research findings to diverse audiences is essential not only to convey the impact of science to the general public and promote research funding, but also to inspire children and inform young students about career paths in science. That’s why being a good communicator is a skill that each of us, from grad student to professor, should seek to master. However, explaining the aim of a research project to a non-specialized audience can be a tricky task. Science needs to be made understandable without being oversimplified while avoiding technical jargon.

Continue reading

Improve your elevator pitch with improvisation

Last month SPEaC held the first of our new quarterly series of workshops: “Improvisation for Scientists.” The goal of the workshop series is to help graduate students and postdocs improve their communication skills through improv-style games and activities. Improv can help make trainees more effective science communicators through emphasizing the importance of listening and engaging with their audience. Continue reading