Ask A Scientist

What do scientists do? 

Asked by: Dylan Taylor
School: Johnson City Intermediate School
Grade: 3
Teacher: Jill Swartz
Hobbies/Interests: Video games, drawing
Career Interest: Racecar driver

 

Answer from Susannah Gal

Professor of Biological Sciences

Research area: DNA computing, cancer biology
Interests/hobbies: Dancing, playing and singing music

That’s a pretty broad question, as each type of scientist does different things.

In general, scientists observe things and try to understand how they work or how to make them work better. For a geologist, it might be a rock formation or it might be the seismic waves from an earthquake. For a chemist, it could be the chemicals in our food or in the water.

As a biologist, I look at living things to understand what aspects of an organism make it look like it does or behave as it does. I’m a molecular biologist, so I want to understand the DNA and genes of an organism that are used to make the cell or organism function properly. Genes help indicate to the organism what proteins to make. This is done by the order of four different DNA parts called bases, and those specify the order of specific parts of proteins called amino acids. It’s the proteins in cells and other living things that do the work of the cell, and it’s the order of the amino acids in a protein that determine what function the protein has.

In my work, I obtain the order of DNA bases of a gene from a particular cell and, from that, try to determine if that gene makes the normal protein or some type of altered or mutated protein. The DNA might come from a new type of plant or from a cancer cell. I’m interested in figuring out whether a changed protein is the reason the plant or the cell may be acting differently from another plant or a normal cell.

I also observe whether the gene is "on," thus making the protein, or whether the gene is "off" and the cell is not making the protein. Sometimes, differences in cells or organisms happen when a gene is not turned "on" or when a gene is turned "on" when in normal cells it’s usually "off."

There are lots of very cool ways that molecular biologists figure out whether a gene is "on" or "off," with new ways being developed all the time. If a gene is not controlled properly, it can sometimes cause a disease, so some molecular biologists are finding ways to correct that control to hopefully cure the disease. Therefore, I observe different aspects of the genes and proteins in a cell and, in doing so, better understand how the organism works. These are some of the things one type of scientist, a molecular biologist, does.  

Ask a Scientist runs on Sundays. Questions are answered by faculty at Binghamton University. Teachers in the Greater Binghamton area who wish to participate in the program are asked to write to Ask a Scientist, c/o Binghamton University, Office of Communications and Marketing, PO Box 6000, Binghamton, N.Y. 13902-6000, or e-mail scientist@binghamton.edu. To submit a question, download the submission form (.pdf, 442kb).

Last Updated: 9/25/14