Friday, April 26, 2013

Myriad vs ACLU

My company Avidity has prospered for 15+ years because we have a technology that is protected by patent.  We probably would not exist today, would not employ scientists, and would not create the products that allow researchers to easily employ our technology if it were not for our patents.
Yet, I strongly believe that patenting of genes is wrong:  It’s bad for patients, it’s bad for companies, it’s bad for society, and it’s bad for fundamental research.  One of the requirements for a patent is the inventive step.  The ACLU argued that the patenting of genes lacks an inventive step.  A discovery is not an invention.  A discovery is an understanding of what already exists around us.  The best of scientific discovery changes the way we think about our world and our place and role in it.  The discovery creates nothing other than a different way to see the world.
The gene patents thwart innovation.  They do not protect innovation.  My personal experience in creating rapid diagnostics in the food safety arena teaches me that these gene patents discourage innovation that could greatly benefit society and save lives.  A platform technology that one of my companies employs is novel.  There is an inventive step.  Yet, even though rRNA has been used for many years as a powerful tool to identify microbes, this tool is not available to this company because of patents on the rRNA sequences discovered by trolling nucleic acid databases.
Society would be much better served if companies competed instead on the innovations and strengths of their platforms:  Cheaper, faster, or more sensitive assays.  Let’s hope that the Supreme Court rights this wrong.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Teaching Science

Teaching Science
I recently had the opportunity to teach a science course to 6th and 7th graders at my daughter’s elementary school.  I called the class “Science is Serious Fun 2”, and while we covered some serious subjects in science, my goal was to make science fun.  I worry that the teaching of science in our public schools is taught as vocabulary and as concepts (pretty dry stuff ) and does nothing to stimulate curiosity and teach the joy of learning and discovery .  I challenged myself to use what I knew about communicating and tried to engage the student’s imagination.  It was an experience that was both immensely rewarding and humbling.
Day 1: Bioluminescence
 As you know if you’ve read this blog, I work with bioluminescent proteins.  Bioluminescent proteins are fun.  Animals are fun.  I was sure the kids would enjoy hearing about the creatures in the deep ocean that use light to interact.   First question:  How many ways can you think of that creatures might use light in the deep ocean?  I helped them out a little here—to find prey, to find mates, to distract predators, to communicate.  Most deep sea animals emit blue light because it travels farthest in seawater and their eyes are incapable of seeing red light.  Wouldn’t it be neat (a word common in my youth) if some predators were able to use red light to stealthily illuminate their quarry?  In fact there are predators in the deep ocean that can emit red light and thus sneak up on their prey.
 I relayed to the students that my daughter has a bearded dragon lizard that does not see red light, so we use a red light at night to keep it warm.  The seemingly harmless observation that some animals don't see red light provided the first opportunity to get myself in real trouble.  A girl in my class asked, “Can my dog see red light?”  Hmm... good place to ask if the students can suggest an experiment to test whether dogs can see red light...right?  “How would you test if your dog can see red light,” I asked innocently.  The reply:  “I could shine a laser into its eyes and see if it blinks.” now I’m responsible for blinding the family dog.  “No! Let’s not do that! My turtles are not nearly as smart as your dog,” I replied, “yet they swim to the side of their tank when I turn the lights on to feed them.  Maybe your dog can be trained to recognize that it is going to be fed when a light is turned on, and maybe we could test if the dog responds both to a white light and to a red light?”  PLEASE.
All right.  Time to get to safer ground.  I brought 30 tubes of a bioluminescent reaction (a few hundred microliters of Gaussia luciferase and a 1 milliliter syringe filled with the luciferin coelenterazine dissolved in a small volume of ethanol).  Each child would make a pretty blue light.  As expected, the students were excited and having fun.  The kids were instructed to drop their reaction tubes into the trash when they left the room.  Wow!  I’m good at this teaching stuff!  The saying ‘Pride goeth before the fall’ comes to mind here as I think back to that class.
Day2:  Code Day.  We learn about binary and genetic codes
As the children filed into class on the second day, one of the girls remarked that “the light tubes tasted horrible.”  Say what!?  In my wildest imaginings I did not envision that anyone would taste the mixture.  Fortunately, except for the very small amount of alcohol (about 100 microliters or 5 drops), nothing in the mixture would hurt the students.
While the students had fun on the first day, I felt I needed to make a better connection.  I employed every technique I learned over the years from my efforts to fund my start-up company.  In the early years raising money is difficult-- as any entrepreneur who depends on raising money in order for the company to survive will tell you—especially when your idea is a concept: A cartoon on a poster or Power Point slide.
The students at this school reluctantly wear uniforms.  They're allowed to wear white, tan, maroon, and blue color combinations.  I wore tan slacks and a light blue shirt out of respect for the students and to show them that I recognize and care about them.
I started the class by telling them that I was giving them my time, the gift of my years of experience and my energy.  In return, I expected their best efforts, attention, and energy.  This “contract” with the students will become valuable, as we’ll see, going forward.  This principle is called reciprocity:  I give you something, and in return, I expect something from you.
Next, I reveal that I am going to tell them things that very few people know, that the information I am going to tell them is rare, and that I am going to share some of my secrets.  This is based on a fundamental principle in economics:  Scarcity breeds competition.  We value diamonds highly because we think they are rare (some will tell you they are not particularly rare).
Finally, I promised to be open, honest and respectful to them.  I was there for them.  They could ask me whatever they wanted.  I looked into their eyes when I said it.  I meant this.  I got their attention.
I shared with them a story about when I was their age, and my teacher caught me passing a note, confiscated the note, and read it out loud to the entire class—much to my considerable embarrassment.  “What did the note say?” asked one of the girls on cue.  I replied that I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that the note revealed my interest in one of the girls in my class.  Sooo...if you don’t want others to know your communications, you better pay attention to the codes I’m going to teach you.  Now, I realized that this probably would create a flurry of note passing in classrooms.  Honestly, if they learned the concepts of the codes I was teaching them, I felt that the price was fair.  This played into my distrust of rules and authority (see previous blog on scientist’s mistrust of authority).  I can tell you that the next day a teacher told me that they had caught a student passing a code.  Score!
Day 3:  Mysteries of the Universe:  Black holes, pulsars, super nova, Dark Energy, Dark Matter.  Also, we touch agar plates to grow bacteria off our hands for Day 5
This was a great day.  We talked about how scientists measure distance in the galaxies and how they estimate the age of the universe.  The kids were entranced and asked lots of questions.  I made the mistake of thinking (again!) that maybe I was good at this.  See Day 4.
I did field an expected question from a very bright student.  It was the best question I was asked, one that every teacher needs to be able to answer.  It started with a whine:  “Why do you ask such hard questions?”  My answer was that the hard questions are the interesting ones. That scientists sometimes ask questions that they work on their entire lives.  Sometimes they find the answers to their hard questions...often they do not.  That the answers to hard questions change over time.  As we get older and understand more, we realize that the answers we thought true didn't contain the whole truth--that there are layers of understanding, deeper answers.  Okay, here it comes...
“Why should I even care about what you’re telling us?” she asked.   I paced the front of the room, back and forth, in short arcs.  “Have you ever seen that caged lion in the zoo?” I asked.  “His world is very small.  Imagine how much happier he is on the African Savannah, where his world is as far as he can see and as far as he can roam.  Science makes our world bigger.  We realize that the world around is bigger and more complex.  That the world is bigger and smaller than what our senses tell us.  That there is a universe that is so big we can scarcely comprehend it.  That there exists a world so small we don’t even see it without special tools but is part of who we are.  That everything is connected.” I started Classes 4 and 5 with the question, “What kind of lion are you, today?”
Day 4:  Are you smarter than a cave man?  Measuring time, distance, navigating.
I thought this would be a good day.  Not so.  The idea “Are you smarter that a cave man?” is based on a game I play with my kids.  The premise is, “How did someone come up with the idea of a second?  What could they use in their environment to measure time? Distance?  How could the ancient mariners navigate using the stars?”
A few of the students were interested.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear their questions-- and they had trouble hearing my answers--because of all the side conversations.  I lost control of the classroom.  All the bad Karma from talking (considerable) during my school days had come to roost. They were probably discussing ways to improve their codes, some of which the girls told me had been cracked in short order by pesky boys.
Day 5:  We are what we eat?  Salmonella, E. coli, and flesh eating bacteria-we’ll look at the plates we touched on the 3rd day and describe what we see on the plates.
This is my day of redemption.  When the students entered the classroom, I sat quietly up front.  When they all entered, I told them I had a confession.  I failed yesterday.  I failed to connect with them.  I failed to provide them with a classroom where they could learn, because they could not hear me and I could not hear them.  I told them I went through what many of them probably felt when they failed.  I was angry.  I was frustrated.  That I wanted to walk away from the situation rather than engage with them.  But I realized that this was part of my responsibility as a teacher to confront my failure in a way that I would want them to deal with their failures.  And I told them that they had failed me, too.  I reminded them of our contract, their promise to give me their attention, their energy, their commitment to learn.  I told them I tell my girls that no failure is really a failure if we learn from it.  I told them I would do a better job and learn from the failures of yesterday.  And I told them I expected them to honor their contract.  You could have heard a pin drop.
I then walked to the front of the classroom, showed them my agar plate with microbes from my fingertips, and showed them the contrast with one of theirs.
Don’t ever leave a school classroom without a heavy dose of hand sanitizer.  One creative girl had imprinted an additional plate with her foot.  As expected, there were smelly, pink, yellow, white, smooth, and crusty colonies on their plates.  The kids were both fascinated and disgusted.  And at the end of class I stood by the door and collected every single plate in a biohazard bag.
On the way out of the school I told the principal, who vetted my experience, that I believed I had created a class of germaphobes.  I’m told they went through two bottles of hand sanitizer in the classroom that day and long lines of kids in the restroom waiting to wash their hands.
Maybe I am good at this.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Zen of Science: Life as an Experiment

 “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk into the everydayness of his own life.  To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something.  Not to be on to something is to be in despair.”   Walker Percy
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
 Ursula K. Le Guin

“Thinking is more interesting that knowing, but less interesting than looking.”  Goethe

One of the lessons I try to impart to our new scientists is to not get too high or too low if their experiment succeeds or fails.  This is a lesson I had to learn over a period of time, and I left science for a while because I viewed the success or failure of my experiment as my success or failure.  The mantra I repeat for all my scientists is “the data is not good or tells us what we need to do next.”  What I have found over the years is that when I’m truly in discovery mode, each experiment is a revelation and there is usually a way forward regardless of the outcome. When you approach your experiments with an open mind there is joy in the outcome and I revel in the surprise when I get a result that is different from what I expected.
There is another element of Zen that has important ramifications both in life and in the lab:  Being in the moment.  There is inertia in new lab projects, and one of the impediments to moving forward with the experiments is looking ahead at potential technical hurdles—for coming up with reasons about why something won’t work.  I work mightily at getting my scientists to focus on the current experiment.  The reason we do experiments is because we don’t know the answer...if we did we wouldn’t need to do the experiment!
I began to approach my company management and my life with the same attitude:  Life is an experiment.  What I find with the “Life is an Experiment” approach is that I am open to trying out new ideas, to taking chances without agonizing over possible outcomes, to approaching problems and solutions with curiosity rather than trepidation.  I’m not saying that I don’t study a subject in depth before I design a life experiment, but I’m not afraid to try.  When you get to my age, your life is full of experiments, and you hope that you’ve learned something along the way that allows you to do a better experiment.

I know all my experiments won’t meet my expected outcome, and I love the anticipation of an unexpected result.  For instance, I marvel at the curiosity displayed my 11-month old granddaughter who is into everything, and I lament the fact that my children (10 and 12) have lost some of that curiosity.  I wonder what I could have done to keep that strong curiosity alive, although I realize that school and the friction of life strip us of some of that curiosity. I offered my kids a quarter for every good question that they submitted to me in writing—I determined what was a good question--and I expected that I would be crying “Uncle!” before too long.  I got some great questions like “Do black holes die?”
 It was my plan that when I had accumulated enough questions, that I would offer them $1 for every answer they found to their questions.  I figured that I would recoup my investment by improving their chances for getting a scholarship to college, or if they answer enough questions like the Black Hole question maybe they can skip college.
 To date I have received few written questions.  Some might view this experiment as a failed experiment.  Wrong.  What I learned from this experiment is that my children are not highly motivated by money.  I guess that’s good news if they want to be scientists when they grow up, bad news if they want to be salesmen.  What a wonderful opportunity this experiment has given me to find out what sorts of rewards motivate my girls!
This blog is an example of a life experiment.  I have invited many highly opinionated scientists, who freely give me feedback on the blog, to put down their ideas--and there are some really good ones--but no one has stepped forward to contribute a guest blog.  I suspect that they are busy, but also that it takes some courage to expose oneself publicly.  I don’t know if this blog will engage readers, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the experiment!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Scientist Humor

I wrestle with the stereotypes that are frequently assigned to scientists, and one of these is that we are always serious and lack a sense of humor. I find humor everywhere in science if you know where to look.  The first cloned sheep cloned was cloned from a mammary cell, and the sheep was named Dolly—after Dolly Parton.  That’s funny.  Humor creeps into other names, too.  I am always amused by the developmental gene named sonic hedgehog named after a video game character.  That’s funny.
When I was working on the West Coast for a biotech company, Triton Biotechnology, there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle stating that scientists lacked a sense of humor.  I’ve always prided myself on having a sense of humor, and I‘ve found that the creative scientists I like to associate with have a good sense of humor.  I’m not as sure about the “business types” in the biotech arena, but maybe some of them will write in to refute me on this.
On the day that I heard about this story, I was scheduled to present data at our Molecular Biology Group meeting--around 16 people or so—including my boss and his boss.  We heard about the article in an email from our business development group, although it’s still not clear to me why they cared.   I managed to get my hands on an internal memo that was color coded, in this case, the color of the business development group.  When it was my turn to present, I held up the memo and with a serious demeanor pretended to read it.  I told the group that in light of the recent Chronicle article, I had been asked to read this important internal memo before I presented my data:  “To All Scientists:  In order to rebut the Chronicle article published this morning and the statement that scientists lack a sense of humor, the Triton business development group was starting a joke hot line. “  Then I read the Business Development group’s office number. About half the scientists in the group thought this was hysterical, and the other half sat there with dumbfounded looks.
I have repeated this experiment using different humorous themes several times in the course of my career, and each time I meet with about the same result.  About half the scientists in the room react strongly with laughter, and the other half just look puzzled.
Because of the inherent ability of science to disrupt conventional thinking-- to challenge strongly held beliefs-- and the problem that we don’t communicate well with people about what science is or what we do, scientists make people uncomfortable.
So, non-scientists invent stereotypes that make us flawed, and in that way more human and less scary.  OK—this scientist is really smart but he/she is socially inept.    It has been my experience that many scientists are uncomfortable socially.  What is the definition of an extroverted scientist?  Answer:  An extroverted scientist talks to your shoes in a conversation.
It has been my experience, also, that while scientists are portrayed as milquetoasts, that this wimpy portrayal is not an accurate stereotype.  In my labs, scientists were a minor league baseball player, a weight lifter, a 6’2” outdoorsman, a kayaker, and a martial artist.  Hardly milquetoasts. 
On the other hand, I have attended dances, usually at the end of conferences, where the spectacle of hundreds of dancing scientists had all the beauty of a wildebeest herd fording a crocodile infested river.
(see scientists dancing below)

I hope you found this funny!  No?—you must be a scientist.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Great Teachers

   “A society's competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.”
Albert Einstein
 “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”
Albert Einstein

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” -- Ken Robinson

Some of the questions I’ve pondered for much of my adult life are “What makes a teacher great?”  and “How do we educate ourselves and our children?”  I love movies like the Ron Clark Story, Freedom Writers,  Stand and Deliver, and The Ben Carson Story .  I think there are important lessons and insights in these movies that apply not only to disadvantaged youth, but to all children. 
I recently heard a Colorado legislator arguing for a reduction in money for K-12 citing studies showing that throwing more money at education does not yield commensurate benefits. He continued his argument by stating that college level courses often had very large classrooms (lecture halls?) yet were successful in educating their students. What is required to properly educate our students, particularly the young?
I think many scientists would say that they had a great teacher that inspired them, that started them on their journey of exploration, a teacher that they admired. I think these teachers have a number of characteristics that define great teachers:
 A great teacher is, first, a great student.  A great teacher learns as much from his students—maybe more-- than they give back.  In all the movies above, the teachers carefully observed their students-- learned about the personal lives and motivations, the impediments to learning, and the life passions of their students—and adapted their teaching methods to connect to their students.  This theme of connection resonates through my blogs, and it is seminal to education.  A great teacher can connect to the mass audience in a large lecture hall, with universal themes in stories and parables that touch our emotions as well as our intellect.   
What is missed in these large lecture halls is the intimate connection that comes from the interaction of student and teacher, and this can be incredibly powerful.  An example comes to mind of a great teacher I had in college (University of Colorado, Boulder) in a class on the biology of the bi-lipid membrane.  The professor was L. Andrew Staehelin, now a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado.  Towards the end of the course, we were required to write a research paper on a topic we chose.  Dr. Staehelin did something that was unique in my university experience.  He sat down with each and every student and went through their manuscripts line by line.
Obviously, this cannot be done in a large lecture hall classroom.   His intent was not only to teach by pointing to shortcomings in the manuscript, he also solicited additional information from the student by asking questions.  He got to a section in my paper that cited an experiment, where he admitted he didn’t understand what I was trying to communicate.  I had to confess to him that I really did not understand the paper I cited.   What Dr. Staehelin told me (see Einstein above) was that if I didn’t understand the paper, the authors of the paper did not understand the experiment well enough to communicate to me effectively. 
Now, imagine my surprise from having a highly regarded scientist at the top of his field telling me—an undergraduate—to trust my own instincts, to trust myself:  That the fault did not lay in me; that I had not failed; that my inability to understand was not due to my stupidity.  That what we had here was a failure to communicate.  How empowering!  I have never forgotten that lesson, and it is a lesson that I pass on to my children, co-workers and employees.  This is the kind of student/teacher interaction that can and should take place in every classroom every day.  Yet this is kind of interaction is not possible or occurs infrequently in large classrooms.
Another trait that I have observed in good teachers is a passion—not only for teaching—but for their subject matter.  I visited my daughter’s classroom in 5th grade, where I was able to observe a science lesson.  The lesson consisted of writing vocabulary words on the blackboard and querying the students for concepts in the lesson.  What I did not see was the passion, the mystery and wonder of events, the flights of imagination... the creativity! I love to play what I call the “caveman” game with my kids.  How did that first person come up with a way to measure time?  Distance?  What tools in nature could that person employ to solve a problem? 
I watched a TED talk video ( by Sir Ken Robinson, a creativity expert.  He is an incredible communicator, and very funny, but he has a serious message:  There are different forms of intelligence, yet we try to put all students in the same box in school.  We de-emphasize the creative arts and don’t encourage our students to develop their creativity.  Liz Coleman ( talks about rethinking our educational strategy.  We drive our students to become experts in a narrow field.  Our students learn more and more about less and less.  And because of this, we begin to lose our ability to communicate—to connect with each other.  Ironically, the scientists that I most admire--and the ones that I hire--are the creative individuals who are interested in the whole world around them.  I find that I can talk with them about everything—from the origin of the universe, to politics, to quantum physics, to diet and exercise, to global warming, to evolution, to anything and everything--in the world around us.
Finally, a good teacher gives her students permission to fail.  I struggled with this concept at first.  My business education taught me that good management does not reward effort, but rather success.  And that’s what we do in school now.  If you get an A, I will give you an extra recess or a slice of pizza.  It does take effort to get an A—but if you fail you don’t get rewarded.  Of course the unintended consequence of this strategy is that we develop children (or employees) who don’t take risks because there is no reward for failure. 
I think a better strategy is to encourage an internal, rather than external, reward.  Better to reward our children for exercising their imaginations.  To find motivation from the joy of discovery.  To revel in our curiosity about the world around us.  And if we fail, to realize that there is no failure if we learn.  There is no better teacher than failure, if that failure is a result of daring greatly--of attempting to do something that lies in the very limits of our ability.  I once heard that chess great Bobby Fisher remarked that he never learned anything from winning a chess match.  Yet the hallmark of Bobby Fisher's chess was the imagination, boldness and fearlessness of his game in spite of the risks.
I marvel that my children have an incredible ability to find out answers to their questions on the internet.  My greatest challenge is not to have them find the answers, but to ask the questions.  I pray that they get teachers who can inspire them to ask questions.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Ode to the American Farmer

Besides my role as CEO of Avidity, I am Chief Technology Officer for Beacon Biotechnology and Beacon Food Safety where I work on developing rapid tests for food pathogens. I'm mostly focused on testing food just before it reaches the consumer. The first week in April I had the opportunity to see our food production system at the source--the American farm. My wife's cousin Ed is a master farmer near Kalona, Iowa. The importance of agriculture to the area is embodied in the name Kalona, named after a prize winning bull. 

 According to a recent National Public Radio Broadcast (NPR --March 13, 2012) farm income is up 30 % in the last two years, due in part to increases in productivity: ".. modern farmers can work much more land, and get two or three times more grain out of it than their fathers did." Americans have always embraced innovation and technology. You need look no farther than Ed's farm to understand how the American farmer has embraced innovation and technology to feed the world. Ed won a technology award from the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University.

It is amazing to me the way in which Ed is able to integrate the latest in science and technology in an integrated, comprehensive vision of his farm. Ed's success starts with hard work. My wife and I would meet up with Ed around 7:30am for breakfast—we were just getting started on our day, but Ed was coming home from his early chores. Ed manages roughly a thousand acres of land with his son-in-law, another full-time worker, and some part-time help. Ed grows soybeans and corn, and raises beef cattle and pigs.

The beauty of Ed's farm is how each of these different pieces works together synergistically. Let's start with corn. I know a lot has been written about how ethanol production has hurt food prices and nets very little net energy in the domestic energy equation. I would like to see the detailed analysis of ethanol production from corn to see if it has incorporated all the "externalities" of ethanol production. One of the by-products of ethanol production is a fibrous, high-gluten waste product that can be blended to provide a nutritious feed for the pigs. Ed buys this inexpensive gluten by-product and blends his own pig feed.

Some of the silage is harvested and blended with hay and other feeds to be used as nutritious cattle feed that Ed can store for extended periods of time by storing the blended silage in a lined, covered pit. The waste from Ed's pig operation is harvested and injected into the soil used to grow soybeans and corn; this process minimizes pig-waste odor and the result is an outstanding fertilizer. The silage also serves as ground cover to conserve the soil.

The pig operation is a marvel of technology. Pig farming receives a lot of bad press for the problems with the pig waste, and for the perception that the pigs are "factory inputs" raised under inhumane conditions--over-crowded and stressed. I can tell you that Ed raises his pig in pens where the pigs run, chase each other, and generally seem content. Attributing human emotions and traits like "happy" to livestock is probably a mistake, but the animals, at least, showed no signs of distress. The pig house automatically lowers sun blinds in the windows when the house begins to get to warm, and turns on fans. The air-flow in the pig house minimizes odor and the smell was not unpleasant. The pigs are automatically given food from an outside storage bin when the weight of the pig feed in their troughs drops to a set-point.

The role of genetics on the modern farm cannot be understated. I would guess the American farmer is a little confused by the uproar around Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's or the clever pejorative Frankenfoods). Let me point out the irony that all of our crops and domestic food animals were "engineered" by farmers selecting for desirable genetic traits over millennia. The randomness of genetic assortment makes this selection a somewhat sloppy hit or miss proposition, but nonetheless it's been very successful. We've gotten better at selecting new traits through molecular biology. There is nothing inherently bad in this faster, cheaper way of doing things, although certainly we can debate the wisdom of loss of diversity and other choices that may or may not increase risk to the farmer and to society in general.

Ed's pigs produce bigger litters, are bred to be lean, and mature quickly. His corn, particularly the high yields, herbicide resistance, and the addition of the amino acid lysine which gives the corn more complete nutrition, are GMO, but he also plans to grow organic soybeans where he can get a premium price. His cattle are Angus and Charlet /Angus hybrids. He artificially inseminates his heifers with bull semen that is thoroughly analyzed and validated for its ability to produce offspring that are lower in birth weight and heavier at the time of harvest. This minimizes the loss of calves at birth, and maximizes Ed's profits when the cattle are sold. Ed took great pride in showing me the cattle chute that to his pen that is based on the left-handed spiral developed by Temple Grandin, the autistic CSU professor who pioneered much of the cattle handling equipment that made cattle ranching both more humane and efficient.

Ed’s equipment is an important key in his ability to maximize his yields. Ed’s combine for harvesting corn is a technical marvel. Ed’s combine calculates and maps both soil moisture content and yields as he is harvesting. This is accomplished by coupling the moisture and yield data to GPS in the cab of the combine. This yield data can be used to identify areas where yields might be improved and insights into yield variables.

The planters, too, are technically advanced. Ed uses no-till planting where the planter scrapes a narrow path through the tillage to expose the dark soil. The dark soil is efficient at capturing sunlight and warming the ground, fostering germination. A blade on the planter cuts a narrow furrow and a seed is placed at the proper depth (taking into account the soil moisture content) and spacing. A wheel follows to seal the furrow.

After Ed’s long day, he checks weather forecasts, global farm prices, commodities prices on the Chicago Board of Exchange, and a wealth of other information that inform all his decisions about corn, soybeans, pigs, and cattle. On top of all this, Ed is familiar and concerned about ecological issues regarding farm runoffs, water, soil conservation, and genetic cross- contamination.

Ed thinks about high agricultural land prices, and more than once lamented the lack of planning and foresight as prime agricultural land is paved and built upon. Ed told me about how a farmer in his area managed to harness methane produced by the pig waste to power machinery, and I know he’s thinking about this. Ed’s ability to provide a high level of care for his animals, his skill at maintaining his farm and equipment, his incredible wealth of information that he uses in his decisions, his knowledge of plant and animal genetics, his soil conservation and enrichment techniques, his awareness of the impact of his farm on the surrounding ecosystems are more than impressive: Ed creates a viable, sustainable farm utilizing all available inputs in the most efficient and compatible way.

Ed--and farmers like him--is the reason the American farmer is the best in the world. Ed embodies all that is good about Americans: Their willingness to innovate, their hard work, their intelligence and their diligence. Ed, you’re my hero.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Question Authority

“To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.” ― Albert Einstein

“Everyone is born a genius”....R. Buckminster Fuller

In my years in the lab and managing scientists I’ve come to realize that almost every scientist I know resists and/or resents authority. The pervasiveness of this attitude leads me to believe that revulsion of authority is a defining personality trait of scientists. Of course this presents a challenge to anyone trying to manage a team of scientists. This is particularly true when a manager tries a “top down” or bureaucratic management style with scientists.

However, I now believe that the resistance-to-authority trait is a good thing – maybe even a necessary trait—for a scientist to be a good scientist. I am told by a psychologist friend that everyone goes through a stage of development around 2 or 3 years of age (the terrible twos?) where we learn to say “no.” I was told by this friend that while I could bend my child to my will during this period (and what parent doesn’t want their child to obey them?) that it was critical that the child learns to exercise their will by saying No.
As I thought about this, I realize that the scientist must, by the very nature of their task, refuse to accept the current paradigm, to think outside the box, and re-think what is known and accepted—often at a great personal cost and professional risk. I have personally witnessed many examples of scientists who endured personnel and professional attacks by adopting a viewpoint that differed from accepted scientific dogma. Those who persevere and who eventually are shown to be correct may be rewarded, sometimes with a Nobel Prize.
Two of the most famous recent examples of this are Stanley B. Prusiner (1997) for his work with scrapie, and Robin Warren (2005) for his discovery that Helicobacter pylori is a causative agent of duodenal ulcers. Both men endured a lack of support and funding yet persevered long enough to be rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
And so, with a nod to the Boomers:
Question Authority!