Identifying Similarities and Differences

rachelr's picture

One thing that really stuck with me all semester is my memory of out class discussion about testosterone and estradiol; how similar their chemical formulas are, how they can be converted back and forth between each other, and how men and women have both of these sex hormones in their bodies. In our culture however, we tend to categorize testosterone with men and estrogen with females, and never the twain shall meet. I decided to get to know these two molecules by building models using different sized styrofoam balls, wire, and hot glue. My organic chemistry training and model kit helped me get the stereochemistry down (although I must admit not all of my bond angles are completely true to form). This process was fairly straight forward after I drew myself a few copies of the structures. What surprised me about this process was how I began to see the differences between estradiol and testosterone. Estradiol, with the double bonded oxygen to the benzene ring was much more linear than testosterone, composed of cyclohexanes that have more 3D characteristics. At first I was worried that I was building estradiol wrong (I did testosterone first) or that I had built testosterone incorrectly, but examining the structures I saw where the differences began.

My main frustrations with the project came after I had built the skeleton and began to ModgePodge images to the atoms and bonds. I used images from a men’s magazine for testosterone and images from a women’s magazine for estradiol. I didn’t take into account the challenges for making flat, magazine images fit 3D molecules; it was like a puzzle working in what images could go on what atom based on size and image. That combined with the ModgePodge I got everywhere that took forever to dry made it a long process and I think I probably lost a few brain cells when I forgot to leave a window open…

Please excuse the quality of these photos. Apparently iPhones and iPhoto on a Mac can’t communicate with each other which of course makes perfect sense.

the beginning!







I found a lot of connections this semester between this class and three others I am enrolled in (organic chemistry, genetics, and psychopharmacology) and I wanted to use my professors as resources to help me tie it all together. So I did video interviews with Dr. Nerz, Professor Davis, Professor Thomas, and Anne. I tried to tailor the questions I asked to their respective fields of expertise, and I tried to ask connected but varied questions of all of them.

*if the videos don't show up, refreshing the page usually does the trick

Professor Davis (biology)

Dr. Nerz (chemistry)

Professor Thomas (psychology)

(video removed upon request)

Anne Dalke (english)

When I met with Anne about this project she expressed enthusiasm and encouraged the open-endedness of where I was at the time, having not done the video interviews. After my interviews I have to say that for me this project is still open-ended. Right now we know about testosterone, estradiol, hormones, genetics, biological factors, chemistry… but we still don’t know how all of these things combine, working together, to create gender identity (sexuality) differences across the human population. We can speculate, but we don’t have a definitive answer. I suppose, thinking back, that this was my problem with my first two web-events (linked here and here) and why I felt unsatisfied with them. We have no end, and we hardly even have a beginning.

So what have I learned? I learned that testosterone and estrogen have similarities but they also have differences. I learned that some is known of the parts, but the whole has not yet been discovered. I end with a question- do we need to know what the differences between biological gender and gender identity are? Or can we simply accept that we are not one of us the same, and the mystery is what makes life all the more wondrous? 


Anne Dalke's picture

from deterministic to stochastic

Interesting to see the range of views, from chemistry through biology and psychology to literary studies, from deterministic to stocastic:

the chemist: "we are just a big collection of chemicals, and people … women have different proportions of these chemicals than men do … it's all ultimately molecules; we are just … a collection of molecules…."

the biologist: "gender in humans is actually determined by the presence of the Y-chromosome … sexual characteristics are very heavily controlled by genetic composition …. gender is not as straightforward … gender identity is probably partly controlled by the genes, but other things happen during our development that are more stochastic in their nature … the random nature of the way the brain develops can sway you more in one direction or another…."

the psychologist: "We don't really know how hormones affect behavior, even sexual behavior … human libido is not so closely tied to hormones as it is in animals … we have become relatively freer from our hormones than lower animals, and it seems to be evolutionary: … hormones seem to play less of a specific role in higher primates, and experience seems to take over …. data aren't particularly clear … there's not a tight relationship between testosterone and gender or sexual behavior…"

the literary critic: "if you set up these scientific studies very carefully, the claim that you can make is really very tiny … there are so many steps from the molecular or the genetic level to behavior that I'm really hesitant to talk about about anything that's deterministic … leave it open-ended as to where we came from" (and, adds Rachel, "where we are going")!

Also SUCH a delight now, to walk into my office each day and be greeted by Rachel's models of testosterone and estradiol!

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