I’m the first to mention that I’m a huge nerd. Those silly 80s and 90s cartoons fueled my interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) even more than shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy or Mr. Wizard. What really got me excited was the prospect at participating in the development of the fantastical futuristic machines I saw in Transformers, Star Wars, and EXO-Squad. Just to aiding in the development of some helpful technology would mean success to the 9-year-old Jason.
Now, as I forge my own unique career path in bioengineering/tissue engineering, I am constantly analyzing my decisions. Thinking about the past too much gets one caught up in the webs. It’s way too easy for paralysis to trap my progress. As a graduate student on the edge cusp of earning his PhD, a piece of paper saying that I’ve spent 22+ years in school and made a little contribution to the body of human’s knowledge, I’m asked almost every day “What’s next?” When I mention that I’d like to help develop artificial limbs and/or organs, I inevitably end up launching into the brief story of my inspiration behind it.
And of course this reason is completely nerdy. One of the movies that really shaped the way I thought was… Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I was probably too young to watch it when I did and thankfully it did not ruin my life by creating an ultra-violent psychopath. What really gripped me was this scene: Dyson, a scientist/engineer (AND Black! I did not know at the age of 6 that this was considered rare) lead the creation of the tech that eventually lead to the human-hunting terminator machines. The “good” Terminator from the future, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, goes to Dyson’s house, sits down with the scientist and his wife, then… SLICES AND RIPS THE ARTIFICIAL FLESH FROM HIS ROBOTIC ENDOSKELETON! Oh man. I was fascinated. I got the chills. I still do when I see that. 1) It was freaking cool, 2) The scientist was able to see what his creation became, and 3) Seeing the robotic arm reminded me of a major current event that I was also too young to understand.
The Gulf War was wrapping up when I was in kindergarten. I really didn’t know what war meant. I knew our US soldiers were punishing bad guys with our “awesome” planes and weapons. Among all the types of footage I saw on TV, I remember only the night vision bombing videos and interviews with young men who returned home without arms and legs. That’s about it. “How cool it would be to make robot legs for these guys”. That’s all it took. During my particularly active childhood, I always thought about how our bodies moved while sparring with my brother. I always looked at the articulations in my fingers, hand, and wrist. Later in my high school Anatomy and Physiology class I learned the specialized joints between the radius and ulna allowed for the rotation (or “pronation” and “supination”, if you want to impress your friends). How machine-like our bodies are… it’s amazing.
This applies to our organs too, I began to understand. The highly specialized cells of the liver, brain, and skin, for example, all have specific functions. As I learned more biology throughout high school and college, I wanted to find out what caused cells to be different and how I, as a scientist in a lab, could push cells to become one type versus another. By delving into developmental biology, the study of how an organism is able to develop its distinct tissues and organs, I hoped to gain this knowledge. To a large degree, I have been successful. Now the scary part: what can I do to apply how nature deals with building specialized tissues to the development of products that can help people?
While I’m on my job hunt, I will do my best to remember what inspired me along the way.
If you ever do talk to me in person, you might notice pride when I talk about nerdery or geekdom. I’m always happy when others are able to celebrate what they enjoy and inform others about “topic x” as well. Some of my friends do the most amazing things because they are nerds. One nerd hacks together some of the coolest little computer programs and little machines because it’s fun for him. Another has spent so much time and energy inspiring the next generation to appreciate science. Another creates some of the most pleasing music I’ve ever had the chance to listen to. These people are inspiring. The people who dedicate the time to an art or practice they love. I always wonder what I would be dedicating my time to if I did not see Terminator at such an early age.
For the sake of everyone: be a nerd.