How childlike curiosity drives scientific discovery
Want to be a great scientist? Think like a child.
Hope Jahren is an award-winning scientist who has been pursuing independent research in paleobiology since 1996, when she completed her PhD at UC Berkeley and began teaching and researching first at the Georgia Institute of Technology and then at Johns Hopkins University. She is the recipient of three Fulbright Awards and is one of four scientists, and the only woman, to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the Earth Sciences. Currently, she is a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where in 2008 she built the Isotope Geobiology Laboratories, with support from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health.
During her career, Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more. Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together.
Hope Jahren: I think it's surprising and really pleasing to think about those things that you do know but you haven't turned them over in your mind. It's almost like a rock that when you flip it over you see all kinds of bugs and dirt and the whole thing is just moving, et cetera—And it's the same rock you've just flipped it over. So here's an example.
So, an oak tree. Maybe you've had an oak tree in your life or your yard or whatever, so I do the experiment where I say, what if every single acorn that oak tree ever produced turned into another tree? What if every acorn that was ever produced by every tree turned into another tree? Well, animals would never have evolved. I mean the earth would be so packed we'd be so up to our eyebrows in trees, nothing else could move. And that allows me to step into the very interesting story of how plants approach reproduction so differently than we do.
They put out mind-boggling numbers of offspring. And then those offspring have very, very low odds of success. They have very low odds of germinating. And of the ones that even start to grow, a vast, vast subset will actually root. And of those, a vast subset will grow to any kind of height. And then of that, another tree, right? And then if an oak tree produces acorns for a hundred years in a row, all it needs is one of those acorns to become the replacement tree to still have an oak inhabiting that chunk of the planet.
So the seed, and you've seen hundreds of thousands of seeds just in one month probably, let alone in the food you eat, you come across seeds all the time but each one of those seeds is an impossible thing. It's a piece of hope that's produced with almost no chance of success.
And then you can flip that over and say, every tree that you see was once a hopeless seed like that. And so the trees in front of us are this impossible thing. It's this impossible journey that almost never happens, and yet it results in something that's the biggest, oldest, longest living life form on the terrestrial surface.
And so I think the real joy for me is that I can take things that are already familiar to you and by sharing the story of how I've learned to look at them, you can see those things you've been seeing a little differently with a little more joy and a little more connection. And that's what I really like to do.
So I talk about curiosity-driven research as questions that we try to answer: “Why is that tree growing successfully in that place but never in that place?” That's a curiosity question. It's the kind of question a little kid could come up with.
“Why don't we have those trees at our house?” Now buried in the answer might be something that could give us better fruit someday that we can sell in the marketplace and feed hungry people with, but that result, that application to growing food for people is buried several steps below that answer.
My part of that is to look at that first answer: “What is that tree? What does it do? Why is it there?” And we call that the curiosity-driven piece because that answer will be basically turned over to other experts who know how that might play out into something that is important for the marketplace.
But there's no substitute for that first step, for that little kid question.
And all the work that goes, you've got to get a bus ticket and go to that place, you got to go to that place, you've got to count them, you've got to bring some of the tissues back. There's an expense associated with that particular type of work, and I talk very much in my book about where that funding is coming from and how it's diminishing rapidly and how it's not nearly enough to support all the curiosity that the public has and all the science that we've trained a generation to do.
Geobiologist Hope Jahren knows that children's questions—why does this tree only grow in a certain place, for example—often hold far bigger answers than the child ever intended, because those simple questions are often gateways to understanding larger concepts. That curiosity into how the world works is the basis for all great scientific reasoning. Hope's latest book is Lab Girl.
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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