Molecular biology and genetics are diverse disciplines with thousands of directions to take – why did you choose yours?
Students often ask me this question. They consider it so difficult to understand how one would choose a project, and so mysterious! But the truth is that the specific problems we work on tend to find us, rather than our looking for them. When I started my own laboratory at the University of Colorado, I wanted to study DNA. I had no interest in RNA, other than it being the product of copying the DNA information. But when we saw the RNA splicing itself – performing gymnastics right in front of our eyes – we were captivated. We became RNA scientists! This has happened over and over again in my career. If you keep your eyes open, and your mind open, you’ll find something exciting in science – very often something different from what you were looking for.
Genetics – and biology in general – are undoubtedly fields with a high potential impact on everyday life. Even the general public understands the importance of cancer research, immunology and other medical applications. Nevertheless, are there some less known aspects of your research that are changing the way we live as individuals and society?
I do not think my own work has such power or influence! So let me speak more generally, for the thousand of researchers around the world who are studying RNA, the daughter of the DNA double helix. First, we are of course very excited that our combined research has paved the way for the mRNA Covid vaccines and for CRISPR gene editing. In addition, in terms of value to society, I would say that there’s a cultural value in discovering the intimate secrets of biology. Just as we appreciate art and music for their own sake, scientific discoveries have cultural value independent of any applications.
The popularization of science has recently become an increasingly debated topic, with the aim of bringing young people to science as a career choice. What advice would you give to those who are considering becoming a full-fledged researcher? And if you‘ve ever been in doubt or just tired of hard work, what kept you going?
In speaking to young people, I say that if you’re curious about how the natural world came to be and how it works, if you like to collect specimens and examine things in detail, if you enjoy math and like to make calculations, then you should consider a career in science. And if you start out in one science field and get discouraged, it doesn’t mean you should quit science. Each scientific field has its own tempo, its own challenges and gratification, so if physics isn’t working for you, try chemistry or biology. Personally, I graduated from college in Chemistry, but I became discouraged with pure chemistry and switched to biochemistry, and that made all the difference for me.
Genetically modified animal organs for transplantation, potential treatment of genetic disorders, possibly even cloning of endangered species…. Is ethics an important factor in your research? And have you ever encountered an ethical threshold in your professional capacity that you were not sure whether to cross?
I consider it a major responsibility of scientists to consider the ethical implications of their research. My own research is fundamental and not applied, so I’ve not been in a position where I had to make a difficult ethical decision about my own work. But in 2001 when I was president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, I was faced with the decision whether to fund research on human materials that involved in vitro fertilization. The research raised ethical, societal, and political considerations. I established a Bioethics Advisory Board, held a conference, and had many discussions with scientists and non-scientists before ultimately deciding that funding such research was the proper ethical choice.
Of course, we are proud to be the city where G. J. Mendel did his research. We even have the Mendel Museum administered by Masaryk University. Is Mendel still a significant figure in this field?
Can he still be an inspiration for a new generation of scientists? Mendel’s legacy is so firmly entrenched that the adjective Mendelian is used every day by genetic counselors and physicians to describe traits that follow the rules of inheritance he discovered. Mendelian traits include face freckles and cheek dimples as well as diseases like Sickle-cell disorder and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. We also speak of Non-Mendelian traits like eye color and height; they are determined by multiple genes, so their pattern of inheritance is more complex. Certainly the picture of a lone Augustinian monk examining his peas in the garden is so compelling that it inspires young people to explore and understand the natural world