“Why did you want to become a scientist?”
It was an innocent question – I had an innocent answer. It feels almost painful to think about it.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to visit St. Stephen’s School in Rome to teach 9th grade biology classes about CRISPR.
I don’t know much about CRISPR, or teaching. So I recruited the lab CRISPR guru Angelo, who was also very excited about this. Together we came up with a lesson plan, hoping to introduce the latest, coolest CRISPR applications and pique the interest of 15-year-olds. We decided on case studies to make sure that everyone was engaged; we chose cases that covered a broader spectrum of applications, from cancer immunotherapy to gene drives…
– Impact. I wanted to cure cancer.
Adhering to Asian stereotypes, my parents “asked” if I would apply to medical school. Short-sighted, I thought- doctors can save maybe a hundred lives, but if I find the cure for some deadly disease, I would be saving millions.
Now at the dinner table, as my retiring parents groan about joint pains and migraines, I can’t help. Nor can I explain well the importance of understanding this niche brain structure I’m working on, nor why it’s difficult to take more than a week off experiments to go home…
Public opinion on the value of basic, blue skies research has always been divided. Basic research is mostly curiosity-driven and conducted without much practical application in mind. While attempts were made to estimate the economic and social values of basic research, it is extremely difficult to quantify.
“Since frontier research (…) is in the first place a creative enterprise often fed by serendipity, its impact on society and economy are elusive and hardly subject to control. Pushing for effective impact would undermine the very working of science.” 
– Prof. Stefan Kuhlmann
Scientists are also struggling to find fair, effective methods to measure the impact of their work. Although most scientists agree that their work has societal impact, in the past couple of years the system of using journal “impact factor” to judge a scientists’ performance has come under heavy fire. It is not uncommon to find early career researchers, discouraged by lack of “positive results” and frustrated with the injustice of the current scientific publishing system, moving away from academia or research all together, hoping to find work with more direct societal impact.
In the high school laboratory, surrounded by underused glassware and models of the human body, we debated about the implications of applying CRISPR in humans. A student raised an interesting question: if you heavily edit your child’s genome, is he/she still your child? We discussed the potential harm of gene drives on biodiversity, the legislative aspect of embryo genome editing – issues that are going to be relevant to our everyday lives in the foreseeable future.
With all this hype, it is almost easy to forget about the humble beginnings of CRISPR: the clustered DNA repeats of the system were first discovered in archaea, and are part of the bacterial antiviral defense system. The use of CRISPR-Cas9 in gene editing reflects the fact that despite our greatly advanced understanding of bioengineering, structural biology and chemistry, the best machines are still very much inspired by nature. It is this combination of basic research and goal-directed applied research, that has facilitated some of the most important scientific discoveries and inventions to date.
Of course, not every piece of basic research will turn into CRISPR, or anything close to practical. I lost count of the number of times in the last 4 years that I’ve questioned everything: why I did a certain experiment, why I even thought I was good enough to do science, instead I should’ve opened a bar/bakery/agriturismo and at least I would’ve made some people happy.
Nevertheless, I’ve learnt to research systematically and reason critically, and have realised the importance of exercising these skills in my everyday life, especially in the current climate of information overload and inflated controversies. Working alongside my lab mates, and talking to friends and colleagues at the institute, I am constantly intellectually inspired – a basic science research center is not just a factory for results, it is an incubator for new ideas and trained thinkers. Maybe our results don’t have direct societal impact, but scientific training has equipped us with mental habits to question our intuitions and make evidence-based decisions, and these are skills that would be extremely useful to society. The March for Science that began in 2017, for example, is a scientist-led advocacy movement for evidence-based policy making.
“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated”
– Rosalind Franklin
With the evolution of CRISPR and gene editing technologies, it is more important than ever that scientists reach out and explain our work and its potential impacts – but perhaps a more crucial lesson that we can help teach is one in logic and reasoning.
Any schools in Rome interested in having scientists take over a biology class or two? Get in touch! (and feel free to use our lesson plan!)