A frustrating thing about most popularizations of science is that people conclude it’s stronger than it really is:
One of the ridiculous things about many depictions of science in TV and movies is the notion that there’s this huge infrastructure: shiny labs (which are always neat and spacious), high-tech this and that, and an army of workers to solve a problem. The reality is that much of our scientific knowledge in any subdiscipline is held by a few people who are operating on shoestring budgets with inadequate resources. To put it bluntly, we often lose considerable knowledge and materials when an older faculty member or researcher dies or retires (in my own subdiscipline of microbiology, there are several valuable collections that would be lost if a single freezer broke for an extended length of time).
Here’s today’s installment (boldface mine):
There was no one in the galaxy who knew more about the origin, chemistry, and biological effects of frog toxins than Daly, who died in 2008 after 50 years at NIH. That scientific longevity, coupled to Daly’s relentless passion for the biomolecular niche he had embraced and helped to define, accounts for one of the most amazing refrigerators I have ever seen.
Daly and I had finished a long interview and a tour of his lab. It was time to go. As Daly escorted me down a hallway toward the exit, I spied a geriatric General Electric freezer that shivered as though it were about to give up its refrigerant spirits—Freon no doubt—for good. It also looked like it had to contain something astonishing, even it were only a ham sandwich that was prepared in 1973 and never eaten. I stopped in my tracks and stared. Daly took my cue.
When he opened the door in that unassuming hallway of an institutional building, he invited me into his private Library of Congress of frog toxins. Inside, it was brimming with a ragtag assemblage of hundreds of jars, vials, test tubes, centrifuge tubes, plastic bags, and other containers that had been finding themselves inside this chilly repository over the course of decades. Each one of them amounted to a priceless artifact from a scientific adventure that unfolded partly in a jungle and partly in an NIH lab.
As I put it later in the article, “housed in this single appliance is the most comprehensive and hard-won collection of frog skin secretions in the world. The chemicals in some of these vials have sparked research wildfires. One inspired an analgesic drug development program at a major pharmaceutical company. Some became workhorse molecular tools for biologists studying cell receptors and ion channels. The structures and value of others remain unknown.” That was one helluva case of biomolecular curios.
A little money would go a long way in shoring up our collective knowledge. It might have been Daly’s passion, but it’s our patrimony.