Meet Alex Palazzo, cellular biologist and “postdoctoral fellow-at-large” of The Daily Transcript.
What do you do when you’re not blogging?
I’m a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard medical school. There I spend my time poking cells and in the process I hope to learn a bit about how cells handle mRNA, how the endoplasmic reticulum works and what are all those other intracellular animacules are doing.
Why’s your blog called The Daily Transcript?
OK let’s start at the beginning. Each cell is loaded with DNA that is stored in this specialized compartment, the nucleus. This DNA contains all of our genes. We all know this, but what does that mean? Genes are packets of information. Each gene has info on how to make a particular molecular tool. When a gene gets “activated,” the section of the DNA that codes for this gene is copied into many strands of RNA. The conversion of DNA information into RNA is referred to as transcription and the resulting RNAs are often called transcripts, hence the name of my blog.
The whole process of passing information from DNA to RNA to protein involves some of the most fundamental components of life and includes the most ancient cellular machines.
How long have you been blogging?
Since Feb 12, 2005. My blog hopped around from place to place but I’ve been at ScienceBlogs now for over a year.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Montreal. After completing college at McGill, I ran off to Columbia University for grad school where I played around with microtubules and cell migration in Gregg Gundersen’s lab.
Where do you live now?
I’m now living in Boston and work in Tom Rapoport’s lab. Tom’s lab focuses on the endoplasmic reticulum, a large network of tubes and sheets that fills the cell. This is where all membrane-bound, secreted, and most organellar proteins are synthesized. Interesting stuff.
Would you describe yourself as a working scientist?
I am an overworked scientist.
Any educational experiences or degrees you’d like to mention?
At Columbia I was a teaching assistant for the dental and then medical histology departments. I miss that type of interaction–explaining the human body and how it works at the cellular level. You learn so much from teaching. In a way I missed that type of interaction and needed to brush up on my writing, thus The Daily Transcript was born.
What are your main academic interests, in or out of your field?
In general I’m a very curious individual. My father studied nuclear physics and we still talk quite a bit about the latest in particle physics (he’s become a String Theory junkie). I also love history and read quite a bit of it.
Last book you read?
Right now I’m slowly making my way through Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan. It’s about the post World War I peace conferences…The seeds of WWII were planted, the current divisions in the Middle East were established. It makes you wonder about our current leaders and their ability to see the bigger picture when drafting geopolitical policies.
Last book you finished?
I am part of a sham bookclub, we meet up every month to discuss books, but it is mostly an excuse to eat and drink. We even have a blog–http://bostonbookclub.blog.com. For the last meeting we read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. A great read. How does rural Turkey see the west? It’s an interesting study of contradictions.
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I believe in living life to the fullest. If I am inspired, discover something new, or just learn something interesting that expands my understanding of the world we live in, that’s enough for me.
What’s your greatest habitual annoyance?
A lack of critical thinking. People have a tendency to indulge in convenient beliefs. And it always leads us to ideologies, dogmas and then disasters. Look at Iraq and unfettered free market capitalism. Look at the rise of evangelical religion in the US. People tend to hold beliefs that justify their advantages or biases. There isn’t enough critical introspection in today’s public discourse.
Another annoyance is the lack of coverage of Canadian affairs in the American media (yes it’s time to sound like a typical Cannuk). The US and Canada share so many features in common. They are both lands of immigrants, they are similar in so many ways, yet in certain aspects such as crime, education and world outlook, they diverge quite substantially. Why is that? As a scientist I find that many problems in both countries could be better understood if we took a comparative approach to both populations. The American political class often disregards Canada as a small country, but it’s almost the size of France and has huge cosmopolitan cities. Canada also contradicts many of their pet theories. It really bugs me.
What’s your most marked characteristic?
I love variety. I get bored with the same old. I guess that’s why I love reading about different ideas, eating different food and watching arty films. It also may explain why I am in science. I love teaching and learning, and getting that thrill that comes out of making a discovery or obtaining some new insight.
…and your fatal flaw?
I procrastinate. Why do you think I’m participating in this Q&A?
Who are your favorite writers?
I love Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Some of my favorite books are Gore Vidal’s Creation, Milan Kundera’s Immortality, and Douglas Hofstadter’s GEB.
What would you like to be, you know, someday?
Although I tend to complain quite a bit on my blog about life as a postdoc, I wouldn’t choose any other career. But if I had the power I would change certain aspects of the academic sciences. Scientists, especially young postdocs and junior faculty, need more security and support for their actual lives. Right now the current system takes advantage of our love of science. Postdoctoral fellows get paid close to nothing for our educational level and for the type of work we do. Academic institutions have to support them not only financially but also by providing some sort of long term security and in matters such as access to daycare. It’s a real pyramid scheme. “Work hard now, put off having kids, don’t worry about job security, it will payoff someday when you get your own lab.” And funding agencies are also partially to blame. As soon as you get your PhD you have 12 months to apply for independent grants, some prestigious labs require postdocs to get independent funding, so it can make a big difference–there is no room for time off, for exploring different career paths or just taking time off. It’s the big treadmill; you cling on to it or fall off. And it goes on and on.