© 2006 by The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Printed in U.S.A.



MOLECULAR BIOLOGY EDUCATION Vol. 34, No. 4, p. 305, 2006

Problem-based Learning Commentary: Who Was Linus Pauling?
Received for publication, April 13, 2006 Harold B. White‡ From the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware 19716

Linus Pauling, one of the most impressive scientists of the last century, is one of my heroes. Thus it dismays me when I ask students, “Who was Linus Pauling?” and get a roomful of blank stares. I am no longer surprised by the response as the overlap between Pauling’s life and my students’ lives gets shorter and recedes into their childhood. How ephemeral scientific fame is. Major breakthroughs and conceptual insights that fill textbooks become disassociated from the excitement of discovery, the cleverness of experimental design, the chance encounters, mistaken hypotheses, the elegant arguments, and the people. In the end, all that seems to matter are the results. The names get lost. Yet an anthropologist observing the behavior of research scientists might conclude that what matters are competition, money, and personal recognition, not curiosity and the search for understanding that become textbook facts. Who are the scientific heroes of the past whose names students recognize whether or not they understand the contributions? We hear of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, and Einstein. How much longer will Watson and Crick be names students recognize? It strikes me that our science as presented to students is stripped of its human elements. Where are the stories that tell of the people and process behind the facts? For example, our textbooks tell us that protein synthesis begins at the N terminus and proceeds to the C terminus. How do we know that? When and where was it discovered and by whom? What were the circumstances that led to the discovery? Who proposed the name ribosome for the cellular structure that catalyzes protein synthesis? All of those questions are answered this issue of BAMBED in a reflective autobiographical article by Howard Dintzis [1]. Some of the names in this story are Perutz, Merrifield, Sanger, Ingram, Cohn, Oncley, Edsall, Low, Bragg, Kendrew, Klug, Huxley, Orgel, Blow, Vinograd, Meselson, Borsook, Leventhal, Rich, Zamecnik, and Palade. These names may be familiar to the generation of professors about to retire but are undoubtedly less familiar to students than Watson, Crick, and Pauling, who also play a role in this story. Are these names being replaced in younger minds by recent Nobel Prize winners and newer
‡ To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: halwhite@udel.edu.

members of the National Academy of Sciences, or is there a void associated with scientific biography? Is there so much content to cover that the stories get lost? I use Dintzis’ classic article [2] on the direction of protein synthesis as a problem-based learning problem for sophomore biochemistry majors. They have to read the article, understand the experimental design, analyze the data, and reconstruct the arguments that lead to the conclusion that protein synthesis starts at the N terminus. Students may know the conclusion from earlier courses and textbooks, but they invariably have difficulty understanding the elegant experiment and interpreting the results. As they get deeper into this article, they start asking questions about the scientists and circumstances that do not emerge from the article or texts. Dintzis’ personal reflections [1] will make that article come to life and connect it to articles on hemoglobin by Ingram and Pauling that they have already read. Now they can discover the intellect and personality of Francis Crick. They will learn that Dintzis had a desk next to Crick’s for two years and later worked in Pauling’s department. Earlier, BAMBED published a reflection by Anthony Allison about his demonstration that the gene for sickle cell anemia confers resistance to malaria [3]. That discovery appears in texts from many disciplines, but the stories behind that discovery get lost. Interestingly, Allison, like Dintzis, spent time at CalTech in association with Linus Pauling. One might ask, “Who cares about such details of history and sociology? Isn’t this trivia a distraction from the enormous amount of material students already need to learn?” The answer is that many students do care, and it helps them sustain their interest in science. People do science. Stories provide scaffolding for information. I hope that historical reflections such as those by Dintzis and Allison provide material to enrich courses. BAMBED welcomes suggestions for future articles in this series.
[1] H. M. Dintzis (2006) The wandering pathway to determining N to C synthesis of proteins: Some recollections concerning protein structure and biosynthesis, Biochem. Molec. Biol. Educ. 34, 241–246. [2] H. M. Dintzis (1961) Assembly of the peptide chains of hemoglobin, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 47, 247–261. [3] A. C. Allison (2002) The discovery of resistance to malaria of sickle-cell heterozygotes, Biochem. Molec. Biol. Educ. 30, 279 –287.

This paper is available on line at http://www.bambed.org


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