Debbie Knight

The “N” word…

In observation on January 19, 2011 at 11:01 am

I was sitting at my desk today when I overheard an investigator and his research associate discussing an experiment in the hallway.  They were talking about a immune cell found in blood called a monocyte. The investigator, who we’ll call Dr. A, told his associate that a receptor (we’ll call it “Z”) was never expressed on monocytes.

To be honest, I’m not sure which of the many thousands of receptors a cell can express on its surface they were specifically discussing. But what caught my ear was that Dr. A used the “N” word in the biology world:  NEVER.

(I also thought I may have heard a collective “gasp” from the biomedical community.)

In all my years working in a biological research lab, this word (along with other words that convey absolutes such as “always” or “forever”) are rarely uttered. Most scientists are trained to soften their statements to words such as “typically” or “seldom” or “frequently” or “most likely” or…well, you get the point.

Why?  Seldom are biological findings so definitive – especially when you’re talking about human beings.  It takes years and years of experimentation, testing things in many ways,  using different approaches and looking at things from many angles, before biologists can be relatively certain (ah, “relatively,” there’s another “soft” phrase used in the science world) that the phenomenon they have observed is real – that 1 + 1 really does add up to 2.

I argue that unless Dr. A has looked at every single monocyte in the human body — from many human beings, healthy and unhealthy, old and young, men and women — he could say with certainty that receptor Z is never expressed on monocytes.

I would also argue that if Dr. A had said it is unlikely that receptor Z was expressed on monocytes, their conversation would have gone unnoticed and I wouldn’t be writing about this at all.  So, thanks, Dr. A, for generating this little “discussion” about the “N” word.

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