The existential crises of science students

Science students reflect on the revelations that made them question everything

Existential crises are usually associated with ever-questioning philosophy students. However, as I have been discovering through my Science undergraduate at Trinity, life can take on a whole new meaning after a single lecture. During the first ever week of biology lectures, Luke O’Neill not so subtly suggested that if we were in anyway interested in God that we should move to a different faculty. From there, lectures in developmental biology showed us just how similar we look to fish and amphibians in the womb – yes, we have tails for parts of our lives.

Microbiology then taught us that we have more bacterial cells in and on us than we have human cells, and that therefore we may not be the amazing beings we think we are, but little more than hosts for a suite of manipulative bacteria. Immunology lectures went on to tell us that bacteria in our gut have been linked to controlling our appetite, immunological reactions and even mood.

To get the full spectrum of crises encountered in the Science department, I asked a few students for their thoughts. Here is what boggled their minds the most.

Gemma Caulwell, Senior Sophister Physics

My mind was blown when studying Special Relativity for the first time. Growing up, everyone has a very clear and distinct idea of time; things that have already happened are in the past, things that are currently happening are the present, and things that will happen are in the future. The idea of the present, of right now, this very second, was a simple one. At exactly 17:30 GMT, I am writing this piece in Dublin.

Time was absolute; it did not morph or change or vary. Half five meant half five, and the fifteen minutes it takes me to write this is, quite simply, fifteen minutes. Special relativity taught me that there is no such thing as absolute time, or indeed, of absolute space. The time taken for a certain event to happen, for me to write this piece, is relative to the observer.

We do not notice this, generally, because the speeds at which we are all moving are miniscule. If however, we were to moving at speeds closer to the speed of light, this effect would be noticeable. To use an analogy of Brian Cox’s, if someone was sent off into space in a rocket, travelling at 99.94% of the speed of light for 5 years according to their watch, then turned around and returned to Earth, their journey would have taken ten years according to their time. However, our clocks on Earth would, relatively speaking, been ticking faster, and that person would arrive back 29 years later. The fact that time is not absolute, and is in fact personal to each reference frame, totally changed my view of the world.

Dan Giffney , Junior Sophister Neuroscience

Possibly the biggest bombshell ever dropped on me was during a Neuroscience lecture in second year.  The lecturer mentioned Toxoplasmosis; an infection caused by the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, which can only reproduce sexually in cats but can infect most animals.  This led me deep down a rabbit hole.

In 2000 it was discovered that rats infected with T. gondii had their usual repulsion to cats reversed, and were found to act more impulsively, drawn to the smell of cat urine. In 2015, it was found that this “fatal feline attraction” carried across between chimpanzees and leopards.  Chimps are one of our closest relatives and it is estimated that roughly half the human population are hosting T. gondii.  Does this mean that being a cat person is a disease, a disorder that can be caught, transmitted and maybe even cured?

Éinne Ó Cathasaigh, Junior Sophister Zoology

From my study of science over the past four years, I became increasingly worried about the ever-changing world we are living in.  As a species that is inhabiting the earth as it warms after a glacial period, we are seeing first-hand the seventh mass extinction event. Will this extinction possibly reach the scale of the K-T extinction event 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs? Or perhaps the Permian extinction event which occurred around 252 million years ago, and wiped out 95% of known life at the time.

It is a perilous time for our chances in the future, or rather, for our existence in general. Perhaps our lineage is also vulnerable in this time of change, and our children may not walk in the world we see before us. This scares me a lot.

Catherine Doorly, Junior Sophister Genetics

Studying Science, and especially genetics, gives us an amazing story of our history. It is mind-blowing just taking a look into our DNA and seeing our evolutionary past and all we have adapted to. As you look further you come across some really bizarre facts. For example, our genes (the genes that form our proteins) only make up 2% of all the DNA in our body. What’s even stranger is that an ancient virus’ DNA, which in the past infected our ancestors, makes up 8%. It is unsettling to think that a virus’ DNA outnumbers our own genes fourfold. On top of that, our bodies have exploited the presence of some of this viral DNA to the point where we need it for our continued existence.

Viruses are good at integrating themselves into our cells and hiding from our immune systems – they make this “envelope” which surrounds them and acts as a disguise. Our bodies have exploited this ability by producing this same viral envelope in pregnant women-  to allow the exchange of oxygen and nutrients between mother and baby. It also stops the immune system from detecting the foetus as some sort of threat. It is possible that ithout this virus, (which is called a Syncytin) we would not have been able to develop into the beings we are today.

Simon Benson – Senior Sophister Plant Science

When I first came across the idea of endosymbiosis, my mind was blown. I couldn’t figure out why this wasn’t more widely known. For those uninitiated, plants, animals, fungi and some weirder organisms all contain mitochondria, and many contain other similar organelles called plastids. These plastids have their own loop of DNA – DNA that is almost identical to some bacteria we can find nowadays, indicating that way back in evolutionary history, our single celled ancestor cell engulfed another cell. But instead of digesting it, kept it as a little production facility. Over time these cells became more and more integrated, and can now function as a single unit.

What does that mean for us if almost every single cell in our body is powered by cells that originally came from completely different organisms? What does it mean for plants, who not only have the mitochondria, but also other plastids like the chloroplast, without which the incredible process of photosynthesis couldn’t take place? Are we a single organism? Or are we communities that act as one, often unaware of our complex biological origins?

Not much changes in day to day life, but it does make you wonder if maybe you aren’t who you think you are. In any case, we might learn a thing or two by blurring our egos in regards to our physical selves, as it’s certainly not as simple a concept as many would like to believe.

Aisling Greene, Junior Sophister Molecular Medicine

One thing that I have found shocking is the absence of basic ethics which have paralleled innovative discoveries. The book that opened my eyes to this was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is about an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks who had a sample of cells taken from a tumour on her cervix without her or her family’s consent in Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. This was shortly before she died. Today there is much more of her living in labs across the world than there ever was when she was alive. That cell sample went on to become the world’s first immortal human cell line. Her cells were mass produced and shipped around the world. They are even here in Trinity, and have been used for amazing advances in science – including research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits.

Her family was not compensated for the universal use of her cells, including the millions of dollars being made from their production. They weren’t even aware of this until journalists approached them with an interest in their story. Her experience and those of countless others are enough to reveal historically horrific and controversial research methods reflecting prejudices regarding race, class, and religion. Despite wishing to maintain respect for the scientific method, particularly nowadays among questions of climate change and health policy, we should continue to question the credibility, ethics, and reputability of scientific research. Finding a healthy relationship between science that is ethical, and trusting good data proves to be a bigger challenge to the global community than I had ever previously considered.

Maeve McCann

Maeve McCann is a former Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News.