Current Biology Interviews Stephen O'Brien

I'm really digging the interviews with high profile scientists that Current Biology has been publishing. Last November I quoted their interview with Michael Ashburner (ie, he who will not pose with Prof. Steve Steve) on his thoughts on open access publishing and pointed out that they were being published in a non-open access journal. In the most recent issue, they interview Stephen O'Brien, head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute. O'Brien was trained as a Drosophila geneticist, and now works on topics as diverse as cheetah population genetics and HIV susceptibility. O'Brien has a few interesting things to say in the interview, and I quote a couple of them below the fold.

On communicating science to the general public:

There are many heroes of science whom I admire and wish to emulate for their insight, prescience, innovation and leadership. But one unheralded group whom I really do appreciate is that of the communicators of science to the lay public, the prolific speakers, popular writers and television science commentators who inform the public of the excitement of real science with unusual clarity. They portray an image of science that is far richer than memories of Dr. Frankenstein, of "Back to the Future" mad scientists or of befuddled mathematics professors. We need more like Carl Sagan, David Suzuki, Marlin Perkins, even Mr Wizard. An engaging and knowledgeable science spokesman stands before a TV camera and exudes confidence and enthusiasm for the mysteries of life, of our universe, of science.

Yet many of my scientific colleagues disparage such popular efforts to simplify and explain complex subjects to the public; and the more visible the spokesperson becomes, the louder the cumulative hectoring from "serious scientists". Is the outcry a true defense of the precisely accurate? Do we realize that the tendency to produce cumbersome, caveat-burdened sentence fragments in pursuit of exact correctness is a recipe for an extended public yawn? The curious public, who pay for and are eager for science, benefit greatly from clear, articulate, approachable spokesmen and spokeswomen of scientific enquiry.

Science discovery can be every bit as exciting as the Indiana Jones chronicles. Features about searches for cures, vaccines or elusive lost species on science shows, such as those on the Discovery Channel, Nova or PBS, are crucial to shoring up public support and funding; even lawmakers watch TV. Today's grant review study sections exert endless energy to carving up smaller and smaller pies of available resources, sinking their colleagues in hope of local benefit. My remedy is better public communication, better visibility, and better accountability to reluctant donors to encourage vastly greater resources. For these reasons, I admire the art of science communication, and try my best to capture the energy when a TV crew arrives to feature our own research discoveries.

On studying feline population genetics at the National Cancer Institute:

I realize that some feel that our work on charismatic icons of conservation might seem, at first glance, far from the NCI's mission, but years ago we realized there are unrecognized benefits in the wild. Our first goal, to help stabilize and recover dwindling populations of endangered species, was assisted by population and phylogenetic approaches which revealed cryptic genetic "footprints" of historic bottlenecks, migration and isolation. Conservation genetics, now an agenda item for many conservation management plans, was born.

The second benefit, and one I have softly articulated before (most recently in "Tears of the Cheetah", my 2003 popular book of genetic adventure stories) is that free-ranging species have evolved genetic solutions to deadly diseases analogous to incurable human maladies. Wild species endure cancer, AIDS, deadly infections like SARS and Ebola, arthritis, chronic wasting disease, and immunodeficiencies. Yet animals have only their intrinsic genomic variability and natural selection as a defense. Genetically resistant individuals survive the assault and pass their adaptive gene variants to their descendents. Hard-wired natural genetic solutions to models of deadly human diseases await discovery in natural populations of our mammal relatives. Comparative genomics, which line up homologous genes in diverse mammals, connects the dots from animal resistance to human applications, spurring novel therapies. The strategy is proven. What awaits is genomic mining of the ~5000 mammal species who have evolved genetics solutions to deadly diseases. I am anxious for the next generation of genome scientists to integrate fields of disease gene discovery in wild species with human medicine. When that occurs, our two goals will be nicely achieved: species conservation on one hand and cures to human maladies on the other. The future is ours to grasp!


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