Science Writing Competition 2021 – 2nd Place

by Federica Raguseo, PhD Student, Department of Chemistry

Tears and raindrops make the same sound when they hit the ground

“Tears and raindrops make the same sound when they hit the ground” I once told my grandma when I was no older than seven.

She had smiled and told my entire family I was going to become a poet. But truth being told, I wasn’t trying to be foretelling or poetic. There was no second layer, no hidden meaning, no metaphor in my words. I was simply making an observation.

And so, I became a … scientist.

My fascination with water started early and did not falter through the years.

When I had to pick a sport? Swimming.

Did you know that the materials that make up most swimmers’ suits are hydrophobic? They can increase the speed of swimmer by 1.22%(1)!

Summer location for vacations? Anywhere with rivers or falls.

Did you know that Niagara’s falls are responsible for about 4 million kilowatts of electricity(2)? I could go on for ages.

Everyone figured I would eventually go into physics or engineering … materials perhaps.

Not … Chemical Biology.

My family is still confused to this day, but I can give you a hint: human bodies are made up of 70% water.

Which means, inevitably, that a lot of the stuff that goes on inside us is dependent on it,
starting from cells.

Heard of those?

“Smallest part of a living organism!” one student may suggest.

“The building blocks of life!” Pretty derivative, but I will take it.

“A very tiny water balloon!” Ah! Yes. I do like this one the best.

Cells are very tiny water balloons. They have an external membrane made of biomolecules, which keeps the balloon intact, and they are subdivided into smaller internal balloons with
different functions.

A nucleus-balloon contains the genetic material; the mitochondria-balloon contains the proteins and the molecules that produce energy in the cell; the lysosome-balloon is where the cell disposes of all its “junk”.

Now, there are some balloons that are not really divided by any membrane or physical barrier from the external environment, which is … where the whole balloon metaphor starts to fall apart. And it is also why it is so complicated to reproduce what happens biologically in artificial cells.

My job is to understand how these floating liquid-like components of the cells behave, to then readapt it into an artificial cell context.

Very simplistically, much like oil and water mixing depends on external factors like composition, temperature and pressure, so does the existence of these membrane-less organelles.

How can this be of use? Well, just think of all the problems that come from cells misbehaving: a protein may be overexpressed and cause cancer, the DNA may not be transcribed correctly leading to damaging mutations, … all that can be fixed or prevented by replacing damaged cells with functioning engineered ones.

Pretty cool, right? And to think it is mostly water!

In conclusion, to answer my own original question:

Tears and raindrops may make the same sound when they hit the ground, but human bodies definitely don’t.