Ode to a Dreamer of Dreams

Dear Dr. Sacks,

Like the late Carl Sagan, you have a gentle way of magnifying everything into brilliant resolution and reminding us of our place in the universe. I always look forward to reading your books and opinion pieces, as you put which things matter into perspective. Last month, I was quite delighted to read of your love for the physical sciences, also beautifully described in Frank Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question. Beauty can truly be found in any field or context and Wilczek’s coverage of the concept reminds me of that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty,” in which the author pronounces, “Glory be to God for dappled things.” As Adam Frank puts it, “Science — under all its theories, equations, experiments and data — is really trying to teach us to see the sacred in the mundane and the profound in the prosaic.”

Indeed, few experiences prove as humbling as observing the heavens. The night sky brings to mind the opening lines of a personal favorite: “Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Meanwhile, consciousness continues to prove an elusive idea, as you mentioned. Is it a purely biological phenomenon or does it extend into the philosophical and spiritual realms? I think the most beautiful aspect of our universe is the sense of infinite mystery surrounding it; as Anaïs Nin explains it, “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”

From your stories of patient case studies to your descriptions on the benefits of musical therapy, your words offered comfort and solace amidst adversity and uncertainty. When I was struggling with my own medical challenges (though nothing as serious as your struggles), I found works such as William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” to be particularly uplifting and encouraging, and perhaps you will, too. I think the practice of medicine allows one to grow closer to his fellow brethren and fulfill the insightful words of Countee Cullen: “Your grief and mine/Must intertwine/Like sea and river/Be fused and mingle/Diverse yet single/Forever and forever.” I only hope I will fulfill my role with the same patience, compassion, dignity, and grace that you exemplify in your daily life. As one chapter closes and another begins, I wish you laughter and joy in the company of friends and family, exchanges of love among kindred spirits, courage as you confront your final battles, and peace and contentment in the knowledge that you have touched more lives than you know. From the deepest parts of my being, I thank you. Stay gold, dear Captain, our Captain.

Warm regards,

Nita Jain

Top Ten Favorite Scientists

I was recently asked to make a list of my top ten favorite scientists, and after some deliberation, these are the people I chose:


  1. Richard Feynman: While Feynman made outstanding contributions to our understanding of quantum physics and to the Manhattan project, he is perhaps most remembered for his teaching as evidenced by the still-beloved Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman even rejected a job offer from the Institute for Advanced Study, a research center whose staff boasted luminaries like Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel, because there were no students there to teach.
  2. Marie Curie: Curie conducted pioneering experiments into the nature of radioactivity and also discovered radium and polonium, receiving Nobel Prizes in both chemistry and physics for her efforts. Upon observing radium’s destructive effects on her own healthy tissue, she reasoned that radium could also be used to destroy infected tissue, giving birth to the idea of radiation therapy.
  3. Isaac Newton: From his work on optics to his laws of motion and universal gravitation, Newton was a central figure in the scientific revolution. He developed the reflecting telescope as well as differential and integral calculus to explain the elliptical orbits of celestial bodies all before his 26th birthday.
  4. Rosalind Franklin: Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data was arguably the most important puzzle piece in the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure. She also contributed to our molecular knowledge of viruses, including tobacco mosaic virus and the poliovirus.
  5. Nikola Tesla: While Tesla is perhaps best known for developing the alternating current motor, the Serbian-American innovator also experimented with X-rays, performed short-range demonstrations of radio communication two years before Marconi, and invented the high-voltage transformer known as the Tesla coil.
  6. Clair Patterson: Not only did geochemist Clair Patterson calculate an extremely accurate estimate for the age of the Earth using lead dating, but he also served as an activist after discovering the toxic effects of lead on human health. His persistent campaigning eventually led to a ban on the use of lead in consumer products.
  7. Linus Pauling: Pauling made incredible insights into the nature of the chemical bond, including the prediction of secondary structures such as the alpha helix and the beta sheet. Pauling also developed the concepts of electronegativity and orbital hybridization and remains the only person to have received two unshared Nobel Prizes – for Chemistry in 1954 and for Peace in 1962.
  8. Michael Faraday: It has often been said that Michael Faraday was the greatest discovery of eminent chemist Humphry Davy. Faraday established the principle of electromagnetic induction, created the first electrical generator, and even initiated the first Christmas Lectures series in 1825 to teach science to children.
  9. Louis Pasteur: Best known for his namesake process to prevent bacterial contamination, Pasteur was instrumental in disproving the idea of spontaneous generation. His work on the germ theory of disease also led him to create vaccines for anthrax and rabies.
  10. Craig Venter: When the Human Genome Project began in 1990, progress initially got off to a very slow start. In 1998, Craig Venter dramatically sped up the process using a technique known as whole genome shotgun sequencing. As we now enter the era of genomic medicine, the variable uses of the sequenced human genome are steadily unfolding.

If I were to make a longer list, I would probably include a lot more notable physicists, including Albert Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, and Alan Guth. Copernicus, Galileo, Cecilia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt all helped advance our understanding of the cosmos. I would also have liked to acknowledge the many scientists who were involved in atomic theory, such as Democritus, James Dalton, Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, and J.J. Thomson. Mendeleev classified the elements periodically, and Carl Woese classified life on Earth. Gregor Mendel founded the field of genetics, and Meselson and Stahl performed an experiment that supported the hypothesis of semiconservative DNA replication. Along with Pasteur, both Robert Koch and Ferdinand Koch helped found bacteriology and establish the credibility of the germ theory of disease. Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the first antibiotic in the form of penicillin, and Jonas Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine. On the computer science front, Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, and Tim Berners-Lee made significant contributions, the latter of whom is responsible for having developed the algorithms on which the World Wide Web depends. Polymaths Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin advanced our knowledge of the sciences as well as other diverse fields.

This list is just one person’s opinion, so I invite you to share yours. Who would you include in your top ten favorite scientists? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Compiled List of Medical Reads

Student Dr. Diva

Hey everyone! As promised, here is the list of compiled suggested medical reads from everyone. I don’t know about you, but I want to buy all of these books and start reading right now! Thank you to everyone that sent me suggested books – this list came from all of you! Take a peek, enhance your library, and learn even more about the amazing and fascinating medical world. At the very bottom of the list is a section titled “Textbooks/References” for pre-meds and medical students. Enjoy!

Why medicine?: And 500 Other Questions for the Medical School and Residency Interviews – Sujay Kansagra, M.D.

Everything I learned in Medical School: Besides All The Book Stuff – Sujay Kansagra, M.D.

Baby Doctor: A Pediatrician’s Training – Perri Klass, M.D.

Intensive Care: The Story of a Nurse  – Echo Heron

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

When the Air Hits…

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Physiology Notes


I haven’t had much time to write lately, as schoolwork and doctor’s appointments have kept me busy. For those of you who are taking the MCAT and/or a physiology class soon, I have typed up my physiology notes on the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine system, sensory physiology, and muscle physiology. All images are taken from Stuart Ira Fox’s Human Physiology, 13th Ed. unless otherwise noted. If anything in my notes seems to be in error, just leave a comment, and I will respond accordingly. Enjoy and best of luck in your every endeavor!

Physiology Notes

A Beautiful Mind, A Dysfunctional Synapse

The dopaminergic projection pathways in the midbrain also play a crucial role in the development of schizophrenia. The midbrain has two distinct dopaminergic projection pathways: the nigrostriatal pathway and the mesolimbic pathway. The former is involved in motor control and is associated with Parkinson’s disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disease (after Alzheimer’s disease), while the latter is involved with addiction and reward behaviors and is therefore implicated in the development of schizophrenia.

The nigrostriatal pathway is compromised in Parkinson’s disease, which is often treated with L-DOPA, the precursor to dopamine, in order to stimulate the biosynthesis of dopamine within nerve terminals (dopamine is not administered because it cannot cross the blood-brain barrier). However, this increased biosynthesis of dopamine often leads to overstimulation of the mesolimbic pathway, which also utilizes dopamine, manifesting in schizophrenia-like side effects. Similarly, antagonists of the D2 dopamine receptor (called neuroleptics) used in the treatment of schizophrenia often result in side effects resembling Parkinson’s disease due to the unintended suppression of the nigrostriatal pathway. Abnormalities in other neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and glutamate, may also contribute to schizophrenia.

Knowing Neurons

JohnForbesNashJr2_300 John Forbes Nash, Jr.
Image courtesy of Princeton University.

“I felt like I might get divine revelation by seeing a certain number; a great coincidence could be interpreted as a message from heaven.”

– John Nash in “A Brilliant Madness”

John Forbes Nash Jr. was a 20-year-old graduate student when he came up with the mathematical theories that would win him the Nobel Prize in Economics 50 years later. His mathematical insight into game theory is often over-shadowed by accounts of the eccentric behavior, paranoia, and delusions that characterized his schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenia manifests in clinical terms as fixed beliefs that are over-imaginative and accompanied by experiences of hauntingly real perceptions of something not actually present. These hallucinations often take the form of auditory or visual disturbances and can be accompanied by a lack of motivation and clinical depression. In his own words in the documentary “A Brilliant Madness,” Nash…

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LTP: When Neurons Make a Long-term Commitment

An excellent explanation of long-term potentiation (LTP)!

Knowing Neurons

A few months ago, I got a new smart phone that had a bigger screen and a different operating system. For a while, I was annoyed that I made so many typos when texting and emailing, but now I’m completely competent with my new phone! It even feels strange to use the old one. In neuroscience, an experience like this is called synaptic plasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to change as a result of experience.

As Juan noted in his latest post, your brain really is a lot like a sponge. It is flexible and often changes the strength of its neural connections and networks. The more you use a particular neural network, the stronger it becomes because you are reinforcing that connection. For example, as I familiarize myself with my new cell phone, I reinforce the neural circuits that require me to become faster and…

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Live: “Better, Stronger, Faster” – A World Science Festival Event


Better, Stronger, Faster: The Future Of The Bionic Body

Date: Saturday May 31, 2014
Time: 02:00 PM-03:30 PM
Venue: Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
Moderator: Bill Blakemore
Participants: John DonoghueJennifer FrenchJoseph J. FinsP. Hunter Peckham

The deaf begin to hear. The blind begin to see. Once damaged hearts begin to pump blood. Forget “wearable tech”—we’ve entered a zone where deploying engineering and circuitry inside the human body can help erase disabilities and, more controversially, enhance human capacities beyond their evolutionary limits. Peek into a future where technology will have the capacity to make us stronger, faster and by some measures, better.

Catch the livestream coverage of this event here and follow my liveblogging coverage here.