Test Tube Threads


It all started because Liz O’Day is not a typical scientist, and, quite frankly, she’s a little sick of hearing about it. Yes, she’s tiny and cheerful and she looks an awful lot like Baby Spice, and, yes, she favors bright pinks and blues and purples and considers Tim Thomas pretty nearly Jesus Christ. But she’s also happened to have won five of the nation’s top undergrad academic awards (Fulbright on up), she’s absolutely certain that Bob Langer is about as badass and awesome as a scientist can get, and she can tell you with a glance at her nuclear magnetic resonance output screen whether you’re looking at something heavier on the tyrosine or on the tryptophan.

I met with her last Thursday evening in her biochemistry lab at Harvard Med School. At the time, she was on hour sixteen or so of her workday, fueled as far as I could tell on residual euphoria from the Stanley Cup win and sheer love for her work. She’d been in the middle of mixing up some recombinant protein from bacteria she’d made earlier — part of her overarching PhD thesis work looking at the structure and function of a particularly intriguing RNA-protein complex and its role in breast cancer. But we weren’t meeting about her research this time*: we were talking fashion. Lizzard Fashion, to be exact: her up-and-coming T-shirt company that specializes in the most geektacularly dorktastic T-shirts in town. Consider:

Lizzard: F*@%$#! PERFECT. A perfect number is a positive integer that is the sum of its positive divisors excluding the number itself. For example, the first perfect number is 6, because 1, 2, and 3 are its proper positive divisors and 1 + 2 + 3 = 6.

 

And then there’s one of my favorites:

Lizzard: Apoptosis is the process of programmed cell death. Much like robots designed to self destruct after they complete their mission, at a certain point, the cells in your body are supposed to “self destruct” or undergo apoptosis. This is an incredibly complex pathway and delicately balanced—too little cell death and diseases like cancer, the uncontrolled growth of cells can occur, but too much cell death and diseases like Alzhiemer’s and Parkinson’s can happen.

Lizzard is what happens when you insist on informing a science-happy ubergeek how much she doesn’t fit the mold. “People are like, whoa, it’s weird that you’re so into science. How does it feel to be a woman biochemist? And it kind of pisses me off to be honest. Imagine if I took that to heart and let it stop me?” she says. “I always try to break down this notion that science is only for the elite or the supernerds. I mean, I will say that I am the biggest dork on the planet, but that’s fine — I own it.”

The line kicked off a year ago, nearly to the day. O’Day does it all, mostly in her leisure time — which is when she’s waiting for cells to incubate or proteins to react, and so on. She swears she’s neither artist (“I really don’t think I draw that well. This is very awkward for me”) nor entrepreneur (“I just Googled ‘how to start a business.’”), and yet the line just sold it’s 500th T-shirt, now offers 19 designs and has already been picked up by stores at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.

My guess: a lot of that success comes down to three things: First, everything is eco-friendly, made from South Carolina bamboo, 100-percent organic cotton or recycled bottle caps, and thoroughly tested by the scientist herself for comfort and durability. Second: the graphics themselves are awesomely hilarious to anyone with any interest in the science world, channeling simultaneously from research journals, Lady Gaga and classic sci-fi. Third, it’s a kind company: O’Day has never drawn a profit from it, funneling all earnings either back in the business or out to fund collaborative research and her computer donation charity, Proyecto Chispa.

“I actually think that being a scientist and being a fashion designer are very, very similar,” O’Day say. “In both of them, you have to be daring and creative; you have to be willing to try something crazy. It’s about thinking out loud and saying, ‘Hey, maybe this will work together. Why not? Let’s just try it and see.’” For the future, she’s consider incorporating make-up, other accessories, and who knows: maybe even a Lizzard magazine — all of it focused on one big theme: “Making science fashionable.” Because dammit, it is.

 

*Although we could’ve. See: it’s seriously cool — most of the time, DNA makes RNA, RNA makes protein, and protein makes pretty much everything else. Except, there are certain cases where RNA doesn’t make protein. It actually goes in and starts influencing a cell’s activity on its own. The RNA that O’Day studies normally inhibits circuits that lead to tumor growth, only when they’re bound up to a protein, they stop that function — taking the brakes off tumor growth. How and why this happens is a big question, and the focus of her dissertation.


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