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“What other people feel standing on the top of the mountain, I get from looking inside a cell,” says Gyorgyi Csankovszki. “Nature is beautiful at the maximum scale but also at the microscopic scale.”

Csankovszki, a microbiologist and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB), finds this swell of feeling from the work of basic science: a specific kind of research that aims to refine our understanding of natural phenomena for its own sake rather than for a specific purpose or application. In Csankovszki’s case, the work explores the way genetic material is structured, and how this structure influences its function. 

“We’re made up of many, many different cell types, but every cell has the exact same DNA sequence. Yet one cell turns into an eye cell, while another cell turns into a skin cell,” Csankovszki explains. “A cell destined to become a liver cell has every gene, but it only turns on those that make the proteins needed in a liver cell. It has to turn on that genetic light switch and turn off all the others, like those required to make skin or eyes or muscle or anything else.”

To better understand how this works, Csankovszki examines the differences in the X-chromosome genes of nematodes, a worm that is one millimeter long and only visible through a microscope. The motivation, she says, is curiosity. “I go in the direction of answering a question. I don’t focus on if it will be useful in the future,” she explains.

This type of exploration is the foundation of the world’s most powerful discoveries, and for Csankovszki that process is filled with joy. “Frankly, the greatest secret in our job is we get paid to play in a sandbox.”

Not So Basic

Research like Csankovszki’s exists across the natural sciences in LSA, in MCDB as well as the departments of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. And while it’s central to LSA’s mission, culture, and many of its transformative scientific innovations, understanding just what exactly basic science is is not so simple.

“It’s a really broad question,” says Bart Bartlett, professor of chemistry. “Basic science says, ‘I’m going to start with a system that I can imagine, that I can test in the lab, and ask some really simple questions that I know I can directly answer.’

“The key to the scientific method,” he continues, “is that every good hypothesis should be directly testable. Whether it works as planned or it doesn’t, there’s still knowledge that’s gained in the process, and there’s value in having that knowledge. It sets up what the next questions are.”

For Bartlett, basic science means using the scientific method to identify big questions. The questions identified by basic science may not solve humanity’s problems by themselves, but they certainly advance knowledge towards solutions.

 

“What other people feel standing on the top of the mountain, I get from looking inside a cell,” says Gyorgyi Csankovszki. “Nature is beautiful at the maximum scale but also at the microscopic scale.”

Csankovszki, a microbiologist and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB), finds this swell of feeling from the work of basic science: a specific kind of research that aims to refine our understanding of natural phenomena for its own sake rather than for a specific purpose or application. In Csankovszki’s case, the work explores the way genetic material is structured, and how this structure influences its function. 

“We’re made up of many, many different cell types, but every cell has the exact same DNA sequence. Yet one cell turns into an eye cell, while another cell turns into a skin cell,” Csankovszki explains. “A cell destined to become a liver cell has every gene, but it only turns on those that make the proteins needed in a liver cell. It has to turn on that genetic light switch and turn off all the others, like those required to make skin or eyes or muscle or anything else.”

To better understand how this works, Csankovszki examines the differences in the X-chromosome genes of nematodes, a worm that is one millimeter long and only visible through a microscope. The motivation, she says, is curiosity. “I go in the direction of answering a question. I don’t focus on if it will be useful in the future,” she explains.

This type of exploration is the foundation of the world’s most powerful discoveries, and for Csankovszki that process is filled with joy. “Frankly, the greatest secret in our job is we get paid to play in a sandbox.”

Not So Basic

Research like Csankovszki’s exists across the natural sciences in LSA, in MCDB as well as the departments of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. And while it’s central to LSA’s mission, culture, and many of its transformative scientific innovations, understanding just what exactly basic science is is not so simple.

“It’s a really broad question,” says Bart Bartlett, professor of chemistry. “Basic science says, ‘I’m going to start with a system that I can imagine, that I can test in the lab, and ask some really simple questions that I know I can directly answer.’

“The key to the scientific method,” he continues, “is that every good hypothesis should be directly testable. Whether it works as planned or it doesn’t, there’s still knowledge that’s gained in the process, and there’s value in having that knowledge. It sets up what the next questions are.”

For Bartlett, basic science means using the scientific method to identify big questions. The questions identified by basic science may not solve humanity’s problems by themselves, but they certainly advance knowledge towards solutions.

 

Professor Bart Bartlett uses artificial photosynthesis to study how to convert solar energy into chemical energy. For him, basic science research is a way to advance knowledge to solve some of the world’s toughest problems.
Professor Bart Bartlett uses artificial photosynthesis to study how to convert solar energy into chemical energy. For him, basic science research is a way to advance knowledge to solve some of the world’s toughest problems.


In Bartlett’s lab, for example, he studies how to take solar energy and convert it into chemical energy. “Lots of people are familiar with the idea of a solar cell that you put on your rooftop that does a great job of converting sunlight into electricity,” Bartlett explains. “We want to go one step further and use that electricity to do chemical reactions.” To do this, they use a process called artificial photosynthesis.

“Plants take sunlight and water and breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. We’d like to take in sunlight and water, and maybe even carbon dioxide, to make liquid fuels that give off oxygen,” he explains. “Most people want the fuel, but the harder chemical reaction is actually turning water into oxygen, and that’s where I’ve spent a lot of my career.”

“Asking why we do research is like asking why an artist paints,” says Sarah Koch, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mathematics. “Math research comes from wanting to understand the world we live in. The research I do is basic in the sense that its questions are simply stated and very accessible. You don’t have to have a super advanced math degree to jump in and do your own experiments.”


In Bartlett’s lab, for example, he studies how to take solar energy and convert it into chemical energy. “Lots of people are familiar with the idea of a solar cell that you put on your rooftop that does a great job of converting sunlight into electricity,” Bartlett explains. “We want to go one step further and use that electricity to do chemical reactions.” To do this, they use a process called artificial photosynthesis.

“Plants take sunlight and water and breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. We’d like to take in sunlight and water, and maybe even carbon dioxide, to make liquid fuels that give off oxygen,” he explains. “Most people want the fuel, but the harder chemical reaction is actually turning water into oxygen, and that’s where I’ve spent a lot of my career.”

“Asking why we do research is like asking why an artist paints,” says Sarah Koch, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mathematics. “Math research comes from wanting to understand the world we live in. The research I do is basic in the sense that its questions are simply stated and very accessible. You don’t have to have a super advanced math degree to jump in and do your own experiments.”

Koch researches the dynamics of complex numbers. Complex numbers have two parts: a real number and an imaginary number. Her area of research falls under pure mathematics—the study of basic concepts that form the foundation of mathematics—and her work is highly visual.

“Complex numbers are very geometric objects: All of the complex numbers live in the complex plane,” Koch explains. “The computer can be used to visualize different transformations of the complex plane, which come from basic algebraic formulas.”

Koch uses the computer to actually see how a given dynamical system appears on a complex plane, and uses different colors to model the various kinds of mathematical behavior. The images that emerge are intricate fractals that display complicated geometry.

“My research feels like being in conversation with Pierre Fatou or Gaston Julia, the mathematicians who lay much of the framework for complex systems 100 years ago. Working without a computer, they never got to see these beautiful images,” says Koch. “I can’t imagine not being able to see them. They’re incredibly beautiful. This is a subject that wants to be drawn and appreciated, and to do that with only a pencil and piece of paper is amazing. It makes me think ‘What are people going to be saying about us in 100 years?’”

Koch researches the dynamics of complex numbers. Complex numbers have two parts: a real number and an imaginary number. Her area of research falls under pure mathematics—the study of basic concepts that form the foundation of mathematics—and her work is highly visual.

“Complex numbers are very geometric objects: All of the complex numbers live in the complex plane,” Koch explains. “The computer can be used to visualize different transformations of the complex plane, which come from basic algebraic formulas.”

Koch uses the computer to actually see how a given dynamical system appears on a complex plane, and uses different colors to model the various kinds of mathematical behavior. The images that emerge are intricate fractals that display complicated geometry.

“My research feels like being in conversation with Pierre Fatou or Gaston Julia, the mathematicians who lay much of the framework for complex systems 100 years ago. Working without a computer, they never got to see these beautiful images,” says Koch. “I can’t imagine not being able to see them. They’re incredibly beautiful. This is a subject that wants to be drawn and appreciated, and to do that with only a pencil and piece of paper is amazing. It makes me think ‘What are people going to be saying about us in 100 years?’”

 

 

Professor Christine Aidala studies how subcomponents of protons and neutrons interact. According to Aidala, the curiosity at the core of basic science research is part of what defines us. “Desire for knowledge is part of what makes us human,” she says.
Professor Christine Aidala studies how subcomponents of protons and neutrons interact. According to Aidala, the curiosity at the core of basic science research is part of what defines us. “Desire for knowledge is part of what makes us human,” she says.
Professor Christine Aidala studies how subcomponents of protons and neutrons interact. According to Aidala, the curiosity at the core of basic science research is part of what defines us. “Desire for knowledge is part of what makes us human,” she says.

What Makes Us Human

For nuclear physicist and LSA physics professor Christine Aidala, the pursuit of knowledge inherent to basic science is part of our nature. “Desire for knowledge is part of what makes us human,” she says.

Aidala studies the internal workings of protons. She does experimental studies of the strong nuclear force, which is described by the theory of quantum chromodynamics, and investigates how subcomponents of protons and neutrons interact.

“More recently, I’ve focused on how these subnuclear components form new bound states after two protons break apart,” Aidala explains. “There’s been a lot more work over the past 50 years trying to understand what’s going on inside the proton, but my current focus is more underexplored. Previously, the goal was to understand what goes on in the proton the instant it breaks apart. But I want to trace what happens to the components themselves after the collision, instead of just using them as a way to understand what was happening in the proton before the collision.”

What Makes Us Human

For nuclear physicist and LSA physics professor Christine Aidala, the pursuit of knowledge inherent to basic science is part of our nature. “Desire for knowledge is part of what makes us human,” she says.

Aidala studies the internal workings of protons. She does experimental studies of the strong nuclear force, which is described by the theory of quantum chromodynamics, and investigates how subcomponents of protons and neutrons interact.

“More recently, I’ve focused on how these subnuclear components form new bound states after two protons break apart,” Aidala explains. “There’s been a lot more work over the past 50 years trying to understand what’s going on inside the proton, but my current focus is more underexplored. Previously, the goal was to understand what goes on in the proton the instant it breaks apart. But I want to trace what happens to the components themselves after the collision, instead of just using them as a way to understand what was happening in the proton before the collision.”

Aidala also researches the foundations of physics, seeking to identify and synthesize assumptions underlying different branches of physics into a common framework. For both of these projects, Aidala’s research is done without a specific application in mind.

“I expect that sometime in the future, there could be applications for my research, but I couldn’t necessarily tell you what they are now,” she says. “We want to better understand what’s going on inside protons, neutrons, and nuclei in terms of subnuclear particles, and we want a clearer picture of how the strong nuclear force works in lots of different conditions and circumstances. Historically, that kind of research often leads to applications decades later, but first you need to understand what’s going on and how it works before you can make applications for it.”

Pure Curiosity

Articulating the wonder inherent to their work can be challenging for basic scientists, especially when it can’t be couched in a practical application. “I often have a hard time when people ask what I do,” says Csankovszki. “When I try to explain, they say ‘Why would you want to know that?’ I try to explain more about DNA and the light switch idea, and I have to keep explaining until I get to the point when I say, ‘These light switches don’t work well in cancer cells so we need to understand them.’ And the moment I use the word ‘cancer,’ they’re like ‘Ah! Now I get it.’

 

Aidala also researches the foundations of physics, seeking to identify and synthesize assumptions underlying different branches of physics into a common framework. For both of these projects, Aidala’s research is done without a specific application in mind.

“I expect that sometime in the future, there could be applications for my research, but I couldn’t necessarily tell you what they are now,” she says. “We want to better understand what’s going on inside protons, neutrons, and nuclei in terms of subnuclear particles, and we want a clearer picture of how the strong nuclear force works in lots of different conditions and circumstances. Historically, that kind of research often leads to applications decades later, but first you need to understand what’s going on and how it works before you can make applications for it.”

Pure Curiosity

Articulating the wonder inherent to their work can be challenging for basic scientists, especially when it can’t be couched in a practical application. “I often have a hard time when people ask what I do,” says Csankovszki. “When I try to explain, they say ‘Why would you want to know that?’ I try to explain more about DNA and the light switch idea, and I have to keep explaining until I get to the point when I say, ‘These light switches don’t work well in cancer cells so we need to understand them.’ And the moment I use the word ‘cancer,’ they’re like ‘Ah! Now I get it.’

 

Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Sarah Koch studies beautiful objects. These fractals show the dynamics of complex numbers, an area of pure mathematics that is highly visual. “Asking why we do research is like asking why an artist paints,” she says. “Math research comes from wanting to understand the world we live in.”
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Sarah Koch studies beautiful objects. These fractals show the dynamics complex numbers, an area of pure mathematics that is highly visual. “Asking why we do research is like asking why an artist paints,” she says. “Math research comes from wanting to understand the world we live in.”

Pure Curiosity

Articulating the wonder inherent to their work can be challenging for basic scientists, especially when it can’t be couched in a practical application. “I often have a hard time when people ask what I do,” says Csankovszki. “When I try to explain, they say ‘Why would you want to know that?’ I try to explain more about DNA and the light switch idea, and I have to keep explaining until I get to the point when I say, ‘These light switches don’t work well in cancer cells so we need to understand them.’ And the moment I use the word ‘cancer,’ they’re like ‘Ah! Now I get it.’

“It’s true that these light switches don’t work well in cancer, and that’s why people get it,” she adds. “But I find it surprising that I have such a hard time conveying the excitement of finding things out just for the sake of knowing them.”

That kind of excitement makes its way into the classroom, also. For these research professors, teaching and mentoring are as fundamental to their work as conducting experiments. “My job is to provide the environment for students to be creative. I really need their contributions in the lab,” says Bartlett. “But what drives me is working with students and seeing them grow, develop, and learn as scholars in and of their own right. That’s much more valuable than any individual discovery that comes out of the lab.”

Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Sarah Koch studies beautiful objects. These fractals show the dynamics of complex numbers, an area of pure mathematics that is highly visual. “Asking why we do research is like asking why an artist paints,” she says. “Math research comes from wanting to understand the world we live in.”
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Sarah Koch studies beautiful objects. These fractals show the dynamics of complex numbers, an area of pure mathematics that is highly visual. “Asking why we do research is like asking why an artist paints,” she says. “Math research comes from wanting to understand the world we live in.”


“It’s true that these light switches don’t work well in cancer, and that’s why people get it,” she adds. “But I find it surprising that I have such a hard time conveying the excitement of finding things out just for the sake of knowing them.”

That kind of excitement makes its way into the classroom, also. For these research professors, teaching and mentoring are as fundamental to their work as conducting experiments. “My job is to provide the environment for students to be creative. I really need their contributions in the lab,” says Bartlett. “But what drives me is working with students and seeing them grow, develop, and learn as scholars in and of their own right. That’s much more valuable than any individual discovery that comes out of the lab.”

Koch also uses her love of pure mathematics to inspire middle school students. She directs Math Corps at U(M), a free summer camp for middle school students and high school mentors based on a similar program founded in 1992 at Wayne State University. “The program is trying to make the world a better place more effectively than most things I’ve seen,” she says. “It’s based on the very simple idea that all kids have a unique and inherent greatness in them, and it’s our job to help them realize their greatness. That’s it. We use math to help us do that.”

Csankovszki says this kind of feeling belongs in LSA. “A place like LSA is where basic science should be,” she says. “When you are looking to answer questions and pursue knowledge, that’s what we do in a liberal arts education.”

“I was doing an experiment with one of our undergrads, and before we looked at the results, I said to her, ‘Do you realize that you are going to be the first person in the world who will know the answer to this question?’” Csankovszki says. “She had wonder in her eyes, and then I got excited. Even if it’s a tiny scientific advance, that’s an incredible feeling.”

Illustration by Julia Lubas; animation by Liz DeCamp and Julia Lubas.

 

 

Unconstrained Science

LSA Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics Tim McKay discusses what LSA is doing to make basic science education more inclusive and why he thinks basic science starts with curiosity.


 

 

 


 


 

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The Center for Inequality Dynamics investigates the causes of and solutions for economic inequality.
 

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A lawyer fights for human rights, a struggle rooted in dignity and community-building.
 

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Look up! LSA student astronomers want you to see what you’re missing.

 

 

 

College has looked a lot different this year for first-year students like J.J., with many courses and activities meeting online. The LSA Annual Fund provides support for tuition, room, and board, as well as the technology and tools necessary to connect to classes and campus. Your support means LSA students won’t miss a beat.


 

 

 

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Release Date: 05/10/2021
Category: Faculty; Research; Students
Tags: LSA; Chemistry; Physics; Mathematics; Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology; Natural Sciences; LSA Magazine; Undergraduate Education; Anna Megdell; Julia Lubas; Elizabeth DeCamp; Math Corps