Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bacteria bubble lamps, iGEM, and future visions

This past Tuesday the New Science and Math library at the University of Oslo (in collaboration with The Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board) welcomed Drew Endy from Stanford University and a team of students from Cambridge University. They were there to talk about synthetic biology—Drew Endy defined what it is and how he envisions its future uses. He also talked about its impact on society and the potential ethical and moral issues involved in its use. The students were there to present their iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) project for 2010—an E.coli bubble lamp—essentially E.coli bacteria that have been genetically-modified to become a living bioluminescent ‘lamp’. You can see their ‘product’ here in this YouTube video There were four students and all of them wore T-shirts with the words ‘E. glowli’ written on them. They had their presentation before Drew’s lecture, and they held their audience captive for over thirty minutes with what they had to say. They envisioned a future where London was lit by such ‘living lamps’. But what struck me most of all about them was the (high) levels of enthusiasm and interest they had in science and in what they were doing. They believed in what they were doing. They were not fanatical; they just loved their work. You could tell they weren’t just doing it for the fame and glory, even though they have achieved some of that. Mostly they were just enjoying what they were doing and they weren’t afraid to impart that message. And as an audience, you could not help but be inspired by them. You couldn’t help but smile. These students are not jaded, cynical bureaucrats; they are already budding scientists and who knows what lies in store for them? Who knows how far they can go before a bureaucratic daily life confronts them and tries to slow them down? The danger is not that they get completely or immediately discouraged. The danger is that they get slowly discouraged—a gradual, slow, insidious process that leads to a loss of morale and enthusiasm over time. I don’t know what I have to do to prevent that from happening, but whatever it is I will do it. I will be a cheerleader for the other side—the side that says let students do science and let scientists do science. Science students deserve a chance to love science. They deserve a chance to come up with new ideas, test them out, compete with others, and to learn by trial and error. We had that chance in our generation. I still love science. I just don’t love the administrative infrastructure that has built itself up around the practice of science, which has led to scientific daily life being over-administrated by budgets and accountants and unnecessary amounts of paperwork.

All of the conferences and lectures I have been to at the New Science and Math library this autumn (and helped promote on their Facebook and Twitter pages—my consulting job this autumn) have helped to restore my love of and enthusiasm about science. You’ll find the New Science and Math library Facebook page here This autumn has rejuvenated my love for science in so many forms—synthetic, ecological, marine, and polar biology, math, physics; try and explain them to me in concrete, interesting and enthusiastic ways and you’ll find a willing listener and an enthusiastic supporter. And it was clear from the public attendance at these lectures that there were many others who felt the same way. But please don’t talk to us just about impact factors, making money, patents, innovations, which research group is the best and which group is the worst. Deliver us from small-minded, petty and envious principal investigators. Give me instead the principal investigators who think big even if they have small research groups (I know a few), who have visions, enthusiasm, and ideas about the future and who like their students and encourage them rather than being threatened by their intelligence. Drew Endy did not appear to be threatened by the iGEM students from Cambridge. He was proud of them. There was a good rapport between them. There is some really good science being done at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian University of Life Science at Aas and at other research and educational institutions in Norway. But its promotion has to come from the scientists themselves (not from bureaucrats), or from scientists who don’t want to do bench work anymore but who are willing to promote the cause of science in order to inspire future generations of science students, or from science librarians, or from a combination of all three groups. The combination idea seems to be gaining support, which is wonderful—real teamwork! Hopefully, science-interested parties at the University of Oslo will set the wheels in motion to build up a UiO iGEM team after having heard about how well the lecture and iGEM presentation went on Tuesday afternoon at the New Science and Math library. All I can say is—go for it! 

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