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Dear American scientists and science supporters. Stop swooning over Macron’s video.

On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron defeated National Front leader Marine Le Pen to win the French Presidency. Running on a campaign of environmental protection, he released a video in February to woo European and American researchers whose research has come under attack to France. In that video, which went viral after his victory, he pleaded: “We want people working on climate change, energy, renewables, and new technologies. France is your nation.”

Macron missed the point.

Climate change is a problem that no one country can solve. The entire point of convening world leaders in Paris for COP21 was to commit to a global strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change. Draining one of the world’s largest emitters of scientific talent will do nothing to help us meet the goals set in Paris in 2015.

Rather, America would be left behind in the fight to fend off further climate change when the political tides turn again. And as science continues to fight back, America would be deprived a robust scientific community to apply pressure and to continue pushing the boundaries of research and innovation, to the extent that is possible.

Science and technology innovation is gold for a nation’s economic bottom line. I don’t begrudge Macron for seeing an opportunity in the marginalization of science in America. He — and his fellow world leaders who have issued similar pleas to the scientific community — understand that the world’s energy economy is trending towards green. If France is to compete in that economic ecosystem, they will require the best and the brightest innovators. In fact, America has long applied a similar strategy to recruit the greatest minds to our shores.

If solutions to global climate change are truly what Macron seeks, he and his peers must find ways to support the scientific endeavor from afar. The international leadership community must continue to apply diplomatic pressure on the White House to remain in the Paris Agreement, while adhering to their own COP21 commitments.

So where does that leave US researchers? That the American scientific enterprise is subject to the political whims of a given administration is deeply problematic. A politically unpopular climate consensus should not be silenced or erased from the public record because a ruling body says so. Funding should not be contingent on how agreeable a particular group of politicians finds its outcome.

But leaving is never the answer. Voting for science-based safeguards and against the climate denying caucus. Supporting researchers whose morale is at an all-time low. Running for office. That’s how we make research thrive.

So to Macron and his international cadre, you don’t have to leave American researchers alone. But to combat global climate change, you must leave us and meet us where we are.

Learning to Stand up for Science — and for myself

On February 19th, I had the great pleasure of attending a rally to Stand Up for Science organized by ClimateTruth.org and The Natural History Museum. The pro-science demonstration took place at Copley Square at the end of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Annual Meeting. Somewhere between hundreds to thousands of attendees from all walks of life came out to show their support for science done for the public good. To quote one of the speakers, Geoffrey Supran: “America runs on science.”

I was honored to be invited as one of the speakers, and so after a very long break from writing on ArtLab, I wanted to share my speech. I do this not to convince you to March for Science on April 22nd or to join the People’s Climate March on April 29th, but simply to share my story and the story of my family.

ArtLab was the beginning of my journey to find my voice, and this is how I’m using it today.

Giving my speech at the Rally to Stand Up for Science in Copley Square. Photo by Amanda Kowalski/ClimateTruth.org.


I was born into a rich tradition of science and engineering. I am the daughter of immigrants who come from a country where over 70% of science and engineering students are women.

My mother is a doctor, named one of Who’s Who Top Doctors in New York City for over 10 years running. My father is a physicist turned computer engineer, educated right here at MIT. My aunt is a software engineer. My uncle a materials scientist. My cousin, she’s a civil engineer.

They were all born in Iran. And they are all now proud American citizens who have dedicated their lives to developing innovation and infrastructure, to promoting health and safety for their fellow Americans. To making this country the great science and technology superpower that it is.

They are the American dream. And I am their American dream. The product of two cultures with a deep reverence for science.

But our right to that dream has been called into question. Our ability to do science for the benefit of our fellow Americans and for the world at large. I cannot help but realize that my brother and I would never have been born in today’s America. I would not have grown up to study biomedical research. I would not be standing in front of you today.

And neither would some of my heroes who have revolutionized science in America. Maryam Mirzakhani, the first female mathematician to win the coveted Fields Medal; Pardis Sabeti, the biologist who worked to unravel the Ebola genome during the deadly outbreak in 2014; Anoush Ansari, the engineer, entrepreneur, and the first female space tourist.

Science makes America great. And open borders that allow and encourage the free flow of diverse ideas, talents, and experiences are an integral part of that greatness. I am in awe of all of you who have turned out to defend not only a respect for science and scientific integrity, but to fight for the rights of scientists like me to continue doing our jobs.

In turn, we will continue to fight for your right Constitutional rights to health, safety, prosperity, and justice for all.


Thumbnail image by Tom Aho.

Aesthetically Speaking

A couple weeks ago, I sat in on a lecture at Columbia University that addressed four open questions in computer science. To be perfectly honest, due to a rather severe case of jet lag and a certain rustiness where math is concerned, I quickly lost interest as the professor began to delve deeper into the mathematics behind each problem. Instead, what struck me most about his talk was what brought him to these problems in the first place. For him, these computational conundrums are quite simply “beautiful questions.”

The winner of Northwestern University’s “Capturing the Beauty of Science” competition. Graphene oxide. Image by Andrea Towers.

Science-speak is laden with the language of aesthetics. We evaluate our hypotheses + theories in terms of their simplicity // symmetry // unity—by any criteria that distills the chaotic nature of the world around us into a simple assertion—and call them elegant [e=mc2 // evolution by natural selection]. We deem our supporting evidence—our figures, graphs, microscopic movies—downright gorgeous when they succinctly support our claims while appealing to our visual sensibilities. We even have the overwhelming compulsion to turn our work into a neatly packaged narrative, weaving our data into the story of a protein, the journey of a star, the fate of a particle.

That this professor alluded to beauty in a lecture about computer science was not terribly striking. Such aesthetic terms have become deeply embedded in the language of science—our handiest hook in a language that too often becomes bogged down by the weight of jargon. That said, I’ve only ever thought of aesthetic judgments as being reserved for the solution to a given problem, and not a property of the problem itself. Instead, my “eureka!” moment came when I realized that he was calling a question—not an “answer”—in science beautiful. A question isn’t some sort of tangible result that we can evaluate for its soundness or a neat idea that we can judge by its elegance. Rather, it is the starting point that leads to all the intricate work that is later pieced together to tell the story behind some phenomenon.

Inquiry is the lifeblood of science—the food that sustains progress and fuels our discoveries. Fortunately, because the world is filled with infinite unknowns, scientists are left with endless questions ripe for the asking. But amongst all the potential whys and hows, which are the ones that give us pause and compel us to spend our lives pursuing their answers? Which are the beautiful ones?

beauty can be messy. a quantum physicists' chalkboard. series by alejandro guijarro.

beauty is sometimes messy. a quantum physicists’ chalkboard. series by alejandro guijarro.

For the last few weeks, my mind has kept returning to this question about questions. But because beauty is, after all, in the eyes of the beholder, I quickly realized that it would be futile to attempt some straightforward prescription for what makes one problem more attractive than the next. So instead [because this is, after all, my blog], I’ll share what makes a given scientific question beautiful to me. Scientists ask two very broad sorts of questions: those we ask because their solutions have immediate, direct applications [how can we design a vaccine against HIV?] and those we ask simply for the sake of knowing [what is this random protein doing in the cell?]. Call me a romantic, but, for me, it’s the latter sort of question that holds all the beauty.

I’ve never really been interested in pursuing problems with a concrete endpoint or a definitive solution. Once you find your cure, then what? Rather, it’s those questions that we pursue for no other reason than that they simply grab our attention and nag at us because we just have to know more. I’ve found that these are the sort of problems whose answers unlock the doors to more questions—that reveal more gaps in our knowledge—sending us on some Holy-Grail-type quest. To me, there’s a beautiful purity to this sort of question because it exists in and of itself—untainted by any sort of motivation other than this burning feeling of needing to know.*

To be more specific, the problem that attracts me most—the question that keeps me hunched over my lab bench pipetting the day [and often night] away—is how a tiny change in our genetic material can change the way our cells interpret the genetic code. And sure, down the line there are plenty of practical questions to be asked and concrete applications to be found [otherwise it would be near impossible to get funding]. But for me, just knowing a little more about how the cell deciphers its genetic material to piece together the building blocks that make up us and everything around us is interesting enough // compelling enough // beautiful enough to drive me.

…Of course, this is all just one scientist’s humble opinion. So I’d like to open it up to you, reader, to hear what makes a question beautiful to you. Please, share it here on ArtLab!

QuestionMark

 


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*And now for the caveat: none of this is to say that scientists searching for an immediately practical answer don’t feel passionately about their work [they likely do], or that the most beautiful questions are the ones most worth asking [they’re often not]. An aesthetic judgment is not the same thing as a value judgment, and due to limitations in funding, the most beautiful questions [by my own personal standards] aren’t the ones that are [or necessarily should be] pursued.

Science in Context

As someone who has worked in a lab for the last five years, I have a pretty fair grasp on the disappointment // frustration that is as much a part of the scientific process as is discovery. In fact, I’d have to say that the bulk of my hypotheses are about why my experiments are failing rather than about the broader biological questions I am actually interested in. But trust me, this is not nearly so depressing as it may seem!

Entering my second year of grad school, I have been thinking a lot about what has kept me more or less sane through these years. And, more importantly, what has kept me motivated. I’ve written quite a bit on how a large chunk of scientists deal in a sort of intangible world. A biologist can’t see the intricate details of how atoms and molecules interact with one another to give rise to the complex systems we observe. A physicist can’t see those galaxies far far away, where the same physical principles that apply here on earth are also meant to hold up against scrutiny. Heck! The neuroscientist uses the very instrument she is trying to study to study the thing she trying to study!! The best we have are our best guesses, which—no matter how well-educated—can always be proven wrong.

In many ways, the fallibility of even the best hypotheses is a huge source of comfort for me. This idea that we fail because we are dealing to a huge extent with the inherently unknowable. To be honest, I don’t find the intricate details—however elegant they may be—to be the most compelling part of my own research. These details are inconstant, begging to be proved incomplete // completely wrong with some new confounding discovery. Rather, science finds its constancy in the sorts of questions it seeks to answer. So, for me at least, taking a step back from the nitty gritty of my day-to-day and asking myself what I am even trying to understand is so unbelievably therapeutic.

Taking that step back though is no trivial task. Younger researchers like myself in particular spend a huge proportion of our time grappling with such a specific problem in a very narrow field of study, so it becomes that much more difficult to broaden our gaze. To put our science in perspective.

So how do we get better at this? The most obvious answer, to me at least, is to first begin talking about our work to people who aren’t in our own field. To people who quite frankly could care less about what concentration of rna you used in your last primer extension. Or what cycling conditions you used in your last PCR. I’ve found time and time again how re-invigorated I feel trying to explain my work to a lay person because it is really then when I remember oh yeah! that’s what I’m trying to do. There’s my silver lining!

This sort of communication is a big part of why I started this blog. To give myself a venue to continue getting excited in. The other reason—and perhaps the one that is more important and far more challenging—is to put science in a different context than it usually inhabits. That is, to put science in art. To see how it exists in art. To see how it can begin to even inform and complicate art. I have always found that really great art has this way of getting to the heart of bigger-than-us concepts, so it seems to me like the ideal place for broader scientific concepts to live.

On December 7, 2012, in an effort to more actively begin weaving together art + science, mixed media arts company Our Ladies hosted ArtLab to launch ArtLab: The Series. The series brings together scientists + artists together in physical [versus cyber] space to strike up a conversation with the hope of sparking col*lab*orations. Photo + video from the event, as well as more details + updates about the series and ensuing col*lab*orations are now up here!

* Animated gifs are doodles made by drawing over failed experiments.

Welcome to ArtLab

Oversimplification is the kryptonite of any scientific idea, oftentimes turning pop science into an elaborate game of telephone, carelessly paring away all the nuances and caveats that make the idea so impactful in the first place. The lateralization of the brain, first studied by Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Walcott Sperry in the 1960s, has been perhaps the biggest victim of bastardization by oversimplification.

The left brain//right brain divide has been pigeon-holing folks for decades now, neatly sorting us into the science-oriented versus the artistically-inclined. The rational male versus the emotional female. The *Spocks* versus  the *Kirks*. The practical, ordered, and scientific world is the territory of the left brain, while the imaginative, aesthetic, artistic world is the right brain’s domain…

… The problem with such a black-and-white picture of the brain is that it doesn’t account for all the grey in your grey matter. Sure, neuroscientists agree that the right hemisphere sees the bigger, interconnected picture, and that the left hemisphere picks out details and organizes information to create a sort of rule-bound world. However, regardless of whether math or science or business or literature or philosophy is your jam, you likely rely heavily on both your left and right brain.

As a molecular biologist, I deal almost exclusively in the microscopic, “hidden” world. The world that belongs to the right side of my brain. Of course I spend most of my days making observations, honing in on details and organizing them in my lab notebook searching for patterns in the data. But, what I depend on while devising my experiments and what I rely on while telling the story of these microscopic molecules is all the right-brain power I can muster.

Scientists are in constant search of patterns inherent not just in the data in front of us, but patterns that can be applied broadly to the natural world. We consider the information gathered from the observable world, and extrapolate it to a model through right-brained induction. More importantly, we must be able to weigh the evidence and see what fits into our existing models and what doesn’t, which is a task our think-inside-the-box, rule-bound left brains cannot do. If not for our right brains, we may to this day still believe that the sun rotates around the earth! We may never have transitioned from Newton’s laws of physics to the law of relativity!

Likewise, artists cannot operate solely with their right hemispheres. Sure our right brains give us a whole sensual picture of the world. And maybe artists are slightly better in touch with their right brains compared to their scientific/mathematical counterpoints. But the fact remains that artists depend on their left brains for the detail, the focusing, the ability to convey meaning through language be it written or musical or moving.

The left brain is what allows the photographer to hone in on one a particular moment in time that is relevant or impactful or just downright gorgeous. The left brain is what releases all the insight and emotion and imagery floating around in the writer’s right brain onto the page through language. The left brain is what gives the painter the ability to capture the details of her subject to get the shading just so.

With all this said, something I have been struggling to grasp for quite some time now is why it is that so many scientists and so many artists feel that we belong to two separate worlds? It’s obviously not so simple as “well scientists and artists exist in two fundamentally different brain spaces” because they don’t. Some of the most creative people I’ve met are scientists and some of the most methodical people i’ve met would count themselves artists. We even deal in the same mediums. Open any scientific journal and you’ll see some of the most stunning images you’ve ever seen. Scientists deal in movies, images, color, sound… We all speak the same language, so why aren’t we talking? I have started this blog as a dare to myself to step outside the Ivory Tower and actually venture to talk about what it is we do up here using the language of art. The language of the so-called right brain.

Welcome to ArtLab.

* Photo taken from Iain McGilchrist’s TED talk “The Divided Brain”