May 20th, 2011
One of the speakers, University of Texas music professor Bob Duke, said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference that had a more eclectic group of speakers.” All of the audio of the presentations can be listened to HERE.
Fintan Steele opened the conference by showing a slide of this tapestry, using it as a visual metaphor for the conference which would pull together many threads which are so different at the fine scale, yet eventually come together to create a single vision. He said, “We are engaged in an intensely human activity; not just disease, not just wellness, but a much bigger picture containing thousands of smaller stories and millions of different threads, no one of which can capture the whole picture. It can only be seen through the eyes of all of us, looking together.”
THE BEST DAMN SCIENCE SYMPOSIUM, EVER!
A couple months ago Dr. Larry Gold was given a copy of my book. We traded a few emails. I stopped through Boulder, Colorado, and he invited me to attend the second annual version of the unique two day symposium put on by his molecular biology laboratory at the University of Colorado. It seemed like sort of a challenge — “You’re the big science communication guy, why don’t you come to the symposium and see if it’s as unique and effective as we think it is.”
I took the challenge. The simple answer is yes, it is the best science symposium I’ve ever attended.
THE ETERNAL CHALLENGE: MAINTENANCE OF VARIATION
Before I start my endorsement, here’s a science-based explanation of why I loved what I saw. It starts with a simple question about life in general: How are you going to maintain variation?
This is one of THE most powerful and important questions in ALL biology (as well as human culture). It is a central focal point of ecology (there’s more than 50 years of theoretical work on “the maintenance of species diversity in the tropics” for example) as well as evolution (one of the biggest bodies of literature in population genetics is the study of the many mechanisms that maintain genetic variation in populations in the face of natural selection). The bottom line is, you have to do things to preserve variation, otherwise it will dwindle. This is what the Gold Lab Symposium is about … maintaining variation.
At it’s core, this dynamic is what the Gold Lab Symposium is about.
In his opening comments, Larry Gold talked about the general tendency towards “hypothesis driven science,” which is certainly a good thing, but it also can bring with it a degree of myopia and tunnel vision — as in “we’ve got our one hypothesis, we’re not looking at anything else, no matter how interesting.” I remember that mind set from my science career.
It’s relatively simple to assemble a dozen speakers to focus on the same problem for two days. What’s much more difficult is to realize that if everyone talks about the same thing for two days, we’re not going to come up with much in the way of new ideas and perspectives.
All of which brings us down to the central divide that has captivated me lately in the communication of technical information, which is the split between LITERAL minded approaches and NON-LITERAL minded approaches. It’s the same thing.
So are you going to have everyone talk about the same thing for two solid days, or are you brave enough to throw into the mix a speaker on something like having “James Bond sex” versus “maintenance sex”? And are you aware of what that does to the thought processes of even the most brilliant scientist? Who has the courage, self-confidence, and clarity of vision to be able to create such a meshwork of stimulation?
Simple. Larry Gold.
THE SYMPOSIUM BEGINS
The proceedings began on a Friday morning in Muenzinger Auditorium at the University of Colorado as a full house of about 300 people listened to Fintan Steele set the tone for the entire event with a single image — a picture of a medieval tapestry which he described as being made up of the interweaving of a multitude of fibers of all different origins, colors and textures. This bringing together of disparate elements to create an overall picture was touched upon repeatedly as the symposium delved into so much more than just molecular biology.
Larry Gold has a pre-occupation these days with a single aspect of biology — the field of “proteomics” (which is the study of the entire complement of proteins in a body), but he opened by mentioning ALL the “-omics” revolutions today in the biomed world, including genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, lipidomics, metabolomics, EEG-omics and others. He emphasized that right now nobody knows for certain which -omics will prove to be most important to the future of healthcare, but he also hit on what I felt was a major theme of all this molecular magic which is that, “It’s coming.” The future looks to be rather amazing with respect to biomedical science.
One point that was made was that “Genomics is not THE game for healthcare,” yet the first speaker was Dr. Kevin Davies, author of, “The $1,000 Genome,” which makes the point that we are now very close to the day when you can get your entire personal genome sequenced for just a thousand bucks. Which is amazing. Kinda. Except for the now famous quote he put up from a prominent biomed researcher who said, “The thousand dollar genome may take a million dollars to interpret.” And actually, even my 87 yr old mother, when I mentioned how cheaply you can sequence your genome now had the same response — “Yeah, but whut’s it all mean?”
More dramatically was the fellow in the audience who brusquely asked during the Q&A why the speaker was so bullish on genomics given what a disappointment the field has proven to be and how much money is now being wasted (in his opinion) by NCI on the genomics of cancer. There seemed to be widespread agreement that genomics has been a disappointment and that the major break-throughs lie in some other -omics (like proteomics?).
IN SEARCH OF BIOMARKERS
The next talk, and several others, addressed the increasing focus and even pre-occupation with “biomarkers,” as the most powerful pathway for the future. The idea is to identify signals in your body that can predict your future. Probably the best and most specific example of this subject came towards the end of the second day as Dr. Gilbert Omen, a biomedical giant who is a past President of AAAS and a big cheese in medicine and informatics at Univ. of Michigan, presented the very specific case of sarcosine, a marker for prostate cancer that is showing some of the strongest promise as a reliable biomarker. But he also painted a rather disturbing picture of the future as he said, “The demise of expert-based medicine is inevitable.” That’s a quote worth taking to heart. The day will come where nobody at the hospital can tell you anything other than how to log on to their computers and find your way to the information.
The disappointment with the Human Genome Project theme was again echoed by computational bioscience superstar Larry Hunter who said, “Most of what we’ve learned is that it’s more complicated than we thought.” That’s kind of a scary and even depressing thought which begs the question of how much of this stuff could end up being “too complicated” to ever be solved — a thought which no one I spoke with felt was very likely at all. “It’s all solvable,” seems to be almost the Hippocratic Oath of bioinformatics. But still, I liked it when Dr. Hunter said, “There is no ‘THE GENE’ for anything,” meaning that when you read about scientists discovering “the gene” for something like American Idol addiction it’s probably a whole bunch of genes (and they probably don’t have it all figured out yet anyhow).
So the first day was pretty much nuts and bolts — large doses of information mixed with plenty of humor. Larry Gold had started the laughs early on when he showed a Venn Diagram of the overlapping worlds of doctors, prostitutes, and airport security workers — they all have the right to touch your private parts (with a bunch more hilarious details in the chart). Which meant for me that the symposium was addressing two of the four organs that I discuss in my book — the head and the gut — while not yet getting to the other two (heart and sex organs). Not that I expected it to run the full spectrum. But at the end of the first day the heart started to get some attention.
THE HEART OF THE MATTERS
It happened with an amazing speaker named Jamie Heywood. Here’s my thoughts on what he’s done.
When Columbus (and others) encountered the New World there were all these amazing things to be individually discovered like Niagara Falls and the Mississippi River and the Grand Canyon. All just sitting out there. The only question was what each discoverer would do once they found these gems.
The internet has sort of been the same process. It opened up a whole new world of opportunities. It was just a matter of what each individual did with their particular discovery. Jamie Heywood is one such discoverer. He is an incredibly sharp guy who lost his brother in his 30’s to the disease A.L.S. In the struggle to help his brother he established a social networking website for people living with A.L.S. Eventually it expanded into a resource for people living with a wide variety of other diseases in which the bearer of the disease shares lots of specific details on a daily basis, mostly in semi-quantitative fashion (such as, “headache today is: severe, moderate, slight, non-existent” assessments of that sort). It has turned into a huge project called, Patients Like Me, that now has over 100,000 patients using it, sharing the specifics of their ailment every day. It’s a stunning phenomenon they have discovered.
The Patients Like Me site is way more than just a place to talk about what aches. It’s actually establishing a database, which for many diseases far outweighs what medical researchers are capable of. Listening to the details of it made me think a lot of Wikipedia, which people like to poke fun at, but these days we’re increasingly realizing how error-prone ALL human resources are, and it turns out studies show Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate overall. Same for Patients Like Me. And the clincher on that came at the end of his talk where he said more than 10% of their patients end up firing their doctors as they gather so much information from other patients that they realize what a crummy job their doctor is doing. And furthermore, their data show that doctors tend to under-report the symptoms of their patients by 50% — they just don’t have the time to allow patients to go into detail the way the website does. His whole talk was both inspiring and mind-expanding. And it hit pretty hard in the heart, giving the first day a powerful ending. But who knew the next morning would begin even more emotionally charged.
I’m not real accustomed to holding back tears on a college campus. But the first speaker on Saturday morning went to work on the heart organ and didn’t let up until I could see people all around me pulling out tissues, drying their eyes, and blowing their noses. It was Rick Guidotti, a former fashion photographer, who a while back threw himself into his project called Positive Exposure where he photographs people with genetic anomalies (my old college roommate Phillip Martin did a great interview with him a while back for his NPR series, “The Color Initiative”). He began by showing photographs of people living with albinism all over the world — especially in Africa — and telling of the consequences of the trait. He told one amazing story after another of albinos coming into his studio with heads hung low, shoulders slumped over, and a lifetime of being shunned. And then the incredible transformation as he gets them to open up, smile, and eventually shows them dramatic photos of themselves in confident, open poses they never imagined themselves capable of.
One story after another. Right to the heart, telling tales of lives transformed — people with shattered egos given self-respect and esteem. After a while, all around the auditorium the emotion was flowing — people blowing noses and shaking heads. I found myself thinking, “Dang, Larry just nailed the third organ — the heart.”
There was only one organ remaining, which I never should have doubted he would cover.
THE SCIENCE OF AROUSAL
Sex and scientists is a rather unusual mix. In 1985 I attended the International Coral Reef Symposium in Tahiti. For the opening ceremony they had nearly 1,000 coral reef scientists from around the world packed into an auditorium watching traditional Polynesian native dancers in a show that culminated with a single stunningly beautiful Tahitian woman dressed in a sarong, doing a seductive dance in the single spotlight on the darkened stage. With each turn of her body the bolt of fabric wrapped around her would unwind another few feet, leaving a trail of the fabric on the stage. It was hypnotic, with the drums beating. And it culminated with the last round of the fabric falling off, revealing her brown and naked breasts.
At that moment, the sound of hundreds of erections popping to life throughout the auditorium could almost be heard as the male scientists turned to each other with smoke billowing out their ears, huge broad grins, and expressions of, “Thank you, Jesus, for making me a scientist!” While the female scientists could be heard muttering muted, “Eh, hem”‘s. It was a surreal moment. Science symposia don’t usually present anything for the lowest organs. You usually have to go to Tahiti for it.
So it was a thing of beauty at the Gold Lab Symposium in the late morning of the second day when Evelyn Resh, Certified Sexuality Counselor, took the stage and began dispensing with the pretense as she addressed the basic elements of how to achieve a healthy sex life. I’m sure a lot of the hard core scientists in the audience were wondering, “What does this have to do with molecular-omics?” But that’s not what I was thinking.
I was just thinking, “Way to go, Larry. You really did it. You nailed all four organs.” It was amazing. And she was great. My favorite moment was when she looked at the audience of scientists and said, “I know that most of you probably have a photo of Albert Einstein on the wall of your office. I have Barry White.”
THE POINT IS …
Every presentation was excellent. They were all of the level of a TED Talks event, BUT, there was one clear difference. There was a secondary voice to this event. It wasn’t just a collection of interesting speakers. There was an overall creative voice that had selected each speaker, then positioned them according to a vision, to make sure the whole event added up to something. And this was brought home with the last speaker, Greg Petsko, who was a blast furnace of clarity and powerful communication.
He talked about the big picture. He showed the age distribution of the planet for humans from the start of recorded history versus what is now happening over the next few decades as we shift from a few geriatrics to lots of geriatrics like never before. He tied this in with the explosion of neurologic diseases now happening such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons. His talk began with hilarity. I walked in a couple minutes late and heard from the lobby waves of laughter coming from his raucous critique of our healthcare situation, most of which was built around the comparisons to Ponzi Schemes.
I had never heard of him. I couldn’t believe what a great speaker he is. Then I looked at his Wikipedia page and saw how much acclaim he’s received as a communicator of science. And with that, the final touch of the Larry Gold vision became clear — he scheduled the most powerful, big picture speaker as the grand finale. It was perfect.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: AROUSED AND FULFILLED
If you’ve ever gone to scientific meetings you know what it’s like at the end. Everyone’s brains are overloaded. Everyone feels worn out. Sometimes there’s a little excitement over a few good talks. But mostly people are just tired and ready to go home. But not with this meeting.
I talked to people in the lobby after the last talk. The energy level was amazing. Everyone’s heads were swirling. How is it they could have sat through two days and not felt beaten down? If you ask me, I think it’s about those four organs. Literal-minded scientists have a hard time with this, but the overall level of excitement and “non-boredom” occurred because all the talks were NOT on the same subject. This is the value of the non-literal approach.
I know this because I’ve seen it over the past few years with the use of improv acting exercises in my communication workshops, such as the one I took part in just last week at Lawrence Livermore Lab with a group of incredibly cerebral physicists. Improv exercises seem silly and pointless, and invariably you have a few scientists for whom you can feel they are scoffing at the entire process. But they play a clear mechanical role, forcing the participants out of their heads and down into their lower organs for a few minutes, achieving this same broadening effect.
One final note for me personally: University of Texas music professor, Bob Duke hit a rather magical note when he talked about learning and the need for what he calls, “strategic confusion.” That’s a brilliant term. I’ve never heard it before, but I would use it, exactly, for describing the ultimate exercises in storytelling. It’s the same concept. A well-told story consists of leading the audience to a stage of a certain amount of confusion — but just the right amount that remains intriguing, and feels solvable — then leading them out of the confusion, ideally by providing them with the information needed to clear things up on their own. The best detective novels are exactly this — confusing the reader ALMOST (but not) to the point of frustration, but then giving them enough facts so they can solve the mystery themselves, just moments before you give them the answer. THAT is the ultimate exercise in satisfaction. Which of course is much easier said than done.
As the amount of information in our society continues to escalate, it is increasingly important that we learn the limitations of excessive focus. It’s just not as simple as picking one theme and hammering away at it over and over again. There’s a need for broader perspectives, and for leaders who have this capability of seeing the bigger picture. Larry Gold is one of those people and his annual symposium is a role model for how to make this happen. I was told the first year of the symposium was excellent. I got to see that this year was amazing. I can only imagine what next year will bring.
NOTE: A couple of days after the conference I traded emails with Larry Gold, who was deeply satisfied with the overall experience. He read the above material and offered up this final comment: I would add only one thing. Bob Duke’s talk for me was monumental and different. To a first approximation he said something kind of obvious and also beautiful – facts are OK but feeling is far better. Bob used music to make his points, which were so beautiful – his video of a young boy playing the cello and talking was a heart-moving moment. When I was at Yale during my senior year (in 1963) the famous American sculpture Robert Engman played a tape for my sculpture class. We heard Archibald MacLeish say (about Hiroshima, actually) that “the knowledge of the fact has somehow come loose from the feel of the fact.” I have never forgotten that line, and in fact my college friend Donald Kripke (who spoke about psychiatry) and I each heard and remembered that line. Bob Duke provided a pathway to feeling what we were discussing, and for me his talk may have done the most for my desire to keep this thing going, really.