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Coming Home

by Alison Davis

      To a child, a lawn is an immense sea of discovery. My son of ten months, Andrew, doggedly brushes aside and then fervently plucks the individual spikes of our neatly clipped front yard. In my own youth, I did the same. Tugging each stalk from the ground, I shaved the land of its fuzzy cloak with gay abandon. As long as I can remember, I have found solace in the grass, that magnificent palate. Maybe what's invisible, or at least what's hidden from view, is what child and adult alike see between those blades -- blank canvasses upon which to draw our own picture-dreams, blocks of clay from which to etch out our personal sculpture-thoughts.

      It's not just grass, of course, but towering mountains, trickling creeks, starlight reflected upon a mirror-smooth lake on a moonless night. Day after day, that beauty astonishes me. Thundering waves that collapse into foam, rose-colored streaks that cut through a sunset sky, the first frilly bearded irises that blossom in March rival Van Gogh, Renoir, Beethoven any time. Years ago, when it came time to choose a career path, it seemed perfectly logical: I would marry my love of nature with my intellectual and technical prowess in school -- I would someday be a scientist.

      For the first 25 or so years of my life along the eastern seaboard, the warm rush of spring signaled a familiar transformation: A frozen expanse of bald chocolate-colored dirt thawed to a lush sweet-smelling carpet. For the last four years, my husband Tom and have made California our home. Where we live now, winter, not spring, is home to green grass. During the winter months, November through January, snow is only something to imagine, save for the occasional Sierra getaway, a couple of hundred miles to the east. Here, spring comes unseemly early: In mid-February, the first bright yellow flashes of acacia rip through a drab green-gray backdrop of winter. Daffodils break the ground soon thereafter; the first hyacinth and irises won't be long. By March or April, rain has become a rare treat, and the daily ritual of yard irrigation begins anew. Even though it's been a few years, my senses are still confused, for growing up as a child in a much colder climate, late winter and early spring mostly meant confinement to the carpet of our house. Sometimes I think spring here comes too soon -- it seems that the last leaf to fall off our black walnut is chased within a couple of weeks by dozens of new buds.

      Here, in central western California, with summer comes famine for the land -- a months-long drought that metamorphoses the soft, wet greens to thirsty browns that rustle loudly amid the slightest of breeze. Those brown fields lit up by the blazing light of a setting Western sun indeed bring a different pleasure than did the grass of summer I knew as a kid. Summers on the East Coast were wet and sticky -- from June through October, most of the time a heavy blanket of humidity suffocated the air, making living uncomfortable without an air-conditioner or a pool.

      But coming to California meant more than an adjustment to a new set of seasons. One-month newlyweds in late June of 1993, Tom and I penetrated the sopped atmosphere of Washington, D.C., as we drove our filled-to-capacity Jetta toward the drier, clearer air permeating the West. There we would start our new life as husband and wife. There we would begin our careers as scientists. Neither of us could be more excited; our enthusiasm was that of invincible youth.

      We had visited San Francisco and the Bay Area many times before, and secretly longed to someday live here. For years, images of the powerful Pacific pounding the rocky, inhospitable coastline, the mysterious fog that blankets the Golden Gate bridge, the stark yet impressive beauty of the huge rocks of Yosemite tantalized us from afar.

      We both celebrated when Tom was offered a position as a fellow in Stanford's oncology department, and I got a post-doctoral job in the Stanford laboratory of David Clayton, a worldwide expert in a tiny pocket of science called mitochondrial DNA replication. We were set. While both of us have always been serious about our careers, we have also been just as serious about our recreation, most of it in the out-of-doors. Settling in the Bay Area, we would have the best of all worlds -- world-class scientific puzzles to crack and breathtaking backcountry spots to call home for a couple of nights.

      Nearly four years after we unpacked the last box into our first apartment in Mountain View, Tom is still happy solving scientific mysteries, treating lymphoma patients with exciting experimental drugs called cancer vaccines. I, on the other hand, have found a new self -- one that I thought never existed, one that doesn't do science anymore. Instead, I am ecstatic in my newfound love to peer at science from a distance -- now I write about it. Now my experiments are sentences and paragraphs.

      It's been three thousand miles and four years since I defended my Ph.D. thesis, the culmination of five years of graduate study at Georgetown University. Second only to my wedding day, and now perhaps to the day my first child was born, that day -- March 26, 1993 -- stands out. Every bone in my body was bolstered with confidence as I described to the rest of my student colleagues and professors the scientific puzzle I had grappled with over the last three years since I began my thesis research, probing mysteries of how leukemia cells mature. I was eager to tell my story; I had enjoyed the years of transforming lab notebook scribbles into cocktails made up of tiny volumes of salt solutions. At the end of a day, that cocktail became something even more palatable -- a result. The research environment was intellectually stimulating, the problems were always new. I was studying something that no one else before had.

      In my post-doctoral work, I decided I would study something completely different. The more experiences, the better, I thought -- better to widen my breadth of knowledge. I strayed from molecular pharmacology -- what I had studied as a graduate student -- to a relatively obscure avenue of molecular biology: how loops of mitochondrial DNA copy themselves. My future mentor, David Clayton, had spent nearly a quarter century studying the problem, and over the years his laboratory had produced many landmark papers in the field.

      I dove into the research like I dive into everything else -- with the energy of a long-distance swimmer. I was cranking out data like a machine: I did nearly an experiment a day and usually wedged lunch at my desk in between frog injections. (Fortunately, I'm not the squeamish sort) Soon the results matured to papers and to talks at meetings. I had an unusually good relationship with my boss, David; an independent man himself, he appreciated my self-prodded ardor. What's more, we had the same sense of humor.

      But as the next three years passed, I couldn't deny it anymore. Nearly every weekend, Tom was treated to another unhappy soliloquy about how miserable I was in the lab. On the surface, nobody new. It took a while for even me to figure it out. I looked successful, and in truth I was.

      But the reality was I didn't really enjoy cracking scientific puzzles. Instead, as I now realize, just looking at the intricate inner workings of a cell under a microscope was sufficient. I was indeed fascinated -- as I still am -- with science. One of my most memorable moments in the lab was when I watched in awe as mitochondria swiftly navigated through living cells. A huge and stringy web continually broke off and rejoined, forming small fragments. (The fragments, as it turns out, are the submarine-resembling representations of mitochondria in most biology textbooks). The tiny splintered organelles looked like lilliputian rafts darting to and fro through a sprawling sea of cytoplasm. Ultimately, I developed a microscopic method which allowed me to catch mitochondrial DNA in the act of replicating -- I found that they preferred to snuggle up to the nucleus, in the center of the cell, to do so.

      But it wasn't really important to me how this occurred -- how the nucleus, the mitochondria, the Golgi complex worked together to create a functional cell. Or how a liver cell, a fat cell, a neuron all live separately yet together in the most amazing creation of all -- the human body.

      While I quiver at my memory of the splendor of the inside of a cell, I am content to gaze at the glimmering sun speckling a late afternoon lake without knowing the precise angle the light hits the water. I don't need to understand how all of the parts fit together to make a whole. The whole is enough. The other day, while driving, Tom pointed out a particularly beautiful cloud scene in the sky above us -- one I had already noticed. I grinned to myself: I'll bet Tom is thinking right now how that cloud mass formed. I'm just realizing how much it looks like a big wad of fluffy white cotton balls.

      All of our experiences shape us in one way or another. I doubt, for example, that I'd be writing about science if I hadn't done it. I wouldn't have done science if I hadn't been captured by the beauty of nature -- of grass, of wildflowers, of the animals that graze on them both. The creature that's come to life in me over the last two years -- one that re-creates science for others by writing about it -- isn't a stranger. It's the same one that nurtured my love for playing piano, a close friend of my passion for drawing and painting, an intimate acquaintance of my penchant for cooking. But it's only a distant cousin to the one that carefully measured microliters of salt solutions into a test tube.

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