Why Science Majors Should Care About Social Justice
By: Erica Lee
When I talk to science majors about sexism and oppression, the answer is usually “Thanks, but that’s not really my thing.”
I get it. Why study “mushy” concepts like social issues when the “hard” sciences honor established pathways and strict laws? There’s a comfort in knowing that a sodium-gated ion channel will always open for a sodium molecule, that action potentials will always pump a heart regardless of the amount of melanin in the owner’s skin or the physiology of their genitals.
So if biological mechanisms don’t care about sex and race, why should we?
Many scientists have studied the effects of the environment on the human body. We know that stress over time is just as lethal as any cancer or weapon. Daily stress from work is often taxing, but think about how much more stress that discrimination piles on top. How differently would the body react to an environment designed to ease stress versus an environment that piles on additional stress?
We know that chronic stress manifests itself as headaches, muscle tension or pain, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression and many other symptoms. While it would be so wonderful to just “get over it,” it’s hard to calm down after a hard day at work — an environment you have some control over. How much harder would it be to calm down after facing discrimination for something you cannot control , like your race, class, or sex? According to a study conducted at Howard University, “racism increases the volume of stress one experiences.” Increased stress hikes up cortisol production, often to dangerous levels. And while you could pop an Advil for your headache and see a therapist for your anxiety, there’s no cure for the deadliest side effect of stress: Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels shorten telomeres.
For my fellow non-science majors, I’ll explain. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California at San Francisco pioneered research on how an increase in cortisol affects our DNA.
Sometimes cells in our bodies need to be replaced because the cells get injured, infected, or because they just get old. Our bodies then need to replace these cells. Most of our cells have DNA, which I’m sure you remember looks like this:
Each new cell needs its own copy of DNA. Each “phosphate backbone” ribbon of DNA is like a sentence, and the nucleotides (the adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine) are the words that make up the sentence. Each ribbon has the same information, which makes it very easy to make two new copies. The two ribbons break apart and a molecule called RNA transcribes new nucleotides onto the exposed ones, making perfect copies.
Remember those tracing exercises that we used to do in kindergarten? That’s literally all our DNA is doing, except that we end up with two copies of DNA instead of describing a big bad wolf.
This copying process would be just fine, except that RNA doesn’t copy perfectly. Every time it copies a strand of DNA, it leaves a few of those nucleotide “words” off, and we need every single “word” for the DNA to work correctly. Let’s imagine that one of our DNA ribbons is a sentence like…
RNA could take this DNA “sentence” and copy it to make a new one. However, if we had RNA copy this sentence right now, it would leave off a couple letters. Once it begins eating into the real sentence, the cell reaches what is called “senescence.” This means the cell can no longer divide. If a new cell is made with imperfect DNA, it basically self-destructs, and you’re left with one dead cell and one dying cell where the body needs two or more healthy cells.
To combat this, there are segments of nucleotides that don’t code for anything. These are called telomeres. Let’s make these telomeres the word “bears” over and over again. Although “bears” doesn’t make sense in this sentence, the DNA needs it to protect the part of the sentence that does make sense. See how the “bearsbearsbears” telomere lets RNA copy the cell more times before it reaches senescence.
An enzyme called telomerase tries to add more letters to the “bears” end of the sentence in order to stop this process, but chronic stress and cortisol negate the valiant efforts of telomerase, speeding up the telomere deletion process.
Blackburn constructed a study with Elissa Epel, a psychologist at UCSF who studies chronic stress. They studied mothers who were the main caregivers of children with chronic diseases. In a talk for Women @ Google, Blackburn describes the situations of the mothers in their study as “continuing, long-standing stress…out of your control, you feel you don’t have the resources to deal with…chronic situations where you don’t have control.” She emphasized that incredibly negative chronic stress also “does not have a predictable nature.”
Blackburn and Epel measured cellular aging in these women only to find that women who had been caregivers in stressful situations for many years had shorter telomeres. In these women, telomerase activity was lower, too.
It’s up to you to decide you think racism and discrimination are just as stressful as the experiences of these caregiving mothers. I personally find that that racism and sexism directed toward me are unpredictable, long-standing stresses out of my control; I often feel that I don’t have the resources to deal with these forms of discrimination.
But we do know the facts. Stress shortens telomeres. It kills slowly. Putting aside the sexism prevalent in STEM that either you or your colleagues will endure, your future patients or clients will be affected by this discrimination-induced stress .
Individuals in STEM fields can begin fighting these effects by recognizing racism and discrimination in everyday life and not allowing it to continue. Every interaction gives us the choice to speak up or sit back and allow that stress to pile up. Let people know they have a friend, and even their cells will feel the difference.
Featured Image: Homegirl Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, biological researcher and professor at the University of California at San Francisco. Source: NobelPrize.org