Bluntly challenged by a combative conference attendee to tell him a single thing that would make him find science interesting, Ting Wu talked about inventors.
A professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, Wu explained that biologists have long been teasing out the complicated details of how biological systems work. But now they are applying that knowledge to create biological machines capable of all kinds of unforeseen functions. The audience member conceded that she had caught his interest.
When people talk about the monetary value of science, invention nearly always comes up. Politicians celebrate science’s ability to generate useful new technologies, drugs, and products. Wu said in an interview that she has also seen the power of invention capture the imagination in the classroom. Talk to high school students about DNA, the code of life that holds clues about human disease and evolution, she said, and you receive their polite attention. Tell them that scientists are using DNA to make new things — folding it into origami-like structures that could encapsulate drugs or building customized organisms — and attention turns to interest.
“Facts are sometimes interesting. Explanation or description of a puzzle is kind of interesting,” Wu said. “But letting them see how scientists are taking a biological mechanism, and inventing new things — I can see them sit up.”
Wu has become increasingly interested in a disconnection she sees between what sparks people’s interest about science and the sorts of projects that scientists are encouraged to do as they go through their training and launch their careers. At least in Wu’s experience, tinkering and building new technologies that could enable all new kinds of biological questions to be asked and answered often seems to play second fiddle to the process of unraveling the biological underpinnings of a disease or process.
Despite the obvious value of invention to society and science education, Wu worries that inventors have the deck stacked against them when trying to make their way through the traditional scientific education framework.
One of Wu’s graduate students, Brian Beliveau, said he came to the laboratory expecting to pursue traditional science research.
“I was interested in gene regulation, and I came here fully expecting to do basic biology,” Beliveau said. “I think there’s a premium put by a lot of people on solving a biological problem.”
There was a partly finished technology development project in the laboratory that caught his interest: improving the efficiency of a process used to label stretches of DNA. The idea was to build a cheap, easy to use tool that could be used to better visualize and study portions of chromosomes that carry genes.
“I thought, ‘I’ll play around with this stuff’ ” while working on other problems, Beliveau said. “It’s been a lot of fun ever since.”
Wu said she has been glad to see a flourishing growth in scientific journals that will publish studies that simply describe new methods or tools.