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New monthly event will help explain key science topics to public: Susannah Gal

Posted 1/22/20

You know that I’m a scientist — a biologist to be a bit more specific, although that’s still pretty broad as there are many, many areas covered by biology.

My research areas …

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New monthly event will help explain key science topics to public: Susannah Gal

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You know that I’m a scientist — a biologist to be a bit more specific, although that’s still pretty broad as there are many, many areas covered by biology.

My research areas covered molecular biology (study of genes and DNA), cell biology (understanding the cells of living organisms) and genetics (analysis of the genes and how they work) and biochemistry (understanding the activity of various enzymes and proteins in cells). Other areas of biology that I haven’t studied are numerous and include ecology, evolution, microbiology, physiology, and zoology. Each of these disciplines are massive and very important for our understanding of life on this planet.

For some of my research, I aimed to study the enzymes in plants that break down proteins. Some of these enzymes are actually used to make cheese in Portugal as milk is composed of proteins that need to be modified in order for the liquid to solidify and age in the cheese-making process.

I also worked for several years in an area called DNA computing — a field where reactions on DNA are used to solve mathematical problems. I’m not talking about things like, “What’s 2 plus 2?” These things that are actually much harder for regular computers to solve. Maybe I’ll cover more on that in a future column.

The last major area that my laboratory research covered was a protein that was changed in cancer cells. The protein we studied is a tumor suppressor, known to block formation of tumors in people. I was interested in how this tumor suppressor changed its interaction with genes when this protein changed in cancer cells. All of this research I did involved many undergraduate and graduate students as well as several technical assistants and faculty researchers.

As you also may know, I feel passionate about communicating science to the public. I’ve done that in several different ways. I, of course, have written about my work and that of my colleagues in public venues such as for this column.

I’ve also written columns answering questions from the public in a series they called “Ask-A-Scientist” for the Press and Sun newspaper in Binghamton, New York. These columns featured a question posed by a young person in the community that a scientist would answer in a short, understandable way. The goal of the project was to provide an opportunity for the public to ask tough questions that would be answered by someone in the scientific community.

The last column I think I did for that paper was answering a question posed by fifth-grader Ayden Spence: “How do cures for diseases come about?”

In the column of about 400 words, I talked about how important it is to first figure out what’s causing a disease and then you can target that cause with drugs and treatments.

One challenge with these drugs or treatments I mentioned is to find ways to attack just the disease protein or cell and do as little damage to all the normal aspects of the person. I tried to convey that this process can take a long time, 10 to 20 years at least, and can be pretty tough. Luckily for some diseases, such as cancer, we already have a number of cures and treatments available.

I did many of those columns over the years at Binghamton University and enjoyed that interaction with the public about scientific questions. Many of my colleagues at Binghamton University and elsewhere answered questions in other fields so that lots of researchers were involved as well.

I also collaborated with people in Binghamton on an evening program called Science Café. This was a venue in a small restaurant once a month where a scientist would talk for about 30 minutes about their research on a topic of interest to the public. We allotted time for questions and general discussion among the people present as they drank beer or had some of the food offered by the restaurant.

We are starting this type of event next week here in Middletown at the Tattered Flag Brewery & Still Works, and we’re calling it Science-on-Tap. The first one is from 6 to 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 27.

Dan Mallinson, one of the faculty in the Penn State Harrisburg School of Public Affairs, will talk about marijuana policies for 15 to 20 minutes. The rest of the time we will have a trivia quiz on the topic and talk about future events.

The event is open to the public, so please come if your schedule allows. This is a collaboration with graduate students at the Hershey College of Medicine and faculty and students at Penn State Harrisburg. We plan to host a Science-on-Tap event on the fourth Monday of every month at Tattered Flag and invite scientists from Penn State Harrisburg, Hershey College of Medicine and other universities nearby.

Stay tuned for the information about the next speakers and please join us on Monday if your schedule allows.

Susannah Gal is a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.