Olivia Castellini   |   5/ 26/ 2021   |   Reading Time: 6 Minutes

An Amateur’s Guide To Growing a Human: A Non-Scientific Analysis

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The moment I realized my unborn child had developed fingerprints, my hopes of a life of crime for her were thwarted.


This ah-ha moment, and many more like it, unfolded constantly over the course of my pregnancy; a 38-week lab experiment that quickly grew out of my control. But that’s the beauty of research: you never quite know what you’re going to discover.


I’m a bad biologist. I can’t tell you the difference between a phylum and a genus. I had aspirations of becoming a cardiac surgeon before taking freshman biology and inadvertently removing the entire thoracic cavity of a fetal pig with one swipe of the scalpel. If you ask me what type of flower that it is, my answer is “pretty”. I am a physicist. I see the world as a kit of parts, a giant machine to be broken down into pieces and discrete functions. I am awed that a simple flip of a switch connects two pieces of metal, sending a cascade of electrons along a wire, through the walls, and to a lightbulb, where their energy heats the filament, exciting its atoms and molecules until they release that energy as photons, which we then see as light. And it happens almost simultaneously. Be still my heart!


I had aspirations of becoming a cardiac surgeon before taking freshman biology and inadvertently removing the entire thoracic cavity of a fetal pig with one swipe of the scalpel. If you ask me what type of flower that it is, my answer is “pretty.”

So it is odd – laughable, really – that someone like me would undertake one of the oldest and grandest of biology experiments: growing a human. I look at the world through a scientific lens. I can’t help it. I’m hard-wired that way. I want to understand how and why things work. Pregnancy was no exception. I’m amazed by the process, that it’s even possible for two cells to grow into such a complex organism and that my female body is pre-programmed with the instruction manual of what to do with zero conscious effort on my part. It’s almost as mind-blowing as turning on a lightbulb! Like any good Type A scientist, once I decided to commit to this experiment, I was all-in. I went full Scientist Mode on it.


Data collection began with the process of conception. After a bit of background research, I learned that the conditions for conception could be optimized through careful tracking of ovulation and temperature. This sounded simple enough: manipulate two independent variables until the desired outcome is achieved. I acquired the necessary equipment, devised a protocol, and got to work. Every morning before getting up, I dutifully took my temperature and recorded it in a log. It was imperative to do this before moving so I didn’t risk raising my core body temperature; even a tenth of a degree difference could corrupt the data. I would then move to the bathroom where I used a digital probe to measure hormone levels. That probe had to be inserted into areas of my body that would horrify my parents and get me banned from the Catholic church. But this was an experiment. A Grand Experiment. Anything for science. This played out day after day, week after week, month after month. I collected mountains of data. I looked for trends. I compared my data to the sample set from the probe, trying to decipher the spike in the graph that indicated conditions were right. I tried and I failed. The data made no sense. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I am a scientist. I love data. I’m trained to analyze and interpret data and I couldn’t do it. It. Pissed. Me. Off. A year passed with no success.


Hormones, hormones, hormones. It is the ranch dressing of explanations. It goes with everything yet explains nothing.

And then: serendipity. The magic, elusive element of scientific exploration. My frustration drove me to abandon my data and my fancy probe. My methodology was flawed. In a moment of desperation, I bought a $20 drug store ovulation kit, peed on a stick and it all suddenly came together. A month later, I was pregnant. My first experimental success! I had made my first discovery: biological systems defy careful controls. When it comes down to it, biology will trump technology any day. You can follow the science, carefully design your experiments and gather the data, but at the end of the day, biology will do what it wants. Lesson learned. Don’t over-think it, stupid.


Olivia at 36 weeks pregnant. (Courtesy of Elaine Melko Photography)

At long last, the next phase of the experiment had begun! With pregnancy came an endless stream of questions to be answered and a whole new body of knowledge to be learned. Every new feeling, piece of information, and physiological change had to be interrogated. The discoveries were alternately fascinating and revolting. At 8 weeks, the fetus growing inside me developed the capability to produce waste. I had become my child’s port-a-potty. Gross? Yes, but it is a closed system in there, so it has to go somewhere. I was willing to accept this as a scientific necessity. At 21 weeks, came a 3D ultrasound to measure development progress (more data! fancy equipment!) and the close-up of her right arm ended in her tiny hand flying the bird. Her first photoshoot and my daughter flipped me off. When does personality start developing? Is it genetic? If so, should I have predicted this? I was determined to use science to understand and perfect my pregnancy.


As time wore on, I became increasingly frustrated that the answer to nearly every question I had was ultimately “hormones.” Why do I pee every time I sneeze? Hormones. Why am I suddenly more susceptible to bloody noses? Hormones. Why does my beloved coffee smell funny to me? Hormones. Why are my ankles swelling? Fluid retention due to … hormones. Hormones, hormones, hormones. It is the ranch dressing of explanations. It goes with everything yet explains nothing.


At 8 weeks, the fetus growing inside me developed the capability to produce waste. I had become my child’s port-a-potty. Gross? Yes, but it is a closed system in there, so it has to go somewhere.

It will come as no surprise that I drove my obstetrician nuts. Toddlers have nothing on me when it comes to asking “Why?”. (Why can I take acetaminophen but not ibuprofen (chemically speaking)? How does the fetal heart monitor work? What is it measuring? How does it differentiate my heartbeat from hers? Isn’t the signal-to-noise ratio too high? Why can’t you use MRI data to track growth before a certain number of week’s development?) After one particularly drawn-out exchange that probably involved me trying to understand the exact biochemical mechanisms that control osmosis through the amniotic membrane, my doctor gently implored me to not lose sight of the wonder of what was going on inside my body. That stopped me cold and stayed with me long after that appointment. I was so caught up in the whys and how to optimize the process of growing the little life inside my body, that I had failed to notice what a truly awesome thing was happening. Don’t lose sight of the wonder. That idea, that fundamental truth, resonated with me far beyond my pregnancy. It is central to science. Don’t lose sight of the wonder. The world is a wondrous place. The pursuit of understanding it, probing it, explaining and interpreting it is a wonderful thing. The lesson was aimed at my little biology/pregnancy experiment, but it also gave me a renewed perspective on everything else I approach as a scientist. Don’t lose sight of the wonder. Celebrate it. Relish it. Let it drive you and excite you to discover the next thing and the one after that.


I was so caught up in the whys and how to optimize the process of growing the little life inside my body, that I had failed to notice what a truly awesome thing was happening. Don’t lose sight of the wonder.

My little experiment is now a toddler. Like all good experiments, the birth of my daughter spawned a new experiment, new questions, and fresh wonder. I try to keep the spirit of science and the sense of wonder that comes with it at the center of my parenting. (I have also discovered there is a direct correlation between her inquisitiveness and my patience, but no one said science was easy!) I am constantly impressed with how easily and joyfully she investigates her world, her delight in not knowing, and her determination to experiment and discover the whys. I get it now why they say children are natural scientists. Every day with a toddler is full of wonder. Every day is a chance to explore and discover something new, something exciting. I set out on this grand experiment to see if I could master biology but ended becoming a better scientist in the process.



Olivia and her newborn daughter. (Courtesy of Elaine Melko Photography)

 



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Olivia Castellini

From Cincinnati, Olivia obtained a B.A. in Physics and Music from DePauw University, in addition to an M.A. & Ph.D. in condensed matter physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a Senior Exhibit Developer at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Olivia is the fifth child out of seven siblings; she has a second degree black belt in martial arts.