November 2010

Selena Gell

Hill-Day-Attendees,-GellGraduate Student
Brown University

What is your research focus? 
My work focuses on a case when this normal Mendelian inheritance is disrupted by a “selfish” genetic element, known as “segregation distorter.” In Drosophila melanogaster, when a chromosome carrying Sd is heterozygous with a second chromosome carrying a “responder” allele, males pass the Sd-bearing chromosome to almost 100 percent of their progeny. Preliminary data suggests that this deviation from the normal Mendelian 50:50 ratio is mediated by a class of proteins, known as the argonauts, involved in gene silencing via the small interfering RNA, piwi-interacting RNA and micro RNA pathways. I’m hoping to establish the role of these proteins in facilitating the loss of the Rsp-bearing chromosomes in Drosophila spermatogenesis.

Have you ever done anything like this before?

What are your career plans?
My current plan is to pursue an academic position in which I can participate in both research and teaching.

Why do you think scientists should be involved in politics, and what do you think is the most important issue in science policy?
Behind every experiment is a story. A story that reveals why it is important to understand the folds of a protein or the formation of nerve synapses. Although the message may seem clear to the students and scientists directly involved, too often, it is lost on the world outside research. In a world of exponentially increasing data, where discoveries are more technical and obscure, scientists need to present a clear and compelling narrative. Faulty arguments such as those citing snow in Washington, D.C. as evidence debunking global warming or claiming fruit fly research is a priori a waste of federal funds persist, in part, because of this breakdown in communication.

Many issues at the intersection of science and policy are complex, multifactorial and involve elements of uncertainty. However, by becoming an active part of the policy discussions, scientists can help insure that these data are not evaluated out of context or extrapolated beyond what they reasonably can support. Clearly articulating the strengths and limitations of our knowledge in a given field helps to ensure that policy decisions are made on the best available information.

Furthermore, scientists have a duty to make sure that basic research, which does not always have a straightforward application, continues to be part of the national science agenda. By providing context for research programs that may otherwise seem obscure, scientists can help ensure that these projects, which eventually will provide a backbone for future technical or medical advancement, are not neglected. Perhaps one of the most important issues in science policy today is ensuring that programs investigating fundamental ideas are given adequate federal support. Without an improved understanding of genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry, advances in medicine, biotechnology and agriculture virtually become impossible. These advances are critically important for both America’s health and continued economic successes. By crafting what can seem to be abstract, impersonal ideas, distant from daily life, into a story rich in context and connections, scientists can build support for research in important areas that otherwise may be overlooked.


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