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'Inspiring' scientists say their research makes them feel like kids

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 18, 2008 - Quantum mechanics, evolution, brain surgery, genetics, economics, extra-terrestrial life -- these weighty topics were just a few of those discussed recently at the St. Louis Science Center's "Evening with Inspiring Scientists."

To showcase the importance of science and encourage a dialogue between scientists and the public, the Science Center assembled a panel of "star" scientists and science communicators, including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of NOVA scienceNOW on PBS and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

Appearing with Tyson were Paula Apsell, senior executive producer of NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW; Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, associate professor of neurosurgery and oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and local scientist Jeffrey Gordon, director of the Center for Genomic Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine. They shared their passion for what they do, their desire to convey science to the public -- and the reasons the public should pay attention at the discussion on Nov. 10.

Enthusiastic exploration

Moderating the discussion, Al Wiman, the Science Center's Vice President of Public Understanding of Science and a medical and science journalist, began by asking Tyson what he loves about science. "What turns you on?"

When visiting the labs of other scientists, Tyson said, "I feel like a kid again. I get to hang out in their labs and see what the frontier of their science can bring to the public. And I get to ask questions." Tyson also said it's not hard to find scientists who are "almost giddy" about being on the frontier. "It's a natural state for scientists who stand at the boundary between what is known and unknown in the natural world," he said.

In fact, a child's enthusiasm is one ingredient in encouraging kids to explore science and, like scientists, to ask questions. "I think we're born with the ability to ask the right questions," Tyson said in an interview. In speaking to students with the St. Louis Science Center YES Teens (Youth Exploring Science) program earlier in the evening, Tyson said that too many people think science is about the answer. But, he emphasized, "the most successful scientists in history are those who knew what questions to ask."

Questions come from experiments and Tyson described kids as natural experimenters. "A kid will probe his or her environment," Tyson said. "He'll see what's under a rock. He'll see what happens when you pull a table cloth off a table with dishes. I see these as experiments. Parents see them as wreaking havoc on the household," he said. "If you can recognize it as a child's experiments, even if things break, even if things are made messy, that's your investment in the child's scientific literacy."

It's about the question

Tyson's own enthusiasm for experiments is on vivid display in each episode of NOVA scienceNOW. Wading knee-deep into a muddy swamp after a biologist hunting leeches, Tyson learns how leeches' natural blood thinners are used in modern medicine. As he descends into an old iron mine, he joins physicists half a mile below the earth's surface. There, the delicate instruments seeking elusive particles of dark matter are protected from cosmic rays (if not from the company of dead bats). So far, Tyson learns in the episode, no dark matter has been found. But the search continues, with plans for bigger and more powerful detectors.

Unlike NOVA, which tells a complete scientific story, NOVA scienceNOW shows science in progress. Apsell talked about how the program brings current research to viewers, revealing what's going on inside the nation's laboratories. "We don't have to have the answer," she said. "NOVA scienceNOW is about the question."

Indeed, in an interview before the panel, Tyson lamented the tendency of the press to talk about science only as discoveries or scientists as reluctantly returning to the drawing board after the dismissal of a cherished theory. "We're always at the drawing board!" Tyson emphasized. "It's getting erased, drawn upon and re-erased. Good scientists celebrate discoveries that undo what they have accomplished because therein is the advance of science."

Hope in science

Apsell introduced a montage of scenes from NOVA scienceNOW to the audience, including clips from the episode about fellow panelist Quinones-Hinojosa. "We talk to scientists as they puzzle apart problems, with solutions a long way down the line," she said, "with failure and disappointment, hope and joy all part of the game."

Hope is the theme of Quinones-Hinojosa's story. A neurosurgeon who treats patients with brain cancer, he is one of a few physician-scientists who bridge the divide between caring for patients and studying their diseases in the lab. It's not the only divide he has crossed.

"I used to pick tomatoes with the very same hands that today perform brain surgery," he told the audience, speaking of his early years in this country, after he illegally crossed the border from Mexico. Through hard work, determination and a drive to succeed, he went from migrant farm worker, to learning English at a community college, to the University of California at Berkeley, to Harvard Medical School, becoming a U.S. citizen along the way.

For him, science is an opportunity to experiment, to find answers and to make discoveries that no one else has made. But, he adds, "What keeps me going every day are my patients."

His goal is to find better ways to treat human disease. "I consider the operating room to be an extension of my laboratory," Quinones said in an interview. "Not that my patients are experimental subjects, but that they are human beings who allow us the opportunity to collect their diseased tissue -- tissue that would otherwise be discarded -- and take it into the lab." He calls it a gift that will help future generations.

Evidence, economics, and education

An audience member asked the panel to address the diminished value society has placed on scientific evidence, compared to ideology. Despite the evidence, this person said, "Why are we still talking about climate change denial, or intelligent design or anti-vaccination hysteria?"

Scientists have a responsibility to educate, responded Gordon. "Now more than ever, for our country and our world, it is important to devote significant resources to teaching people about science early on in their lives." He went on to call science "not only a way of explaining the world, but a way to help us sustain the world."

Using the language of finance, Gordon called science education a long-term investment. And, always looking for opportunity in the face of adversity, Quinones-Hinojosa pointed out in an interview that job losses from the current economic downturn will lead many people back to school. "We need to go back to the basics," he said, "And educate our masses."

Tyson also spoke of science and economics. "As evidence-based thinking fades," he said, "So too does our economic strength. Evidence-based thinking is the foundation of tomorrow's economies. As our economic strength shrinks, you start to see a changeover in recognizing the value of evidence-based thinking. We have the flexibility to introduce that kind of change nation wide. If the philosophical principles of thought don't work, money will."

To illustrate the effectiveness of science education, Apsell talked about a NOVA program called "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," a documentary about a court case in Dover PA. It pit supporters of intelligent design, who wanted it taught alongside evolution in science class, against those who felt intelligent design is simply creationism renamed. The judge, appointed by President George W. Bush, ruled against teaching intelligent design as science.

Apsell called it a courageous ruling and spoke of a college professor who shows the documentary at the beginning of her biology classes. "Dr. Susan Fisher, from Ohio State, has been writing me about the reaction of her students," she said. "Some students, who have very religious upbringings, have said that no one had ever sat down and patiently explained the evidence for evolution before."

"We have been astounded and gratified to see the reaction," Apsell continued. With this experience in mind, she emphasized the need for good quality scientific material that can get to the general public. "If you present the evidence," Apsell said, "A lot of times they'll get it."

Hard science and humanity

The scientists on the panel hope more people will "get it" when it comes to science education. Some people avoid science and science classes because they think it's too hard. None of the panelists argue that science is easy, but the challenge is no reason to stay away.

"Science is hard, let's get that straight," said Tyson in an interview. "But we have a culture where doing hard things is not celebrated. I think we should do things because they're hard, not because they're easy."

And according to Quinones-Hinojosa, who speaks of the bonds between the physician-scientist, the patient and the family, science is difficult. But it is also "one of the most excellent and beautiful ways to understand humanity."

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis. She has a master's degree in biomedical engineering and works in hospital epidemiology for BJC HealthCare. 

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