ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018
A scientific paper published in 1994, two years after I was born, begins: “Certain conjugative plasmids in Enterococcus faecalis encode a mating response to specific peptide sex pheromones secreted by potential recipient cells.” My grandmother, Florence Y. An, is the first listed author. When I Googled Enterococcus faecalis or E. faecalis, I learned that the creature of my grandmother’s research was a bacteria that inhabits the guts of humans and other mammals and can often cause life threatening infections, especially in the hospital environment, due to its ability to resist antibiotics.
The language of her scientific work is beyond my comprehension. Phrases like “microtiter dilution assay” and “nucleotide sequence” littered the lines, rendering English alien—this came as a surprise to me; after all, wasn’t I supposed to be the one with mastery over this language?
I learned to type by sending my grandmother short emails. Our conversations were filled with extra exclamation marks (hers), missing capitals at the beginning of sentences (mine), small details of her backyard, and regular reports from me about the Minnesota weather because I knew that both sun and showers would, in two or three days, make their way to Michigan where she was waiting.
After she retired, and between her first round with breast cancer and relapse, my grandmother enrolled in a composition class. Her emails to me from those months contain her usual four exclamation marks after each sentence, but also attachments—some in .txt files so old and corrupt they’re impossible to open—of essays she wrote to “practice her English.”
In one essay, she even included her own translation of Li Bai’s famous moon poem :
By the window, the moon shines in.
Is it frost spreading over?
I raise my head and see the bright full moon.
My mind drifts to homeland far away as I bow my head!
Unable to understand the microbiology papers that my grandmother helped to produce, I Googled more broadly. Following the trail of “Enterococcus faecalis, antibiotic-resistance” brought me to this 2015 research paper: “Multidrug-resistant enterococci are leading causes of hospital infection… We unexpectedly found that the prototype vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecalis strain V583 was actively killed by fecal organisms, and we traced that to pheromone production by commensal enterococci.”
Scrolling idly through the works cited page, I found four letters: An, FY. Wildly, I circled her name as it appeared multiple times, along with the familiar titles of her papers that I’d unsuccessfully tried to comprehend. Seeing her work formally acknowledged shocked me: 1) She still existed, 2) How could someone else understand what I could not?
Along with her essays, my grandmother would send me her poems about the birds or squirrels that inhabited her backyard. She always asked if I had any recommendations. I would reply with a pre-teen’s erratic indifference, sometimes suggesting adding an “s” or removing an extra preposition, small things to “improve” her English. She was enthusiastic about the back-and-forth, referring to me as “my darling editor-in-chief.”
I read and reread the 2015 paper that cited her work and ended up with this nugget of understanding: These researchers claimed that certain pheromones produced by a friendly strain of E. faecalis, the same bacteria my grandmother had studied since the 1980s through her retirement in the early 2000s, were lethal to the strain of E. faecalis that had mutated to become antibiotic-resistant. Their discovery was a potential tool to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria and reduce rates of hospital infection and death.
When I texted my dad about his mother’s research, he confirmed my guesswork: “Her lab was one of the first groups that discovered bacterial pheromones, which are chemicals that bacteria make to attract other bacteria so they can exchange DNA (plasmids). In common language… perfume for bacteria sex. This is not the topic I would have guessed she would work on. It's very important in terms of public health because this [perfume assisted DNA exchange] is one common way bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.”
“Since the 1950s scientific literacy has been a fundamental goal of the educational sciences, and has even been considered ‘essential for effective citizenship.’ Fewer than 30% of American adults are scientifically literate.” However, my grandmother was one of that 30%. She immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1960 pursuing a graduate degree in biochemistry. After earning her Masters from Kansas State University, she began PhD programs first in biochem, then in nutritional science while following my grandfather around the country as he chased his own PhD. She became a U.S. citizen in 1970 and ended up in microbiology, in Ann Arbor, working at a University of Michigan lab.
I had forgotten my grandmother was a writer. I always thought of her first as a scientist. It was only recently, searching through my inbox for our old conversations, that I rediscovered the poems, essays and songs she wrote in the midst of chemo and radiation.
She was also, I think, the first family member with whom I shared my early attempts at poetry. In another one of our email exchanges, I sent her a poem, which ended with the lines:
Feel the throb of the ocean
Feel the breath of the sea
Feel the heartbeat of the ocean
The heartbeat inside of me
This was her response: “Harrah! Harrah! Superb! Superb! I love it! Jasmine!”
These days, I call myself a writer. Early encouragement, like my grandmother’s, saw me through an undergraduate degree in English with a Creative Writing emphasis, and my first semester as a graduate student at the familial University of Michigan is underway. But picking through my grandmother’s microbiology papers with a Google search open in the background, I felt the same disorienting swooping in my brain as when she, forgetful sometimes, asked me a question in Chinese and waited expectantly for an answer.
A team of researchers analyzed 707,452 articles spanning 1881 to 2015 and reported a “steady decrease in readability” of scientific literature, perhaps due to the “growing usage of general scientific jargon.” The bulk of my grandmother’s research was published between late the 1980s and early 2000s. She passed away in November of 2008. Over the years, languages have both failed and shaped our relationship. English is my first language; I am presumed to have more command over the language than my immigrant grandmother, yet I suspect that I belong to the 70% of American adults who are scientifically illiterate.
Shortly before my grandmother died, my dad called home from the hospice so we could say goodbye. Awakened in the middle of the night, I held the chunky receiver to my ear in silence; I couldn’t think of anything to say.
While the strength of my scientific English is dubious, I understand intimately this statistic: U.S. census data from 2008 to 2010 show that Chinese is spoken by only 22% of American-born Chinese. According to scholars of linguistic assimilation, in the United States “the average Asian language can be expected to die out at or near the second generation.”
English was a required course at the National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, a university known for its agricultural science program, where my grandmother met my grandfather and earned her undergraduate degree. It was the language in which she conducted an over thirty-year career as a scientist whose work expanded the field of microbiology and is still cited by contemporary researchers.
It was also the language in which we knew each other, in which she told me stories of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King who made himself and all his monkey relatives immortal by crossing their names out of the Book of the Dead. It was in English that she wrote me, “Glad to hear that you are in a writing class. I'm sure you will do well. Please share your writing with me.”
Now, almost ten years after my grandmother’s death, Sun Wukong sits on my shoulder, tattooed in the moment of his birth as he broke out of a stone egg. I still cannot speak Chinese and Google remains my main insight into her other language of DNA plasmids and perfume-like peptide sex pheromones. The multitude of my grandmother’s languages still stuns me, but I am learning to let the pride hit harder than any self-imposed disappointment. Recently, I saved all of her writing that I could find into a folder next to my own.
About the Harvest Moon festival, she wrote: “The Chinese believe in praying to the moon god for protection, family unity and good fortune. The round mooncakes eaten on this festival are symbolic of family unity and closeness. Pomelos are also eaten on this day. The Chinese word for ‘pomelos’ or ‘grapefruit’ is yu , which is a homophone with the word for ‘protection,’ yu. ”
About Enterococci faecalis, she wrote: “Using a new approach originally designed to identify the cAD1 determinant or determinants important to pheromone biosynthesis, we have found a gene necessary for the production of the pheromone in strain OG1X.”
About the heartfelt poetry of her twelve-year-old granddaughter, she wrote: “I could feel deep down inside the eagerness to set free! To go up... up to the edge of the earth!”
(1) An, Florence Y., and Don B. Clewell. “Characterization of the Determinant (traB) Encoding Sex Pheromone Shutdown by the Hemolysin/Bacteriocin Plasmid pAD1.” Plasmid 31 (1994): 215-221. Web.
(3) Once, my entire email read: “Hi. The snow keeps melting then it snows again. Yesterday we made a snow house then it melted. Jasmine.”
(4) Li Bai (701–762) was one of China’s most well known poets; his poem’s title 静夜思 translates to “A Quiet Night’s Thought,” “Thoughts on a Still Night,” or various other phrasings of similar sentiment.
(5) Gilmore, Michael S., Marcus Rauch, Matthew M. Ramsey, Paul R. Himes, Sriram Varahan, Janet M. Manson, Francois Lebreton, and Lynn Ernest Hancock. "Pheromone killing of multidrug-resistant Enterococcus faecalis V583 by native commensal strains." PNAS112.23 (2015): 7273-278. Web.
(6) Plavén-Sigray, Pontus, Matheson, Granvlle J., Schiffler, Björn C., and William H. Thompson. “The Readability of Scientific Texts is Decreasing Over Time.” Preprint.
(8) Rumbaut, Rubén and Douglas Massey. “Immigration and Language Diversity in the United States.” Daedalus. 2013 Summer; 142(3): 141–154.
(10) 柚 — pomelo; pinyin: yòu
(11) 佑 — to bless or to protect; pinyin: yòu
(12) An, Florence Y., Sulavik, Mark C., and Don B. Clewell. “Identification and Characterization of a Determinant (eep) on the Enterococcus faecalis Chromosome that is Involved in Production of the Peptide Sex Pheromone cAD1.” Journal of Bacteriology 181.19 (1999): 5915-5921. Web.
Jasmine An comes from the Midwest. She has also lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, studying language, urban development and climate change, and blacksmithing. Her poetry chapbook, Naming the No-Name Woman, won the 2015 Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in HEArt, Stirring: A Literary Collection, The Blueshift Journal and Waxwing, among others. She is a Hedgebrook alumna, Poetry Editor at Agape Editions, and a PhD student in English & Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.