The sciences, the humanities, and the question of relevancy

In June, I traveled to Greensboro, NC, to attend the “Multi Modal Brain Imaging Course and Workshop”, held at a stunning if rather aesthetically austere “Gateway MRI Center at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering”:

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I’m inspired to write about this now, as this has been one of those weeks where  it’s hard to feel like your day-to-day work is relevant. Most days I come into my office and alternate between clicking pixels and wrestling with the command line, trying to create (semi-)precise connectivity maps of human and chimpanzee brains. I think this work is important. But how important is it, compared to the other things that are going on in the world right now? When I start to doubt my work real-world relevance, as my generation faces financial, health care, and other challenges, I find myself focusing on certain moments that illuminate the answer for me. Those moments where my location in space, time, and community crystallizes.

One such moment was at the aforementioned Imaging workshop. This was a week-long series of lectures and practicals to train researchers in software for fMRI, structural MRI, and diffusion tensor imaging. (It’s worth noting that this course cost students $1000, although it was originally priced at $2000). If you’ve ever attended lectures for 8 hours or more straight, you know that it’s a good way to lose your sanity. So in the off hours, I looked for things to do that were the EXACT opposite of biomedical engineering and computer programming. Fortunately I have some friends and colleagues back at Emory who are knowledgeable about artistic communities in the greater Southeast, and one friend suggested I check out the “Elsewhere” gallery in Greensboro.

My face at hour 8 of MR engineering lecture, also a nice diagram of how MRI works

My face at hour 8 of MR engineering lecture, also a nice diagram of how MRI works

Elsewhere is hard to explain, but I’ll try. Take one thrift store-owner’s life collection, arrange it by type of object, or color, or material, and place it on display inside of said thrift store. Turn the back into a real kitchen, and add a workroom for all kinds of mixed media projects. Stick a darkroom in one corner. Make a library and study area by the front window. Bring in a community of diverse artists who are welcome to use these objects as they’d like for creations of their own. They have community events, artist talks, shows, and two swings up in the front. You can’t buy any of the objects, but they are there for you to touch and interact with. The effect is both awesome and eerie – there’s a preponderance of children’s toys that seem to focus on a period between the late 70s and the early 90s.


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So I went there on Thursday night on my own. The doors are wide open, and as I walk in I’m immediately surrounded by neatly organized piles of chaos. I thought to myself – this is crazypants – and I love it. I have no idea what’s going on. After sitting in a room where I was being told to follow rules exactly THIS WAY and interpret data THAT WAY and design my study exactly like THIS – otherwise I don’t get to be scientist and I should just hang my head in shame and go home – coming into a space like this was genuinely refreshing (the gin mule they make on site is also refreshing).

I returned Friday to see an artist talk. A fellow in the Southwestern Constellations program and an artist-in-residence, Izel Vargas talked to us about his background, his artistic process, and then walked us through an installation that he had created as part of his fellowship.  I won’t try to analyze the piece – that’s not in my field of expertise – but I do want to comment on my reaction to the piece and to the conversation that it sparked.

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There were probably 30-some attendees at the talk, and what the piece had them talking about was Vargas’ experiences as a Latino-american living in a border town. How borders shape the lives and livelihoods of people in those areas. How as he travels, he comes back to his childhood experiences and uses them as a lens to understand immigrant culture in the US. This lead to discussions about real-life experiences, living conditions, poverty, work, and opportunity. Questions, I think it’s fair to say, that nearly every American is touched by, especially of late, as economic disparity widens and more and more people are finding a comfortable, sustainable (middle class, or otherwise) existence slipping away.

Back at the Joint School, earlier in the day, my fellow researchers and I were given a tour of the facility with Dr. Daniel Herr. Not only is the outside of the building impressive, but it houses rare and sometimes one-of-a kind biological and biomedical research equipment. They have clean rooms! They have helium ion microscopes! They have MR scanners with powerful magnets! They have one of the world’s only 3D printers that allows nano particles to be embedded into the thermoplastic! You can find their complete list here – down to the “Lam Research Corp DSS-200 Series II Brush Cleaner”.

 

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The building was cold – you need to keep the air circulating efficiently, I imagine – and somewhat empty, I thought. This was unsurprising, since I had noticed earlier that the parking lots were also fairly empty. The scientists that we did see working were deep in concentration, and so didn’t acknowledge our presence (which I’m sympathetic to, I hate when people bother me in lab). Dr. Herr talks quickly and excitedly about the groundbreaking research happening in this new building. New collaborations, new technology – it is very exciting.  He is most excited when he gets talking about buckyballs. If I understood him correctly, researchers at this institute can manufacture and experiment with buckyballs. What are the applications of this technology? we asked.

Oh, it’s really very exciting, he said. Preliminary data suggest that buckyballs have anti-inflammatory properties. This could have a huge amount of applications, but the one he focused on was treating asthma. By inhaling vapor which contains buckyballs, presumably the buckyballs could reverse runaway inflammatory processes without the negative side-effects of inhaled steroids.

Putting aside the irony of treating a problem created by inhaling particulate matter by inhaling particulate matter, I wondered about the cost-effectiveness of this strategy. Given that many asthma sufferers are children, and that a child’s risk for asthma is correlated with their socioeconomic status and where they live (unsurprisingly, living near city centers is not great for your lung health), it was unclear to me how a hypothetical “buckyball inhaler” would make it into the hands of those who actually need it. Ironically, the fact that they are getting funding to study asthma is likely because it is such a prevalent medical condition.

It turns out buckyballs have other medical applications. Treating wrinkles! Dr. Herr helpfully exclaims. There is some suppressed giggling in the group, and he quickly turns on his heel and guides us on to the next laboratory.

Here is where something crystallized for me. Here I am, 5 years into a PhD, after 2.5 years of a master’s and 5 years (gulp) of a bachelor’s degree, all in biology-related fields. Here I am, privileged to be on this tour with some of the best MR researchers in the country (one even flew in from Qatar!). I have no idea how expensive this building and all the equipment is inside it. I do know that it cost me $700 out of pocket just to be there, and that’s after my funding institution covered the $1000 registration fee. And here we are, with some of the most technologically advanced equipment, the most highly trained people, and the payoff of all of this is: a hypothetical asthma treatment that will never be affordable to the majority of people who could benefit. And a wrinkle treatment. I’m not sure who’s in the market for a buckyball-based anti-aging cream, but I assume that the Joint School is already in talks with Lancôme, and I don’t think future middle-aged professors are the target market. In that case, what, and for whom, is this research relevant?

I don’t think that research is being done for my benefit. Reader, I don’t know who you are, but since I don’t get a lot of multimillionaires commenting on my blog, I doubt that it’s for you, either.

But at Elsewhere, maybe they couldn’t sell a product to me, or tell me what their art will mean for the future – but I learned about real experiences that are relevant to me and my family and friends. I learned some important lessons about community.  And I saw that community talk about real people, and real problems.

And they didn’t even need buckyballs.

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You can learn more about Elsewhere here: http://www.elsewhere.com, and the Joint School here: http://jsnn.ncat.uncg.edu

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3 thoughts on “The sciences, the humanities, and the question of relevancy

  1. Thanks for this, a quandry outside of funding considerations, and a serious division of experiences.
    [Will be looking into buckyballs and how they remain in suspension.]

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