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Nov. 12, 2021

Student view: How the ‘origins of life’ made me a writer

Jack Huber hails from Albany, N.Y. He is a senior majoring in integrative biology and is a College of Natural Science Dean’s Research Scholar.

I took my first creative writing course during the spring semester of my freshman year. I didn’t have any particular interest in creative writing nor was I an English major, but I was curious and it fulfilled the university writing requirement, so I enrolled. The first assignment was to write a how-to” poem, providing the reader with instructions on how to accomplish something.

I had been working in Dr. Root-Bernstein’s lab for only a semester at the time. Among other short-term experiments, the project that excited me the most was a replication of the Miller-Urey apparatus. The original Miller-Urey experiment was conducted in 1953 at the University of Chicago as an attempt to recreate the conditions on Earth prior to the existence of life.

Gases are combined with heated water in a glass apparatus. Electricity arcs inside one of the glass bulbs, mimicking lightning over a primitive early Earth landscape. I was amazed by the machine and working with it has taught me more about chemistry and the origins of life than any class.

Inspired by the Miller-Urey experiment, I decided to write my poem about the steps required to create life. “First, combine water vapor, hydrogen gas, ammonia and methane gas. Next…”

That first poetry assignment sparked a love for writing that made me realize I could use my skills as a writer to spread my love for science. I read the poem aloud at an open-mic night at the Union and submitted my application for a creative writing minor.

It's been a few years since I wrote that poem, and I’ve been writing ever since. I chose to focus on nonfiction writing for the minor. Many of the pieces I’ve written incorporate some scientific aspect, alongside other personal or historical threads.

We’re still working on the origins of life project in the lab — hoping to reveal a clue about where we came from. Dr. Root-Bernstein and I often talk about how a creative outlet is essential for success in a scientific field. Since my introduction to creative writing, I can’t imagine my life without it. 

My writing classes provide a break in between all the biology-focused coursework and research, and they encourage me to think differently for just a few hours per week. As I look towards graduate school and a career beyond that, I view creative writing as an essential part of my future.


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