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Dr. David R. Burgess - Biologist
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Dust flew all around the cattle, stirring them up restlessly. The sky was overcast and the wind whistled through the air. The Cherokee cowboy, Jim, squinted across the field looking for Cristobal, who had just arrived on the ranch from El Paso, Texas. Quickly Jim tried to separate the cattle into the two corrals, but he was having trouble keeping them in. Once again he looked for Cristobal and finally spotted him next to the gate that separated the two pens. “Ulisda hisduhvga na sdudi si waga nuninugotsvna!”(1) Jim yelled in Cherokee. Cristobal heard the yelling, but he did not understand Cherokee. To make things worse, he could not see through the thick dust that flew in his direction. “¡No entiendo lo que me dices!”(2) Cristobal yelled back in Spanish. “¿Ya separaste el ganado?”(3) yelled Cristobal. But Jim could not understand Spanish and tried to make sense of what his partner was saying. At this moment, both men realized that their jobs were going to be difficult to do. Neither understood the other’s language; and the confusion of the wind, dark skies, and dust kicked up by the cattle only added to the tension. How were the two cowboys going to communicate in order to complete this difficult task?

The problem that interests me is very similar to this communication problem; but instead of herding cattle, it deals with cell division. Your body is able to grow because cells divide. When a cell divides, during a process called mitosis, many things are happening. First, the cell prepares itself for cell division. In the story above, half of the cattle had to be moved into the two newly formed corrals. The cell first creates these “cattle” by duplicating many of its components. One of the most prominent of the cell’s components that you know of is its chromosomes. The duplicated chromosomes are then separated, together with a great deal of other cellular material. The cell is then pinched into two separate cells, called daughter cells. But how does the cell accomplish this difficult task? This is the part that interests me. It turns out that cells have something called a cytoskeleton, which, like our own skeleton, supports the cell and gives it form. However, the cytoskeleton has another function within the cell. The fibers that make up the cytoskeleton are used to move the cell, change its shape, and move material from one part of the cell to another with the help of tiny molecular motors that are built into the cell. A cell uses these fibers in its cytoskeleton to move materials to all parts of the cell, which leads to the cell being divided successfully.

These problems have intrigued me for many years and have made my life as a scientist truly exciting. Being a scientist has allowed me to meet many people, travel, and live in many places. I have served on the faculty at Dartmouth College, the University of Miami School of Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh, where I chaired the department, and at Boston College, where I am currently a professor of biology. In all of my jobs I have tried to be involved in efforts to create opportunities for minorities in the sciences. In a way, these efforts are a continuation of my scientific interests, as they involve communication not in a cell, but in the social environment in which we live.

1 “Quick, close the gate before the cows get out!”
2 “I don’t understand what you are saying!”
3 “Did you separate the cattle?”

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