That’s Life…what’s life?

Well, I’ve decided that I may not be particularly fond of blogging…for two reasons. First, I tend to have a lot more to say as I run out of space (so sequels may be in order), and second, I tend to have more topics invade my brain as I’m trying to finish the thoughts of the current blog. This is a prior invasion…

The joke goes: Well, that’s Life… what’s Life?… its a cereal…really, how much does it cost?… $2.50…I only have $2.00…well, that’s Life. ba dum tsh.

This blog is about life.  You see, I am a biologist by training. By definition I am one who studies life. But it is hard to actually define life.

Merriam-Webster defines Life as  :the ability to grow, change, etc., that separates plants and animals from things like water or rocks

Now I know that is a definition, but it is really about characteristics of life. We have an easy time telling life from non-life. Does it grow, change, move or just sit there like a rock?

Even children and animals can recognize life, they see a stick on the ground then, whoop! it moves so it could be a snake…

We see the characteristics and know, this is life, but what makes something change from non-life to life? What is the essence of life?

You can’t just add electricity (sorry Dr. Frankenstein…), but there is a type of electricity involved with life processes. Some form of DNA/RNA is present in life as we know it. You have to have oxygen, but not all life needs it. And with the organisms that need it, too much harms life. Water is also a necessity, but again too much is a bad thing. It’s not a simple recipe.

Scientists have 3 rules of life, called the cell theory.

  1. The cell is the most basic unit of life.
  2. All living organisms are composed of one or more cells.
  3. All cells arise from pre-existing, living cells.

But these are not the essence of life. Scientists don’t know how to take a set of non-living chemicals and put them into a cell (the basic unit of life) and make it come alive. Even the right chemical balance taken out of the cell membrane becomes “dead”.


Photo Credit: Curious Expeditions via Compfight cc

And there is a complex hierarchy of life or different levels of life. By that I mean that we are alive as organisms (Level 1). If our brains cease to function then we die. However, our organs can remain alive if donated to another body (Level 2). We are not alive, but part of us is.

And if you break the organ down into its cells, then the organ is dead, but the cells can be kept alive (Level 3).

Then if the cells are tweaked properly, they can be grown into another organ. Or the cells can be put into a prepared egg and become another organism (theoretically at least, see last week’s blog).

My kidney is not me, but it is a part of me. If I lose a kidney, I don’t cease to exist, but how many parts can I lose before I am no longer me? And some parts seem to define me or my image of me more that other parts.

And when did I begin? Does life begin at birth? Well, a level of life might begin there or another level after we reach a certain age of independence. That was 18 back in the day, but now seems to be more like 34…

Of course another level is when the egg and the sperm unite…conception begins that process of life.

But in reality we don’t create life at conception. Cells come from pre-existing cells, or life comes from pre-existing life.

Once life began at…well, the beginning, it has not stopped. It takes a living cell to make another living cell. Mama’s egg was alive before conception (as was Daddy’s sperm).

We are part of a great continuum of life. Part of a journey. Then when do I cease to be me? …cease to exist? (Ah…add a dash of sequel dust here…)


First Day

He raised his hand.

I walked to the back of the classroom toward his desk.

It was the first day of class—my first day ever to teach.  And just ten minutes earlier, I had climbed the creaking staircase to the second floor of the science building.  As I walked down the narrow hallway that smelled of formaldehyde, I checked classroom numbers.  When I found mine, I stood outside the door and tried to catch my breath.

I leaned my back against the hall wall and wondered what I’d been thinking.   Me, a teacher?  I hadn’t even taken the required speech class in college because the idea of standing in front of a classroom paralyzed me with fear.  And now here I was, starting a career doing just that.

They began to arrive.  One by one.  I managed a smile for each student.  And when the bell rang, I asked God for a miracle and walked into the room.  My voice quavered as I introduced myself.  I passed out a bio sheet for my students to fill out.  Buying myself some time.

And then I saw his hand—near the back of the room.

“I don’t have a pen,” he said.  And so I gave him mine.

At the end of the semester, I got my first student thank you note.  He put it in my hand as he walked out of the classroom on the final day of the semester.  It read,

Dear Dr. C,

I will never forget the day we met.  Your class was my first-ever college course.  I was so nervous.  And when you gave us an assignment sheet to fill out at the beginning of class, I realized I didn’t have a pen.  So I raised my hand. 

I was scared.  But when I told you, you smiled and reached into your pocket and gave me yours. I couldn’t believe a college teacher would do that.  Thanks for being so kind to me. I will always remember that.

His first day.  My first day.  Both scared.  Both hoping to make a good impression.   A student and a teacher.  Both so different.  But with so much in common.

Now, after 25 years, I no longer hyperventilate when I walk into a classroom.  I’m no longer terrified.  No longer frozen with fear.

But they are.  Many of them anyway.  And I often forget that.  Some of them are first generation college students.  Some of them have never heard of a syllabus.  Some of them have no idea how to write an essay for an academic audience.  They don’t know what a fragment is.  Or how a writing process works.  Some of them are worried about money and about the girlfriend or boyfriend back home.  Some of them already dislike their roommate.  Some of them are homesick and wondering what they were thinking when they said yes to college.  They are scared, just like I was 25 years ago.

Easy for me to forget.  Easy for me to say, “If you don’t have a pen, then borrow one from someone else or go back to your room and get one.  This is college.  You have to be prepared.”

But I know that students can absolutely think they have things under control, and it can still go wrong.  The computer crashes.  The printer runs out of ink.  The power goes out.

And, as teachers we have a choice to make.  We can be harsh.  Or we can be kind.  Some might say that students have to learn accountability or else they’ll think they can get by with anything.  I get that.  But perhaps a little compassion and flexibility along the way might make an impact we could never imagine.

Funny thing.  I had a campus meeting this summer.  And I was scheduled to give a presentation.  I wanted to get to campus early.  But things didn’t go as planned.  Traffic was heavy.  Stop lights weren’t friendly.  And by the time I got to the campus, I was stressed.  I managed to get to the meeting on time.  But as the session began and the first speaker was introduced, I reached for my pen—and I realized, in my haste, I had forgotten mine.

And so I took a deep breath . . . and raised my hand. . . .