Image source

Peter Agre has got to be one of the nicest scientists I have ever met. Until now I had only one data point to support this conclusion; a very enjoyable chat with him along with some other students last year at Emory University. Now I have two. Today in an informal, entertaining, witty and informative 40-minute exchange I “interviewed” the man who discovered one of the fundamental determinants of fluid homeostasis in mammals; the water channels or aquaporins. The word ‘interview’ is really a misnomer since the interview was much more of an informal conversation with a very friendly and witty person.

Dr. Agre had a packed schedule of interviews and talks and he just found enough time for lunch even as we had a chat. We talked about a lot of interesting stuff, and I tossed away my initial set of interviews questions with the relief that the conversation was going to be much more informal and unstructured.

I started by reminding him that I am not a journalist by profession and therefore he should not mind if I don’t appear “journalistic” enough. He responded by reminding me that I am a blogger, which makes me at least a little bit of a journalist. This was a welcome digression since it led me to one of the questions that I had for him; what kind of impact does he think blogs have on scientific discourse. The more fundamental problem I was getting at with this question was this disconnect, much discussed these days, between top scientists who nonetheless may not be very good at communicating their science, and science journalists who may be good at communication but not well-grounded enough in the science. Agre hinted that bloggers, essentially scientists who write on the side, may fill this gap and may constitute a new form of journalism. However he was concerned about the lack of editing and fact-checking that accompanies many blogs. Plus he said, while blogs are definitely very interesting, their recent arrival on the scene means that the verdict is still out on their usefulness and contribution. Agre pointed to Dana Brown and Gina Kolata as examples of very good science writers who seem to be well-versed with the science.

We next moved on to another current topic of major concern; the fact that many newspapers are shutting down not just their science section but shutting down everything. Agre also is concerned that the public does not understand how serious this development is. He pointed to an example of cinema; Edward Murrow featured in the movie “Good night and good luck” was a paragon of journalistic and moral standards, never cutting corners in accurately reporting the news. The decline in newspaper readership is definitely concerning but Agre also pointed to the unknown number of readers who read the news online, possibly a substantial number.

Making science accessible is not too far from government support of science, an even more important endeavor. Agre was full of praise for Barack Obama’s current crop of science advisors and most notably Steven Chu. Agre thought that the stimulus package will make a real difference, although he was of the opinion that the dissemination of the package should have been more long-term. Part of the goals of such government support should be to recover the interest of young people, including scientists, bloggers and journalists.

The discussion of support of young scientists led me to quote from an article by Robert Weinberg at MIT written a few years back. Weinberg thought that the late recognition of their work by research grants would really put young people off science. Agre acknowledged that this is indeed true and getting a first RO1 grant by age 40 is still considered lucky. However he emphasized that science is not an easy game and it is naive to expect constant and generous funding of support. As Max Perutz titled one of his wonderful books, Science is not an Easy Life.

The conversation then turned back to the popularization of science. I asked if Agre thought that public appreciation of science, and by science I didn’t just mean the applications of science but the very method of scientific discovery, was dwindling. Agre agreed that this was the case, but also noted that the least educated class of society is probably never going to appreciate the details of science but only its end products. As cutting edge as gene arrays are, most people are going to only appreciate them if they lead to a cure for disease or quicker diagnosis.

However, the larger concern about the lack of appreciation of science is part of an overriding concern about the lack of rational thinking itself among the general populace. As one of my favorite Einstein quotes says, “All of science is only a more rigorous extension of everyday thinking”. I think this quote to be profound, because it really tells us that science is not the ivory-tower activity that many think it is but that it is very much grounded in the real world, a more careful detailed and modification of the kind of thinking we do in daily life, or at least the kind that we should do. Carl Sagan was very prescient in noting in “The Demon-haunted World” that a lack of scientific thinking will lead to a failure to rationally analyze the world around us and will hinder society’s ability to make important political and social decisions. After all public funding of science is ultimately in the public’s hands, and if the public does not understand the scientific method, and if newspapers and media fail to communicate the value of this method to them, how will they gain the necessary information required to turn them into responsible citizens? This is one of the most pressing problems of our time and Agre acknowledged it as such. He said that it is always easy to fall for activities and interests which don’t need the full use of our critical faculties; this is just human nature. Entertainment is always more seductive than real learning. At the same time, Agre believes that people who are intellectually more or less primed to be challenged by hard problems will continue to be challenged. Plus, it is really the discoveries made by this select population that drive innovation; there is no hubris in this viewpoint, only a factual assertion. Agre said that scientific discovery is somewhat like making movies; a lot of mundane material occasionally interrupted by blockbusters. Agre noted some key discoveries that really changed our view. Many pioneers of these discoveries are at Lindau. Aaron Ciechanover whose discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation is forever. Or the ozone people. Agre modestly did not mention aquaporins, although I did remind him about them.

Since we mentioned aquaporins this was a good time to ask Agre about them. Aquaporins are ubiquitous proteins which conduct water molecules. They are key in fluid retention and transport in mammals. The discovery was really serendipitous with the proteins found in a search for the Rhesus factor antigen. The story has been well documented in Agre’s own Nobel Prize memoir. Agre recalled how he and his team worked through the Christmas of 1991 to finish the work and submit the paper to Science, since they knew that at least one other large group was hot on the pursuit of these macromolecules. I asked him about recent research on these proteins and it seems that their therapeutic potential has been under explored, although their ubiquitous nature might make them difficult to target with drugs.

I further moved on to some interesting personal stuff. One thing that stuck out from Agre’s autobiography was his story of how he moved from North Carolina to Johns Hopkins and how, to supplement his income, he actually worked as a ringside physician for a boxing ring! Now that’s not something you find a research scientist routinely doing. It turns out that the boxing ring was essentially a program started by a senior boxer to get kids off the streets and out of the ghetto. Agre worked at the ring for almost 4 years which must have been a wholly unique experience.

Since we were running out of time, I decided to end with some more general questions, which are quite controversial, and on everyone’s minds. A central question over which much ink is spilt these days is the conflict between science and faith. Is the conflict real? Agre mentioned that he had been brought up a Lutheran and he always appreciated the good work that the missionaries did, irrespective of what the driving force was. Thus Agre’s viewpoint was clear; look at the consequences and not the beliefs that drive them. Let people’s beliefs, whatever they are, drive them to do good things.

The conversation ended with Agre emphasizing a greater role for collaboration between science and industry. At this point he had finished his lunch and was up for an interview with Nature. It had been a real pleasure chatting with him for 40 minutes, a stimulating conversation with a great scientist who also happens to be a witty and wonderful man.

 » Ashutosh Jogalekar studied chemistry and is currently a postdoctoral fellow. i-c0e68e378b7f2835c50e2ebef6c3288f-Ashutosh_45.jpg