Nobel Laureate Craig Mello Reflects on the Unifying Force of Science
We all have questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Although the “whys” are generally left to philosophers, the “wheres” and “hows” are fodder for scientific exploration.
Science is a unifying enterprise, one that brings us together to solve problems, fuel our sense of wonder, and understand our place in the world. Through scientific inquiry, we peer deeply into the infinitesimal workings of individual cells and outward into the unimaginable expanses of the cosmos. And I am optimistic that science can point us toward a path to a brighter and sustainable future, one in which we can together realize our common destiny as inhabitants of this small and fragile planet.
There are so many forces that divide us: barriers of language, customs, ideology, and belief. But science transcends these forces. Science is a path to knowledge that begins with a simple and humbling admission: “I don’t know, but I wonder how, where, or why.” Science values questions, not beliefs. Science looks beyond dogma and demands evidence. The resulting knowledge crosses all borders and makes its way around the world. Knowledge belongs to us all. As a scientist, every day you’re confronted with your ignorance. Every day, you’re exploring a new frontier, seeking new vistas, and often realizing that your ideas were wrong, that there are so many things you don’t yet understand.
Science reveals things so profound, they change the way we see the world and ourselves. The sequence of letters in our DNA has shown how closely we are related to each other and to every living thing on the planet today—the house plants in your window and the goldfish in your bowl are your relatives. It seems incredible, but even bacteria are your relatives. Indeed you are actually part bacteria, as you arose from an ancestral cell that combined with a bacterial cell and incorporated their genes into your own DNA. A literal fusion of two organisms into one.
This may seem a humbling tale, but the rewards for this humility are tremendous. Some are very practical. Some hit close to home. My daughter has Type 1 diabetes and is alive today thanks to countless scientific breakthroughs. The insulin that she needs to live was discovered by biochemists nearly 100 years ago. Originally insulin was extracted from animal tissue, but today it is made by genetically engineered bacteria. Amazingly, these humble E. coli, when supplied with the blueprint for human insulin (the insulin gene), can read the human genetic code and produce functional human insulin protein that keeps my daughter and millions of other diabetics alive. That’s right, not all genetically modified organisms are bad; this human insulin-producing E. coli is a GMO that saves millions of lives.
Science shows us how much we still have to learn. Which is what makes the whole process so beautiful. Because the more deeply we look, the more mysterious and breathtaking our world is shown to be. Science deepens the mystery of our existence and opens our eyes to the wonder and beauty of nature. Take, for example, the Hubble Space Telescope. When astronomers pointed it at an apparently empty segment of space, they revealed not utter blackness but galaxies upon galaxies—star formations whose light has been traveling for 13.7 billion years, since the beginning of the universe.
But more than holding up a mirror to the beauty of the universe, science holds the power to transform us. There are serious problems with our world today. Too many people living in the world’s cities, producing too much pollution. Humans are disturbing the balance of the whole Earth biosphere. Like bacteria growing in a culture dish, eventually we are going to run out of nutrients and the things we need to sustain us. We need to make some changes before society reaches this breaking point.
I am confident that we can come up with ways to promote sustainable living—and that science can help lead the way. We need to invest in technologies that will allow us to produce food locally and in abundance, houses that produce sufficient energy to power their occupants’ needs—with enough left over to charge the family’s electric car.
As a society, we should focus on unlocking the potential of our people, both young and old, and work on educating everyone who has a desire to learn. And we should make sure we continue to invest in the kinds of exploration that inspire people—perhaps even attempt to colonize space. Our greatest achievements often come from doing things that do not seem immediately practical.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that this is the right way to go: to raise enthusiasm about the future of humankind and about delving together into the great unknowns. It’s an exciting time to be alive, and I would love for all people to be able to realize what a grand adventure life is and, when you stop to look closely at the world we share, how incredible it really is—more so than anything we could ever have imagined.
Craig C. Mello is a professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and chairman of the national advisory committee of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. He received the 2006 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.
Torsten Wiesel: How Science Can Bridge Divides
Every day, it seems, the news is filled with stories about wars and insurrections, suicide bombers and mass shootings, global climate change, and the collapse of the world economy. Confronted with such chaos and destruction, dangerous ideologies, and suppression of civil liberties, how can we even think about transcending borders, promoting peace, and fostering positive alliances across races, cultures, and religions?
Of course, we must. Fortunately, by nature, I am an optimist. And by training, I am a medical doctor and a neuroscientist. I have seen firsthand how, in the world of science, cooperation between disciplines occurs as a natural part of the work we do. That is because the language of science, and the ultimate purpose of science—to learn all that we can about the world at large and about ourselves—crosses races, cultures, and religions. For this reason, the scientific establishment can serve as an instrument of peace.
Individual scientists have a history of campaigning for the cause of peace. Albert Einstein spoke often of “using man’s powers of reason in order to settle disputes between nations … and have peace in the world from now on.”
Of course, science on its own is not guaranteed to provide a cure for societal maladies. Indeed, scientists were instrumental in the development of our most destructive weapons—chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Even Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel made his fortune from the invention of dynamite.
But many of these same scientists became prominent, outspoken advocates for peace. Physicists Robert Oppenheimer in the United States and Andrei Sakharov in the then-Soviet Union, who participated in the formulation of atomic bombs, led the charge in opposing their use. And Nobel bequeathed the bulk of his estate to establish the prizes that bear his name—awards that recognize advances in science as well as services to promote international fraternity.
Primarily, scientists can do their part by simply doing their science—a practice that involves interacting with colleagues from around the globe. As physicist Freeman Dyson elegantly states in his book Imagined Worlds, “The international community of scientists may help to abolish war by setting an example to the world of practical cooperation across barriers of nationality, language, and culture.”
I have been involved in several programs that strive to fulfill Dyson’s dream of working across cultural and national barriers. For nearly a decade, I served as secretary general of the Human Frontier Science Program, an international organization that gives scientists from different countries and disciplines the opportunity to not only work together but also get to know each other and broaden their understanding and appreciation of life beyond their borders. In addition, the program supports the training of postdoctoral students outside their home country, again an effective means of facilitating a deeper understanding between nations.
Similarly, the New York Academy of Sciences, a 200-year-old organization with members in 140 different countries for which I served as chair of the board of governors for six years, strives to create a global community of scientists and to benefit humanity by advancing knowledge about science and related issues.
For a decade I had the honor of chairing the Committee on Human Rights, created by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to protect and assist scientists, doctors, and scholars defined as prisoners of conscience.
These venerable organizations contribute to building bridges between scientists, who work together across international boundaries and scientific disciplines, practicing the kind of mutual respect essential to peaceful relations. But bridges cannot be built without a solid foundation. Science by itself cannot succeed in the absence of public understanding—which brings us to the need for educational opportunities for all of the world’s citizens.
Having access to information—and a chance to learn—is a fundamental human right. Now, thanks to the global reach of the Internet, we are making great progress toward having worldwide, affordable education become a reality. More and more universities are offering virtual classes and other online programs. I recently joined the council of the University of the People, an online university that has enrolled students in more than 180 countries. Through this institution, students can obtain an accredited associate degree for about $2,000 and a Bachelor of Arts for about $4,000.
Such online opportunities represent a revolution in education worth recognizing. With the spread of knowledge and understanding to all corners of the globe, we can hope that science—and scientists—will be better able to transcend borders, unite humankind, and, as Einstein said, “make peace in the world from now on.”
The very possibility is truly a cause for optimism.
Torsten Wiesel is a neurobiologist, former president of Rockefeller University, and chairman of the national advisory committee of the Pew Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences. He received the 1981 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
Biologist Paula Licona-Limón: My Scientific Journey Abroad
It was always clear to me that I would work in a field related to biology. Both of my parents are physicians, and when I was young, my father and I once constructed a microscope. It was very primitive, but it worked.
My mother and father encouraged my siblings and me to try new things, to travel and learn about other places. They considered it part of our education, which is not a common view in the small town in Mexico where I grew up and where many young people never attend university.
That’s unfortunate—especially in Mexico, where a public university education is all but free. I received my Ph.D. in immunology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico at no cost. This is something I love about my country. Anyone who is willing to put in the energy and the effort has open access to an education.
I started working in a lab at the age of 17, and from the very beginning, my plan was to become a scientist. At the same time, I knew I would have to leave my country to continue my postdoctoral studies. In science, as in other professions, jobs are given to those best qualified. And I knew that if I wanted to be a principal investigator and run my own lab, I needed to finish my training abroad.
While growing up, I lived in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, so I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided to move to New Haven in the middle of February. It was insanely cold and snowing. But I joined the lab of Dr. Richard Flavell at Yale University, brimming with energy and excitement, and immediately started working like crazy. I learned many new techniques, new approaches, and new ways of thinking about problems. The science made me forget about the weather and feel at home.
And so did the friends I made in the lab. In many ways, science has few borders. Anyone can learn about scientific advances by reading journals, no matter where they are. But spending every day with people from other countries further erases any divisions of nationality or culture, because we are all working toward a common purpose: searching for knowledge, for understanding.
In Richard’s lab, only two of the 25 or so postdocs were American. The others came from all over the world—China, Iran, Israel, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Argentina, Poland, Colombia, Japan, Korea, and India. We all worked side by side in two big rooms.
Being with each other, all day long, we would talk not just about our science but about our families, our cultures, our countries, and our food as well. We discussed our religions and beliefs, and we learned how different people say “hi.”
The experience taught us tolerance and respect for different traditions—although when I learned that some cultures do not eat meat, I wanted to say, “How could your parents do that to you?”
Some of these colleagues remained in the United States. For me, that was never the plan. Just as I knew I needed to go somewhere else to expand my horizons and extend my training, I also knew I wanted to return home. When I first interviewed in Richard’s lab, I told him, “I’m only here for two years.” Two years became seven, but I was always sure that I wanted to come back to Mexico. Part of the reason was my family. For Mexicans, family is very important, and my family and I are especially close.
But I also wanted to return home to try to give back to my university and my country. They invested in me, and I owed it to them to bring back the new tools and technologies we could use to move our science forward. Now, in my studies of how parasites interact with the human immune system, I can use gene-editing technology like CRISPR to develop new transgenic models. Unfortunately, parasitic infections are still common in Mexico, so I have access to samples from patients. The good news is that this may allow me to move my research forward more quickly. This situation not only offers me a practical way to take advantage of my geographical location but could also allow me to implement what I’ve learned to directly benefit people in the region and in other parts of the developing world.
Now my sister, Ileana, is following in my footsteps. This year, she was awarded a Pew Latin American fellowship, and she will also travel to Yale, to work with Dr. Ruslan Medzhitov. Both of us are immunologists, and we decided that to get the best training possible, we had to move beyond the old ways of doing science and challenge ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities that are available away from home.
I know that, like me, she will choose to return to Mexico—to bring back new ideas, new approaches, and fresh perspectives—and that she will be able to share what she’s learned with everyone here so, together, we can continue to train future generations.
Paula Licona-Limón is an immunologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico's Institute of Cellular Physiology. She was a Pew Latin American fellow from 2008 to 2010.