Remember those stereotyped groups from high school? Among them you found the creative types starring in the spring musical and the science types solving equations. Thank goodness most of us figured out pretty quickly after high school that we were much more than the label pasted on us by our peers.
One group I've developed an appreciation for over the years is the science lab bunch. Those folks have the real creativity. I am fascinated by the way scientists think. Take a story that HealthCentral recently posted, "Fishing for a Cancer Cure."
The news story explains how scientist Dr. Richard Mark White at Harvard Medical School and his colleagues are using zebrafish to study cancer. In a few sentences we learn that the scientists created transparent zebrafish so they could watch the spread of melanoma tumors and learn more about cancer metastasis and ways to make stem cell transplants safer. They chose zebrafish because they share 80% of their genes with humans. They believe that what they learn about how melanoma tumors spread will apply to all sorts of other cancers. End of story.
But wait just a minute. Back up. There's a story with some real drama here. First of all, we have the folks who figured out how to map genes and the ones who decided that zebrafish genes would be interesting to study. Those people had to talk someone with money into giving them a grant for the lab equipment, scientists' salaries, the zebra fish, and all the other miscellaneous expenses of running a research project.
This sounds like just the sort of study that people like to make fun of, especially if taxpayer funds are used. "Look at those crazy folks in Washington using your hard earned taxes to study zebrafish genes. If zebrafish want jeans, let them buy their own Levis," shout the critics.
Now I don't know who paid for the first zebrafish study; it might have been private funds. Nevertheless scientists are always competing for scarce research funding, so our zebrafish guys had to write a proposal that made a convincing case before they knew what they would find and before they had a clue about practical applications for the information. Maybe they had to beat out the folks who wanted money to study photosynthesis in orchids.
Once the scientists had a map of zebrafish genes, someone had to know enough about human genes, zebrafish genes, and the genes of many other animals to publish an article about the similarities of the gene maps. Once again they had to compete for limited journal article space and convince an editor that their research would interest other scientists.
In another lab someone said, "We could actually watch tumors grow if we had an animal that was transparent."
"Yeah, right. In your dreams," replied the lab skeptic.
"What about zebrafish?" asked the third. "I just read a study about how their genes are similar to ours."
"Not transparent. Remember, they've got those stripes," said the skeptic.
"No problem. We'll just change their DNA and create a breed of stripeless zebrafish."
At least that's my imaginary story of how the Harvard experiment started. I'm a creative type. I make up stories. But I've come to realize that the really innovative people are the scientists who have the imagination to decide what to study, who invent the apparatus to support experiments to find out what they want to know, and then make the practical applications that save our lives. They take basic facts and build on the research of other scientists to create new knowledge.
The next time you read about a new step forward in cancer research, think about the innovation and imaginative leaps that research scientists used. Even in these times of tight dollars, we need to support public funding for basic research and donate to organizations that fund research.
If you know a scientist, give him or her a thank-you hug from me and all the other folks who are alive because of their creativity.
Published On: September 27, 2009