In The Field

AAAS 2010: It’s all about people

Scientists aren’t just building bridges to the rest of society – they are, of course, part of society. And to me, science is fascinating because it is about people: people obsessive about what they do, who make mistakes and do normal people-things.

That’s partly the tack that Peter Agre, President of the AAAS, took at his talk to open the meeting last night. He said the big challenge in science is to get over the common impression of scientists as “nerd-like individuals” and convey the “passionate humans we really are”.

Agre showed us some of the people who had inspired and fuelled his own passion: his dad (a chemist who entertained him by turning solutions pink); Linus Pauling (a Nobel prize-winning chemist); his postdoctoral advisor Pedro Cuatrecasas (a chemist – anyone seeing a pattern here?). All these people and more guided Agre down the path to the discovery of aqauporins, protein channels that allow water across membranes and that secured Agre’s share of a Nobel in 2003.

By the time you’ve won a Nobel prize your story has a happy ending (in Agre’s case, he’s writing new chapters about how aquaporins are involved in malaria and all sorts). Sometimes I think we hear too many stories along these same lines though: inspiration by amazing parent/teacher; serendipitous discovery; big idea, head of lab; understated success; and now looking back science is the best thing ever. (Agre argued that “there is no other career like it”.) But the vast majority of scientists will never reach quite such a satisfying personal or scientific conclusion. Difficult endings can make stories even more compelling, and yet it seems that few of these are told.

By the end of Agre’s talk it has to be said that the photos of real people in his life were being outstripped by bar graphs and histological sections. Data, ideas — plus human struggles and failure — are undeniably part of the science story too.

Note that you can read about Agre’s recent ‘science diplomacy’ trips to Cuba and North Korea here.


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