Sunday, September 19, 2010


My father earned his PhD from the University of Michigan in 1947. His dissertation was on an obscure topic—a rat urinary protein called alpha 2u-globulin. However, if you Google that protein today, you will discover just how important it has become. For, if you happen to suffer from kidney disease, especially from renal cancers caused by exposure to environmental toxins, that PhD dissertation opened up an important field of biochemical endeavor connected to kidney health, kidney replacement, and death from lousy kidneys.

Alpha 2u-globulin really affected my life. While I have somewhat recalcitrant kidneys, they still function. But the protein was to have other effects on my life. It made my father a successful scientist who earned numerous grants and tributes over his professional life. This meant that as a family we were able to travel to France in 1961, where I spent a full year in the French school system. I probably would have become a coal chemist or maybe an organ grinder without the year spent in Roubaix, France. It was from being a student at the Lycee des Jeunes Garçons in Tourcoing, taking piano lessons from a French Miss Haversham, lunching every school day with a family of pharmacists, attending a French Huguenot church, and from other exotic events, that I become a person fascinated with human languages and culture, music and science.

In 1967 I was a zit-faced teen-ager, and I worked for my father. He was chair of the department of Biochemistry in Vermillion, South Dakota. My first job was to empty “Chemstores” of all the old chemicals. In those days, there was little appreciation of the environment, especially among scientists, who certainly should have known better. My first day, I started dropping old bottles of this and that into the trash can. Arsenic this. Cadmium that. White phosphorus--oops.

I dropped an antique bottle of submerged white phosphorus sticks into the garbage can. Since white phosphorus burns in contact with oxygen, the pretty bottle with the white sticks exploded into flames and smoke, consuming the outputs of 30 fire extinguishers before the fire department finally arrived. The medical school was closed for the afternoon. White phosphorus is the stuff the Israelis lobbed into Gaza strip back in 2008. It burns through everything, including skin.

Banished from Chemstores, my next job was to collect rat urine. This was a comedown from the pyrotechnics. I had to walk from cage to cage, pulling out the rat urine bottle and transferring it to a larger container. As a mere teenager, my job ended there (well, of course, I had to clean the cages and power wash them.)

That rat urine got the royal treatment. After a number of purifying steps, it ended up in sausage casings, floating lazily in large glass cylinders of refrigerated distilled water in the walk-in refrigerator. Then it was “lyophilized” or freeze-dried to a white powder. At this point, the rat urine had been concentrated to its essence.

Once it had reached maximum purity, the rat urine got to take a joy ride in a room-size centrifuge. It was dissolved in water, then spun at 100,000 RPM through a layer of sugar syrup in a very expensive, tiny test tube. A powerful microscope recorded the migratory behavior of the proteins, providing information about its structure and molecular weight.

My father’s graduate students also used radioactive elements for “tagging”, then counting in a wonderfully Star Wars-esque “scintillation counter”, counting radioactive decay both visually and aurally. And they performed electrophoresis, making individual protein molecules diffuse through a gel in the presence of an electric current, causing different fractions with different electrical charges and different molecular conformations (shapes) to separate from each other.

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