The genetics of synthesis

by Lorien E. Menhennett

“Synthesize.” When I worked as a textbook editor at McGraw-Hill, we used that word all the time in our literature textbooks. (Usually in the context of asking — rather, telling — students to synthesize a number of elements.)

And now here I am, a student myself. And yes, I am synthesizing, too. But I will get to that shortly.

First, what is synthesizing and synthesis? It is, according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole.” In other words, taking different pieces of evidence, material, readings, experiences, and so on and making sense of them when put together. It is an incredibly complex cognitive process, far beyond mere comprehension, even above analysis.

At the university level, it is rather taken for granted that students are capable of synthesis. Homework, quizzes, and exams require it. So to do well, it is necessary. But what is really exciting is the synthesis that happens independently of all of that required work. It may not boost your grade, but it should boost your confidence that you are understanding — and connecting with — the material.

At least, that’s what it does for me. It also encourages me that I am on the right track with what I am doing. Because making these kinds of connections (when it’s not required by a professor, that is) requires not only knowledge, but interest. And a little passion doesn’t hurt, either.

For me, the lightbulb flared this morning as I was reading my biology textbook. I will be honest — reading that monstrous (read: insanely heavy) book was not what I felt like doing at 7:30 a.m. But I wanted to be prepared for my morning lecture, so read I did. While the whole selection — relating the evolution of mammals — was fascinating, the true reward lay in a nugget on the very final page: a one-paragraph blurb on a gene called FOXP2, thought to play an important role in human language. (And since language is one thing that sets us apart from our ape cousins, this gene is also thought to play a role in the evolution of Homo sapiens).

“FOXP2 … FOXP2 … FOXP2 … where do I know that from?” I asked myself as I finished reading. I knit my brow, cocked my head, and pursed my lips as I searched my brain for a possible link. Because I knew I knew that gene from somewhere. And then it dawned on me: my summer research. Olga had been looking for evidence of FOXP2 expression in her lung cell samples. Because while FOXP2 is involved in language development, it is also involved in cell proliferation (growth) in the lungs, and hence could signal the presence of stem cells.

My eyes lit up and I laughed out loud. Synthesis indeed.

As I write this, I realize that maybe it sounds strange to get all warm and fuzzy about genetics and research. But I just can’t seem to help myself.

Of course, I had to tell someone who would really appreciate this “discovery.” (Telling my husband, Geoff, didn’t quite do it — merely the letters “D – N – A” make his eyes glaze over). So I headed to my bio professor’s office hours after my last class and told him I’d had an “interesting encounter with our biology textbook.” That sure got his attention. We had a nice talk. He knows me a little better, and vice versa. One of the best parts of my undergrad education was getting to know my professors well and being mentored by a handful of them. I hope for that same kind of experience this time around as well.