In the system of American science, caution has overtaken creation

By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 speaker Roberta Ness

The scientific community is unwell. Worse, the hospital to which it has been taken is utterly unsuited to cure it. Young professionals feel that the system does not promote, but instead strangles, their creative dreams. The result: the most extraordinary potential for progress in history is being squandered.

InnovationInnovation is society’s engine of progress– our instrument for hope. Our modern love affair with innovation leads us to desire having as much of it as possible and to fear its loss. A quick web search for “innovation” yields about as many hits as the word, “boyfriend”. Yet, our system of science from its funders through its institutions, does not allow practitioners to reach their full creative potential. I know this firsthand because I have encountered so many of these frustrated scientists.. Nearly every time I lectured at a research university about how to improve innovative thinking, a young person would stand up at the back of the room during the question and answer period and say something like, “Dr. Ness, this was inspirational, but you are proposing really radical new ideas. If I tried to do what you counsel, I would never be able to get funded or be published.” I heard this lament perhaps a dozen times when finally it struck me, “duh– there’s a big problem here, and it is not due to these young, bright minds.”

The problem, I came to discover in writing my most recent book The Creativity Crisis is that caution has overtaken creation within the system of American science. Society begs for revolutionary advancement but spends its dollars on tangible products. Ideas are conceived as “individually owned” and intellectual property is shielded by patents rather than shared for the benefit of all. The hierarchy and insularity of science stymies rich collaborative possibilities, so, for instance, the historic opportunities offered by crowdsourcing goes unexploited. A suffocating burden of federal and state restrictions and regulations continue to grow as society becomes increasingly apprehensive about the harms that science can bring.

The result of this perfect storm is that the largest and most difficult problems science must solve-– climate change, emerging epidemics, social inequity, Alzheimer’s disease-– rage unabated. I believe we must find solutions to these disasters-in-progress that are far more radical than the current system permits.

Yet, not all is doom and gloom. Science continues to march forward at a prodigious pace, even if that march often produces things less necessary than nice. Some institutions such as the Howard Hughes Foundation and Google have incorporated a series of systems changes for the focused purpose of tending and nurturing creative innovation.

We need not be satisfied with a system of science that fails to achieve its full potential for advancing societal well-being. To implement original solutions to society’s most threatening problems, we must bring creation and caution into equipoise. The Creativity Crisis examines in detail the ills of modern science and multiple remedies that, by abandoning convention, may contribute to fixing the broken system. I can only hope that this book and related TEDMED talk will launch a discussion in which all of you will help to reinvent the scientific ecosystem. I believe that if you open your minds and your hearts to the potential for creative disruption, together we can solve the creativity crisis and unleash possibility.


Roberta Ness TEDMED Artist Illustration_FotorIn her TEDMED 2015 talk, innovation expert and physician-researcher Roberta Ness imparted her wisdom for combatting science’s creativity crisis and sparking the type of revolutionary innovations that science and medicine so desperately need.

What’s Missing From Engineering and How to Solve It

Sangeeta Bhatia

Sangeeta Bhatia

In her TEDMED talk, Harvard-MIT physician, bioengineer and entrepreneur Sangeeta Bhatia showed how miniaturization, through the convergence of engineering and medicine, is transforming health– specifically, through the promise of nanotechnology for early detection of cancer. She’s also been a huge advocate for the participation of women and girls in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. We asked her to share more about her dedication to empowering girls to develop their skills in the STEM fields.

engineering

What we desperately need: the best minds, and their talent.

 

TEDMED:

In addition to your work in bioengineering, medical research and being a professor, you’ve been a huge advocate for the participation of women and girls in STEM-related fields. How are these two strands of your work related?

SANGEETA:

They are absolutely related! We need the best and brightest minds to realize these kinds of technological visions. The engineering pipeline is only 20-25% female; only 3% of tech startups are led by women. If I look around at the workforce in engineering at the moment in our country, it’s only 11 to 12 percent women. And the data shows that we lose women from this discipline all the way along what we call the ‘leaky pipeline’ that starts at age 11 and progresses all the way through to the workforce and to the board room– presently 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees quit the profession or never enter the field at all.

Some years ago, some colleagues and I at MIT started this organization, Keys to Empowering Youth, to target girls between 11 and 13 years old, the critical earliest age range at which girls drop out of engineering. We bring them into labs at MIT and other universities where they have hands-on experiences with experiments. Over the course of the day, these girls see how fun, exciting and accessible it can be. They meet women who are college students in the Society of Women Engineers and are a little further up the pipeline than them as mentors. And the girls ask their mentors questions like, What is mechanical engineering? Electrical Engineering? Computer Engineering? What is the job that you hope to do? Is it fun? And we have seen that they can definitely be inspired.

Here are my two daughters, wdaughter 1ho turned 9 and 12 this year, having fun in my lab! We need girls to be inspired, we need them to have mentors, and we need them to have role models. I hope that my talk on the TEDMED stage can inspire more girls all over the world to choose to develop their skills in engineering and deploy them to revolutionize human health. We would all benefit.

TEDMED:

Your lab is known for choosing and training people to work in an interdisciplinary way. How do you go about accomplishing this?

SANGEETA:

We consider ourselves a bioengineering lab focused on impacting human health so we tend to attract people across a spectrum of science, technology and medical expertise. We select people that are ‘best athletes’ in the sense that they’ve excelled in whatever they were doing, they complement our mission, are invested in our approach and play well with others. Once they arrive we tell everyone that they can spend 20% of their time ‘tinkering.’ Over the years, the students have started calling these ‘submarine’ projects. They surface them to me if and when they turn into something exciting. And if they never do, that’s okay too. The point is that science can be full of failure and we need ways to play and stay creative, motivated and engaged. It just so happens that some of our most exciting advances have come out of such submarine projects.

TEDMED:

You’ve spoken about the power of mentors in your own training. Can you talk about a mentor who has had outsize influence on your work and life and how they became such an effective mentor for you?

SANGEETA:

I’ve been fortunate to have a series of very powerful mentors in my training, all of whom saw more for me, at critical moments, than I saw for myself. The most influential mentor is my father who first encouraged me to become an engineer by bringing me to a friend’s lab at MIT to learn about the intersection of engineering and medicine. Later, he would also encourage me to become an entrepreneur. Last year, he was my guest of honor when I was inducted to the National Academy of Engineering and we got to celebrate the journey together. I believe that family aspirations for their children, and especially for young girls, are critically important to keeping the technology pipeline at its fullest.

In graduate school, my academic father, Mehmet Toner, encouraged me to become a researcher and a professor when it wasn’t anywhere on my radar. It’s so important to have people to take the time to say to someone you believe in, “You would be good at that.” As a mentor now myself, I try and remember to do this and I encourage others to do the same. Ultimately, it may be the biggest impact we make.

2015’s Research Scholars: Another Peek into What Makes a Great TEDMED Talk

Earlier this year, we shared details around some of the critical elements that support TEDMED’s editorial process. Specifically, we shared our core values, code of ethics, speaker selection process and the addition of TEDMED’s inaugural Editorial Advisory Board (EAB). As we explained, our EAB members advise TEDMED on topics, themes and speakers that should be considered when creating our annual stage program.

Now, as we prepare to announce this year’s program and speaker line-up, we want to give you a peek into another significant group that contributes to our editorial process: the TEDMED 2015 Research Scholars.

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When TEDMED curates the talks that are being considered for the stage each year, topics range literally from A (autoimmune disease) to Z (zona pellucida). To assist us with reviewing and researching the deep science behind potential topics, themes and speakers, TEDMED relies on outside feedback from our Research Scholars who are a diverse group of carefully selected experts.

Our Scholars are equipped with the professional training, objective knowledge and institutional credibility required to give TEDMED a wealth of insights, informed perspectives and thoughtful suggestions for further queries and investigation. TEDMED assembles Research Scholars from across the biomedical spectrum: university faculty, post-docs, grad students, public health professionals, entrepreneurs, science journalists and medical students from leading institutions and associations.

It’s no mystery why our Scholars break away from their busy schedules to volunteer their time in support of TEDMED’s mission. Each is a person of extraordinarily generous spirit; and, each is passionate about making a difference in health and medicine. We are proud to count the TEDMED Research Scholars as valued members of the TEDMED community…and we thank them for their outstanding contributions.

Without further ado…we are honored to recognize the Research Scholars for TEDMED 2015. See the full list here.

Stay informed as details around TEDMED 2015 continue to be shared. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and consider registering today for TEDMED 2015 in Palm Springs, November 18-20, at the beautiful historic La Quinta Resort! We’ll begin announcing details of the program next week.

Discovering Beauty in Science: Q&A with Zachary Copfer

At TEDMED 2014, microbiologist and artist Zachary Copfer tells delightful stories about how bacteria became his artistic medium of choice.  We recently caught up with Zachary to hear more about him, his TEDMED experience, and what lies ahead.

Ultimately, I hope people see my work or watch my talk and say "Wow science is awesome, give me a lab coat because I want in on this!" - Zachary Copfer. (Photo by Jerrod Harris, for TEDMED).

Ultimately, I hope people see my work or watch my talk and say “Wow science is awesome, give me a lab coat because I want in on this!” – Zachary Copfer. (Photo by Jerrod Harris, for TEDMED).

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

I hope the talk will have the same impact that I strive for my artwork to have on viewers: to get people excited about science. Science is amazing, fun and beautiful! In my artwork, I have found a way to play with science to inspire in others the overwhelming sense of awe I feel when I step back and think of how complex and amazing the universe is.

Please list the top 3 TEDMED2014 talks or performances that left an impression with you, and why.

Naming the top three is almost impossible; I couldn’t even keep track of the number of talks that made me think “oh wow” or gave me goosebumps. Two speakers who instantly come to mind are Diana Nyad and Kitra Cahana. As amazing and awe-inspiring as I feel science to be, nothing can match the power of hearing stories about the human spirit. These talks both gave me goosebumps and had me tearing up a bit. Peggy Battin’s talk was another that left me thinking as I walked out of the auditorium. The issues she explored were issues that a lot of people don’t like to think about, let alone discuss. That makes it all the more important to have people like Peggy discussing them publicly so that others may start to feel more comfortable with them.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

The simplest way to put it would be to say that I want my legacy to be a smile. A shared smile evokes in other people an almost indescribable sensation. A genuine smile is a selfless act that makes other people feel welcome, connected and cared for in a way that few other expressions can communicate. A smile also says that life is fun and is meant to be enjoyed at every moment. To live a life that makes people feel the same way they feel when they receive a genuine smile would be the greatest legacy I believe one could leave behind.

What’s next for you?

To keep playing with science. To explore the aesthetic possibilities of scientific theories and to find ways to share them with others.

Notably Ig Nobel: Science humor

Author and newspaper columnist Marc Abrahams is the editor of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research. At TEDMED 2014 he shared laughter- and thought-provoking stories behind some of the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, which he founded and hosts. Almost all humor aside, Marc snuck away from his duties for a few moments to answer questions for us.

Marc Abrahams at TEDMED 2014: Science Humor

Marc Abrahams at TEDMED 2014. Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

People are sometimes given very serious advice about their health by Very Important People who know little and assume much. Look at the crazy advice that some politicians and some journalists are giving us — “Don’t vaccinate your kids!”, “Ebola was created by evil people who want to attack the American public!”. If someone — no matter who it is — tells you something that seems absurd, the best thing you can do is laugh, if it strikes you as funny… and then go find out the facts, and think about them. And THEN decide what you think about their advice.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

Three people each told me about scarily good candidates for future Ig Nobel Prizes. I probably would never have heard of any of those nominees if I hadn’t gone to TEDMED. (Sorry — I am not permitted to tell you anything about those nominees. We have rules, y’know.)

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I hope I helped at least a few people decide that it’s okay to make their own decisions — rather than simply accept what some authoritative person told them — about what’s good and what’s bad, and what’s important and what’s not.  

Anything else you wish you could have included in your talk?

Well, of course I wanted to tell the story of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. But there wasn’t time. And anyway, Kees Moeliker, the scientist who made that discovery, is the best person to tell that story, which he did in an obscure biology journal, and then at the 2003 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, and then again years later in a TED talk.

Can you share some highlights from the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony?

The on-stage demonstration of the technique that won this year’s Ig Nobel Prize for medicine. It was awarded to a team from the U.S. and India for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds using the method of nasal packing with strips of cured pork. Before that night, I had never in my life met anyone who had disguised himself as a polar bear to frighten a reindeer. I am very pleased with the premiere performance — as part of the ceremony  — of “What’s Eating You”, the mini-opera about a couple who decided to stop eating regular food, and instead get all their nutrients from pills. The lead singers were magnificent, and so was the chorus of their intestinal microbes.

What was your favorite winner from the 2014 Ig Nobel prize ceremony?

I am entranced by the Nutrition Prize winners — Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich, and Margarita Garriga, who published a study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.” They could not travel to the ceremony, so instead sent us a mesmerizing half-minute-long video in which they explain what they did and why, and then eat some of the sausage. MA2