On Mucus, And Growing Up To Be A Scientist

A1 Early PhotoWhen I was a girl, maybe 11 or 12, I had a kind of embarrassing problem. It wasn’t something that happened all the time, but every once in a while, when I’d go to the bathroom, I would find… stuff… in my underwear. I didn’t know what it was or where it came from. I was almost afraid to talk about it because it made me feel dirty, but as it turns out, there was an even more startling revelation to come. Because one day I told my mom that there were boogers in my panties. And this was the day I learned there was something called a vagina and I had one.

To give you some context, I was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, a sleepy, humid part of the South that most people can’t point to on a map. Both of my parents are psychiatrists and they raised me to be curious and inquisitive about most things.  I did well in school and loved to read, but I didn’t have many friends. That was okay, for the most part. But I think most kids at the age of 12 had at least heard whisperings of this thing called sex.

Meanwhile, I went to a religious school that taught abstinence only sex education and my mother took us to Catholic Sunday school every week, so I certainly wasn’t learning about sex or puberty from any of the adults in my life. There was no one around me who had any interest in talking to me about my body and the fact that it was changing.  And despite all of my knowledge and book learnin’, I didn’t even know I had a reproductive tract until it started leaking snot into my underpants.

My mother, despite being a doctor herself, did not want to talk to me about my newly discovered anatomy and instead decided to take me to a gynecologist. Dr. Frazier, the woman who actually delivered me twelve years earlier, asked me questions like did my stomach hurt? or did the discharge smell fishy? Was there any itching? I said no to all of it. She ran some tests, and ultimately told me I was fine. It was just a weird part of growing up. I thought that was pretty shitty, but as long as I wasn’t dying that would be okay.

B1 College PhotoLater, when I was in college and starting to experiment with sex for real, I was always paranoid that my partner would learn my secret, that I was dirty and unclean. I’d keep the lights off and hide my underwear lest someone see the globs of off-colored phlegm in my panties. It was embarrassing and isolating. I really thought there was something wrong with me and I was so ashamed.

At the same time, I was falling in love with chemistry in a way that made the rest of my life seem small–which is ironic because everything I was learning about is even smaller than microscopic. In chemistry, reactions happen when certain molecules run into each other with exactly the right energy in exactly the right orientation. Chemists draw this out in little stick figure representations–but I began to realize that these were gross oversimplifications. Because each molecule is a moving, dynamic entity and I began to marvel at the shear improbability that these tiny, finite objects could ever find each other in the chaos of a solution, only to collide with exactly the right orientation to create something entirely new.

It seemed impossible that anything every happened at all, much less the fact that my very body was composed of unspeakable numbers of these reactions. It made me feel a sense of awe that made me grateful to be alive, so that even the gross stuff felt like a revelation. I knew in those moments that I would spend the rest of my life dedicated to learning about the world through science.

So fast-forward to a few years ago. I was a new graduate student at UCSD in the chemistry department, talking to a prospective research advisor who specializes in the chemistry of sugars, specifically glycans. At this point, I had a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and I had never fucking heard of a glycan. When people think of sugars, they mostly imagine candy, or food in general where sugar gives us energy. They don’t realize is that there are so many other things that sugars do in our bodies like help our cells communicate important information with each other. We call those sugars glycans.

So my prospective advisor told me he had this project involving glycans on sperm. And I was stoked! I love talking about weird, gross, science and how cool would it be for me to casually talk about sperm glycans the next time some dude bro asked me what I do for work. I was immediately sold and began searching through the literature to learn everything I could.

But in this process, I started to realize that there has been a ton of research done on sperm glycans, and very little done on female reproductive system glycans. Which really didn’t make sense to me until I remembered that science kind of has a history of being a white supremacist, patriarchal shit show. Even as I looked at my peers in the program, I was the only non-male in my research area that year, and also the only Mexican American. I started to notice just how often I would be the only person with a uterus in a room and that made me uncomfortable not just with my situation, but with the whole system of how science is done. I hoped that maybe by asking my own questions about glycans, I could bring my personal perspective into the science and maybe start to change the system from the inside.

uterusI read into what is known about glycans in the female reproductive tract and I found some old literature from the 1970s about cervical mucus. My first thought was what the fuck is cervical mucus?  As it turns out, the female reproductive tract is divided into an upper and lower region. The lower region starts with the vulva, which is the opening to the vaginal canal, which in turn leads to the uterus. The uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes comprise the upper region. In order to get into the uterus, however, you have to go through the cervix, which has a tiny opening full of cervical mucus.

D2 cervical mucusCervical mucus is a really cool material. It actually changes its physical properties to allow sperm to enter the uterus when there is an egg present, but blocks sperm the rest of the time. Which makes sense because sperm are basically highly developed parasites.

I mean, bear with me, but sperm are by definition foreign invaders that are trying to infect their new host by making them grow a new organism. And on top of that, seminal fluid can carry all kinds of pathogens like bacteria and viruses that cause STIs. So if there is no egg to be fertilized, the female reproductive tract says a big ol’ NOPE to sperm entering the uterus.

But what I thought was particularly interesting is that the molecules that make up cervical mucus are mostly made of glycans and those glycans also change properties. Which is weird, because it suggests that the sugars have some kind of function in this whole transition between hostile and friendly cervical mucus consistency. And what that really means to me is that the female reproductive tract could be specifically selecting for which sperm will make it to the egg.

People are always talking about natural selection in humans from the perspective of sperm—which sperm are the fittest, which sperm swim the best. Hell, this project was pitched to me by a man about sperm. But there is never a lot of discussion about the fact that the female reproductive system does a really good job of paring down the number of sperm from something like 300 million to just a hundred. To put that in perspective, there are approximately 300 million people living in the United States and only 100 get chosen to be senators.

And that means the female is not some submissive, non-participating partner in this whole fertility dance. Cervical mucus could be the first test that sperm have to pass to prove themselves worthy of fertilizing the female’s precious egg. This not only addresses questions of natural selection on a microscopic scale, but could also have larger implications for evolution itself.

With this realization I finally started to find my own voice–not just as a scientist but as someone with a non-traditional perspective. I was able to draw upon my own personal experiences and values to identify a research question that was not only scientifically sound, but also socially relevant. I got to use a giant, blown up image of the female reproductive tract as the opening slide in my Masters defense and the three white men on my committee had to listen to me explain the importance of cervical mucus in excruciating detail as I staked a claim to my project. Because this project was no longer about getting a degree, it was going to be how I brought my own humanity into my lab work.

So I started designing my experiments where I would make sperm navigate through cervical mucus with different glycans and see which ones swam farther. This would help me see if the glycans actually affect the ability of sperm to move through the material. But in thinking about the process of harvesting cervical mucus samples for my research, three thoughts occurred to me.

First, it was going to be really hard to collect enough cervical mucus to both analyze the mucus itself and run my assays. Not to mention being very invasive to collect. So my actual PhD research project was to make cervical mucus mimetic materials out of polymers that will have the same physical properties as natural mucus, but give me full control over the glycan expression. In other words, I made fake mucus. For science. This was my whole, paying job.

The second thing I realized was that being a good scientist also means having to do a great deal of introspection and personal growth in order to make my science meaningful. Science, for all of its focus on rationality and objectivity, is perhaps the most ambitious, flawed, truly human endeavor that mankind has ever embarked upon. The science and technology that we have today, that has propelled us into the modern age, comes from the work of scientists who represent only a small fraction of the world’s population.

Trying to navigate the world of academia for me–a non-binary, Mexican American, with disabilities, and a female reproductive tract–it is hard not to see the system as broken. I can only imagine where we would be if scientists had allowed for more perspectives from diverse individuals. I wonder what my research would look like if there had been more people with vaginas in positions to investigate important questions about themselves and their bodies. I wonder how much discomfort I would have avoided if I could have met one of those people when I was young and confused about my body.

Because the last thing I realized? It was fucking cervical mucus in my underpants when I was 12 and not a single adult in my life had the wherewithal to tell me.

Maybe they didn’t even know themselves. The mucus in my vagina was just refreshing itself and the old stuff came out in my underwear. That was it. All of this is to say that one little girl had to spend their whole life in school in order to become a scientist so that they could finally one day find out that cervical mucus is totally natural.

Yeah, it’s still a little gross to find boogers in my undies, but now that I know why they’re there, I’m actually kind of proud and amazed at just how beautiful my body is.

This piece was originally performed with the help of So Say We All in San Diego, CA as part of their monthly VAMP series in July of 2018. While I have since left grad school, I am still grateful for my time in PhD school and all that I learned while there.

Watch the original performance here. 

 

 

 

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