A Pigeon, a Louse, and Me

Early in our lives, as curious children, we naturally fantasize about growing up. We may visualize a triumphant future as a magnificent astronaut, a visionary president, a virtuoso soloist, or a world-class athlete. The magical aspirations we hold early in our lives often drive us on our long trek, encouraging us to carry on whenever we falter. Through high school we endure heavy strains and stresses that often make us question our place in the intimidating, gargantuan world. In these turbulent times, our dreams shine a light on the dark path we travel.

I myself was drawn to many fantasies, but one was strikingly distinct: becoming a scientist. I perceived science to be a mysterious and charismatic being. The suspense of investigating something new and understanding the world around me rendered it an enormously exciting topic both in and out of school. This affinity was further propelled by science-fiction novels, movies, and TV shows. I vividly remember being enchanted by “The Magic School Bus” and shrieking along to “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

As I slowly climbed up the grades, science was the easiest topic to excel in; despite its difficulty, my deep immersion in the sea of information encouraged me to absorb facts like a sponge. Wherever I went, my thought process followed that of scientific inquiry: observe, ask, test, and judge.

When I entered high school, science became more than a way to learn; it was a channel through which I could develop my identity and plant my foot in the world. Heavy hours of reviewing biology persuaded me to adjust my habits for better personal health and environmental consciousness. Chemistry connected me to the tangible world and opened my eyes to the diversity around me. Outside of school, I burned hours on the Internet reading about cutting-edge discoveries and watching videos that plunged me into even greater depths of scientific knowledge.

In my highly competitive Science Olympiad team, I focused not on winning awards but on learning as much as I could and implementing bits of new insight into my life. Even fiction including Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 made me contemplate science’s societal roles. As I matured, science kept me grounded and helped me form my identity by providing me wisdom and opening my mind to new ideas.

With my mind set on following the field of biology beyond graduation, I decided to test the waters. I landed a summer position in a laboratory at a local college, where I was to study the nature of host parasite systems. The projects were centered on the parasitic relationship between columbiform birds – better known as pigeons – and the numerous lice that thrive on their soft feathers.

A rookie to research, I expected to be living my fantasy: working with complex machinery to analyze the body composition of the species, using intricate devices to observe and influence their activity, and making significant discoveries. The enticing dreams of my childhood set in again, and I entered the lab bursting with anticipation.

Predictably, I was not introduced to a dream, but instead flung into reality.

In my first experiment, I was to examine the correlation between lice coloration and the pigeons’ ability to preen the parasites from their feathers. While it was an intriguing subject, most of my time was spent painstakingly painting tiny lice under a microscope with red nail polish, then gluing each one onto the feather barbs of a none-too-pleased bird. The process was tedious and had to be completed for several excruciating hours a day in order to gather sufficient data.

The second project was to study pheromone-based communication between lice. My lab partner and I placed a group of lice in one branch of a clear, Y-shaped tube, leaving the other side empty. We inserted a lone louse into the chamber and observed if it chose the “lousy side.” This experiment was much more problematic; we stumbled over many obstacles, including equipment failure, the difficulty of working with live lice, and the issue of determining what minuscule chemicals the lice could be emitting. An entire month was spent solely on preparing a sound experiment.

After a barrage of discouraging failures and a lack of conclusive findings, I began to doubt my initial views on science and research. My expectation of a quick and convenient outcome was shattered, and the fantastic mirage of my childhood dreams was diminished. I even considered foregoing my final weeks at the lab. However, despite my declining morale, I remembered how much science had meant to me my entire life: how it had consistently been by my side to overcome any adversities, and helped me become who I was. This rocketed me back onto my feet, and uncovered the meaning behind my work.

It began to dawn on me that despite the poor impression the projects had given, my role was just a small fragment of the unified campaign in science. While it may appear irrelevant on its own, understanding this parasitic relationship will help us form a clearer picture of host-parasite systems. Such an understanding can help us more accurately comprehend the disease-spreading viruses and parasites that affect millions of people each year. In this manner, my small research is an embodiment of the historical process through which humans have blossomed: Cooperatively working to understand our place in the world.

Sure, painting lice and watching them crawl up glass tubes in slow motion isn’t the magical experience I had fantasized about. However, it exemplifies our curious nature, our slow but sure process of working with others to figure out how the gears of the world turn. That is the genuine nature of science, and the truth that I only realized through the continuum of my lifelong aspirations.

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