Squiggly little parasites
The person best suited to answering those questions is Professor Emeritus of Biology Glen Dappen. Dappen retired in 2003, but he continues to teach “Human and Comparative Anatomy” and conduct research on campus. He spends much of his time in the basement of Olin Hall, inside a corn nematode research laboratory. Above the door hung a sign barring unauthorized personnel inside the lab.
“The USDA has me put up those signs.” There were more taped to the walls inside. “I have to lock up my sample cabinet, too,” he said, gesturing to an innocuous metal cabinet to his right, “just in case somebody wants to come down here and steal my dirt.”
The lab looked nothing like a fast track to medical school. It was a converted storage room. Cement floors, cinderblock walls, insufficient fluorescent lights. A glass cabinet with rows of long ago stuffed birds. Metal shelves filled with things previously useful. And the man who worked here wasn’t studying lymphoma or brain abnormalities or the intricacies of the human heart. He was studying corn parasites.
The humble laboratory with its subject so far removed from human health made it difficult to predict how many of Dappen’s students actually had gone on to become physicians. Perhaps Forty? Fifty? Seventy-five?
“I’ll have to look back at my records to give a definitive total,” he said, “but it looks like about 350.”
“Three hundred fifty. Give or take. Now that’s not counting dentists, veterinarians, nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists or other positions in the health industry,” he said. And it’s also not counting alumni in chemistry or biochemistry—two other majors that regularly graduate future physicians. “That number would be a lot higher.”
Dappen’s work shows that corn nematodes are not to be underestimated. The squiggly spaghetti-looking parasites under Dappen’s microscope are capable of stunting corn growth. And their careful study in an understated basement laboratory is just as capable of launching undergraduates onto careers in medicine.