On the importance of liberal arts education
"A scientist in the making needs to be trained to think. There's a certain kind of thinking you need to do chemistry problems, and you need that. But there's a certain kind of logic that goes into some of the other disciplines, and you need that, too.
The more quantitative someone is in their training, the more difficult it is to convince them that qualitative thinking is powerful. So students need a range of experience that includes the hyper-quantitative stuff, but includes the more logical qualitative thinking that's more characteristic of the humanities."
On the importance of "inspiration" in the sciences:
"You don't have a huge number of these moments, but, from time to time, you understand something that noone has understood before. What a thing that is!
Usually, it comes in a flash. You're walking down the street one day and it finally strikes you—yeah, this is the way this works. It's the most amazing experience. That's a rare but wonderful experience, and it keeps you going."
The Tom Cole labs: the "breeding" ground for some of Wabash's
"Tom Cole, Bob Petty and I would go out there [to the College's Allee Woods] and creep around, looking for critters--we had to creep around and leave Eliot Williams box turtles untouched. After all, I was a chemistry major."
WM: Was it unusual for chemistry majors then to spend so much time with the biologists?
Dahlquist: "I don't think so. There was a group of us who did that. Bob Roeder, who's at Rockefeller now, and Dave Petering, who's at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Dave Ong, who's in Nashville. We hung out with them. Certainly Roeder and I worked with Cole in the lab."
"Through the years for me, science has been pretty much a continuum," University of Oregon Professor of Chemistry Frederick Dahlquist '64 told Wabash students and faculty. "But in the year 2000, two major events changed that."
Calling last year's completion of the sequencing of the human genome "the event of the century," Dahlquist added that "something else was accomplished last year that's gotten less fanfare, but is tremendously significant."
Scientists have determined the structures of some amazing molecular systems or "machines," Dahlquist explained. Those discoveries could result in a new generation of antibiotic drugs and effective treatments for asthma and a host of auto-immune diseases.
To a packed house during a scientific seminar in Goodrich Hall and at a later public presentation, Dahlquist described his own work with another "molecular machine," this in the bacteria e. coli. Referring to the e. coli as a bacteria with a "brain," the protege of Wabash professors Ed Haenisch and Tom Cole showed how the bacteria make decisions about where they swim.
"They compare past and present and behave accordingly," Dahlquist explained. Displaying an electron micrograph of an e. coli cell, he showed how the bacteria propels itself using "a prime example of a molecular machine."
"This is a real turbine driven by a pollutionless energy source," he said. "This engine has a shaft, the shaft turns on a sort of universal joint, and coming off this joint are helical filaments that act as inner propellers. The engine turns and the bacteria swim—and at 20 body lengths per second."
Dahlquist cited work at other laboratories, where the determination at the atomic level of the structure of two other "machines" has major implications for the treatment of disease. Recently completed atomic resolution structures of messenger RNA could lead to advances in treatment of asthma and auto-immune diseases. Two other labs have achieved high resolution structures of a ribosome, the "machine" that analyses information from messenger RNA and carries out the chemical event that joins amino acids together.
"This is something noone thought could be solved," Dahlquist said. "Ribosomes are sites where many of the antibiotic drugs work. These high resolution structures of ribosomes will give us better understanding of how these drugs work, and they'll probably give us the ability to design a whole new generation of these drugs."
In addition to his formal presentations as the first Haines Biochemistry
Lecturer, Dr. Dahlquist spoke with students during classes, met with science
faculty, and even spent a few minutes with us at Wabash Magazine.
Some excerpts from our conversation:
WM: During your presentation, you said that these technological leaps were leading to moral challenges—that the philosophical and moral questions are more important than ever because they're confronting us now. How important is it for scientists to take such courses?
Dahlquist: One of the things I've been arguing at the University of Oregon is that a science major where I teach does not get educated. Fundamentally, they don't get educated. They might take a writing course. They might take a language, though probably not. They take so called distribution courses, but these are mass-marketed and, while not without content, certainly aren't tough courses. Market forces do not encourage tough courses of this kind in a large university. I think we put so much emphasis on bringing them up to this start of the art in science, and they really don't need that as undergraduates. They need the basics. If they want to specialize, they'll get that in graduate school.
WM: It sounds as if you're promoting a liberal arts education.
Dahlquist: A scientist in the making needs to be trained to think. There's a certain kind of thinking you need to do chemistry problems, and you need that. But there's a certain kind of logic that goes into some of the other disciplines, and you need that, too. The more quantitative someone is in their training, the more difficult it is to convince them that qualitative thinking is powerful. So students need that range of experience that includes the hyper-quantitative stuff, but includes the more logical qualitative thinking that's more characteristic of the humanities.
WM: When I ask artists or writers where the drive to pursue their vocation comes from, they're usually pretty quick with an answer. But when I've asked scientists why they do what they do—where the passion comes from—they've been a bit more hesitant…
Dahlquist: Actually it's not hard to define at all.
You don't have a huge number of these moments, but, from time to time, you understand something that noone has understood before. What a thing that is!
Usually, it comes in a flash. You're walking down the street one day and it finally strikes you—yeah, this is the way this works. It's the most amazing experience. That's a rare but wonderful experience, and it keeps you going.
That's why, for someone starting in a research career, for our undergraduates especially, it's so important that they have some success early on. Because research is really a long series of disappointments punctuated by occasional successes. You have to be in a certain emotional state to put up with that. It can be very tough, especially for beginners.
WM: Did you have any of these "Eureka" moments that spurred you on in your early days as a scientist?
Dahlquist: In graduate school, I'd been working on this system and couldn't figure out what was going on. One day I suddenly got a glimpse of what was going on, did one experiment based on this, and found out I was right. It was a little thing, just a little flash, but I saw something there that noone had seen before, and that's just the way it is.
More recently, working on this problem of protein folding, I had one of those experiences where you leap out of bed in the middle of the night and say "Holy Shit!" These are momentary flashes where you can't understand exactly how they happen. But I'm working with psychologists at Oregon to study this very phenomenon.
WM: How important is this notion of "inspiration" in the sciences?
Dahlquist: Very. My scientific approach has always been to not read the background of something I'm newly interested in, which sounds terrible. But if you read the background and you're a neophyte, you're naturally going to be driven into the path that other people have suggested for you. When a persuasive writer writes, they take you down their path. So I've always had the attitude that, for something new, I don't want to be bothered with the truth (laughs). And whether you can think of something new that has any validity, well, who knows. But I think your chances are better when you can do it independent of what people have done in the past. Maybe you'll come up with something decent, maybe it'll be bullshit, but at least it won't be in the tracks of what other people.
WM: So there's a risk to be taken.
Dahlquist: There is. Now once you've had the idea, you go to the research. Before I would get serious about doing that, I'd have to find something really interesting. Then you have a few ideas that might be worthwhile, you come back and take a look at them every week, every month, and they get stupider and stupider, but one might work out. If one sticks around for a while, that's the time to go read the background. But get the idea first, then see what people have to say. I think most successful scientists do that.
One of the hurdles our graduate students have is writing proposals. I always urge them to have the ideas first and then read the background. Don't write a research proposal on some topic where you have no ideas. Get the idea, and then read. If you make a big investment in reading and there's no insight, then the proposal is boring. Get the idea first.
WM: This has everything in common with the creative process in writing, in art.
Dahlquist: I think it's the same. The creative event is the same.
WM: Any Wabash professors have a particular influence on you and your work?
Dahlquist: I certainly was influenced by Ed Haenisch and Tom Cole. I came here intending to be a mathematician.
WM: What changed your mind?
Dahlquist: Ed. And I realized that I enjoyed math but wasn't passionate about it.
WM: Was there a particular moment when you realized that passion?
Dahlquist: I always was interested in natural history, combing the woods and finding things. I think when Tom Cole came, fresh from his PhD at Cal Tech with a very modern perspective on what was interesting in science, that piqued my interest.I spent a lot of time with him. I wasn't the student I could have been. My goal as a college student was to get the lowest A. I was doing a lot of other things, I had a heavy load of classes going through Wabash in three years, and I enjoyed hanging with the guys in my house. I certainly wasn't a scholar.
Ed turned me on to chemistry, and I had a great high school chemistry teacher, so I came with a pretty decent chemistry background. but Ed was very non-pushy with me. He was waiting for me to have an epiphany of some sort. I had to petition to take an overload of classes and Ed wrote a statement for me that struck me between the eyes. It said something like "this guy can do anything he WANTS to do" and he underlined the WANTS--implying i wasn't necessarily into it that much, and my stated "lowest possible A" philosophy was well known.
Tom and I were close enough to be contemporaries, with Tom in his late 20s, and he was always a boyish-looking guy, anyway. The summer of my sophomore year, I worked for him, sort of, and we spent a lot of time together. He came up to Chicago a couple of times to visit my folks. And he had more interaction than is typical between student and professor; he and Bob Petty and I. Bob Petty was a more outgoing guy, very thoughtful, and lots of fun. We spent a lot of time too, at Allee Woods, the place where the ecologists crept over.
We'd go out there and creep around, looking for critters--we had to creep around and leave Eliot Williams box turtles untouched. After all, I was a chemistry major.
WM: Was it unusual for chemistry majors then to spend so much time with the biologists?
Dahlquist: I don't think so. There was a group of us who did that. Bob Roeder, who's at Rockefeller now, and Dave Petering, who's at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, andDave Ong, who's in Nashville. We hung out with them. Certainly Roeder and I worked with Cole in the lab.
WM: Did you ever have that epiphany Haensich thought you'd have?
Dahlquist: Not at Wabash. I had it in graduate school, in chemistry at Cal-Tech. I took photo chemistry and realized I couldn't bear photo-chemistry. There was a new faculty member there who was a bio-chemist, we worked together and had an amazing time. The transition from what was classical biochemistry to what is modern biochemistry was happening then. Cal-Tech had pioneered what they called chemical biology, and Linus Pauling was an advocate of this.
WM: Any other Wabash professors have a particular influence on you?
Dahlquist: I took an ethics course from a professor who was a political scientist. That class was beyond wonderful. One of the best things I did.