Scientists Are Heroes. Let’s Portray Them That Way
Early in his career, Dr. Wigler developed methods for engineering animal cells with his collaborators at Columbia University, Richard Axel and Saul Silverstein. These methods are the basis for many discoveries in genetics, and the means for producing medicines used to treat heart disease, cancer, and strokes. Dr. Wigler continued his genetic explorations, and in the early 1980s isolated the first human cancer genes. In the mid 80s, Dr. Wigler and his collaborators demonstrated conservation of cellular pathways in humans and yeast, thereby providing deep insights into the function of the cancer genes.
In the early 1990s, Drs. Wigler and Clark Still developed a method for building vast chemically indexed libraries of compounds, an approach that is still in use for drug discovery. During the same period, Wigler’s group developed the concept and applications of representational analysis, RDA, which led to identifying new cancer genes and viruses. He later enhanced this concept through use of microarrays, a method now widely used commercially for genetic typing.
Dr. Wigler’s research is presently focused on the genomics of cancer and genetic disorders. He expects this work will eventually improve the targeting of cancer treatment and lead to early detection tests for cancer. His studies in human genetics led to the discovery of a vast source of genetic variability known as copy number variation (CNV), and to the breakthrough that spontaneous germline mutation is likely to be a contributing factor in autism. His genetic theories and methods suggest to new approaches to understand many other cognitive and physical abnormalities.
For his fundamental contributions to biomedical research, Dr. Wigler is a recipient of numerous awards and honors and is a member of the National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Question: What made you choose science as\r\n a career?\r\n\r\n
Michael Wigler: Well, the first thing I \r\nremember wanting to\r\nbe was a middleweight boxer. And\r\nthat was because I used to punch my older brother and he said, some day \r\nyou’ll\r\nbe middleweight champion. That was\r\nmy first ambition. After that, I\r\ndrifted to science. I think\r\nbecause my father was a chemist and my mother had a great deal of \r\nrespect for\r\nthe social utility of the mind. In\r\nthat period, which was the late ‘40s, following World War II, early \r\n‘50s,\r\npeople were very optimistic about the impact of technology on quality of\r\nlife.\r\n\r\n
The life of an artist was generally considered to \r\nbe one of\r\nsuffering, and so my parents certainly didn’t wish that on me. And those were my two choices. It\r\n was either science or the arts. We didn’t have \r\nany—my grandfather was a\r\ntailor, so anything involving the hands was out of the question. One had to live the life of the mind,\r\nand there were really these two paths. \r\nI choose science, but toyed with writing when I was in high \r\nschool and\r\ncollege, ultimately settling on mathematics, which I really enormously\r\nenjoyed. And actually began to\r\ndevelop a disdain for science because science depended on the empirical \r\nworld\r\nas a source for the imagination, whereas in mathematics, you didn’t have\r\n to\r\ndepend on the empirical world. So,\r\nto me, I thought that mathematics was the highest enterprise of the \r\nmind.\r\n\r\n
But I wasn’t good enough at it and it was taking me\r\n out of\r\ncontact with humans, so I decided I had to do something socially useful,\r\n so I\r\nwent into medicine. And that was a\r\ndisaster. I really couldn’t deal\r\nwith the uncertainty of medicine, so I started doing research instead. And that’s how I ended up being a\r\nbiologist and molecular biologist. \r\nSo, I didn’t finish medical school, I went into microbial \r\nresearch\r\ninstead and came back much later in my life to utilize mathematics.\r\n\r\n
But in my case, it was entirely the influence of my\r\nparents. They had admiration for\r\nthe life of the mind and they didn’t have admiration really for anything\r\nelse. I mean, I guess there might\r\nhave been some athletes that they admired. They \r\nadmired people who had broken down cultural\r\nbarriers. So, they had some\r\nadmiration for people that struck down political archetypes, social\r\narchetypes. But mainly they felt\r\nthat their kids should be active with their minds and do things that \r\nthey\r\nenjoyed based on their own imaginations, their own training. So, I never questioned that.\r\n\r\n
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize what they had done. So, when I had children—in case Ben and Josh find \r\nthis—it\r\ndidn’t occur to me that you actually had to imbue this. I\r\n thought it would just be natural for\r\na child to want to be either a scientist or an artist. And\r\n neither of my children had an\r\ninterest in science. And I\r\nrealized that when it was too late. \r\nSo, I missed out with my kids.\r\n\r\n
I think to get, if one has as a goal to have a \r\nsociety with\r\nmore scientists and engineers in it, then the culture has to respect \r\npeople who\r\ndo that. And the way these people\r\nare depicted in the cultural media is not generally positive. There were in the ‘30s a number of\r\nbooks that were written. I don’t\r\nremember their names, in which scientists of one type, Marie Curie, \r\nLouie\r\nPasteur, were depicted in dramas as heroes. But \r\nyou don’t see that at all anymore. Instead, \r\nscientists are villains,\r\nthey’re socially awkward, they’re not the kind of people you can cuddle \r\nup to. And I think that if popular culture does not reflect the value of\r\n science,\r\npeople are not going to go into it. \r\nAnd America will be dependent on people coming in from the \r\noutside to\r\nfulfill the positions of engineers and scientists.
Recorded April 12, 2010
If American science education is to move forward, American culture needs to stop caricaturing scientists as socially awkward villains.
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