With health professionals and scientists being at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they are more in the spotlight today than ever, you may wonder what the state of science is today. Is what we are being told on the news true from a scientific perspective, and how much spin is being put on the articles on social media? To confront this issue, and to talk about his book, The State of Science, Marc Zimmer talked on the College Talks & More podcast with Hanna and Cari about what is going on in science today.
Marc’s writing has appeared in USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. He has published five books, one of which we will discuss today. He’s a Professor of Chemistry at Connecticut College, but as we dive deeper into this book, you will see that his expertise goes far beyond Chemistry. Marc, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about your educational and professional background.
I was born in South Africa. I went to school in South Africa, went to University in South Africa, all during the apartheid times. At some point, I knew I would have to go to the military, which was something I really didn’t want to do. When I finished my Master’s Degree in Chemistry, I left South Africa, came to America, and did a PhD here. Since 1990, I’ve been teaching at Connecticut College, and I teach Chemistry. I also study how animals give off light; how fishes, fireflies, and jellyfish give off light.
You changed your Major from Biology to Chemistry. What made you decide to go into Chemistry specifically?
As a young child growing up in South Africa, I wanted to be a game warden. Game wardens in South Africa do more than just look after animals, they look after the environment, make sure that the water has got the right pH, and things like that. It’s a college degree, but I managed to fail Botany. I did really well in Chemistry and decided, “Oh, well, I’ll sort of give Chemistry a try,” so I slipped into Chemistry. The further I went on, the more I liked Chemistry. By the time I was doing a PhD, which I probably only did to avoid the military service, I really liked Chemistry. So I’ve been doing Chemistry ever since.
You said that you are a Professor at Connecticut College. Can you tell us a little bit about the Connecticut College Science Leaders Program?
So I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid time. What that meant was I went to a school just for Whites. No Black kids were allowed in the school. I went to a University of 15,000 students, and there were very few students of other races except for White. When I came to America, I was hoping to see the end of racism, and not see any sort of racism, but I noticed even with the Universities here, things weren’t quite equal in quite the same way. For example, if you go and look at the Nobel Prizes in Sciences, there have been over 600 Nobel Prizes in the last hundred years, and not one has been given to a Black scientist. So I thought at Connecticut College, I’d try and start a program that would give students that are underrepresented in the Sciences, a chance to catch up. And so that would be women in Physics, for example, or women in Computer Science. Because if you look at Computer Science, it’s over 75% male. It gives underrepresented individuals a chance to catch up. And the Science Leaders Program is a program designed to do that, and it’s been working really well.
In your book, The State of Science, you talk about some Science being labeled as fake news when it goes against the political climate. What are some examples of scientific research that is being labeled as fake?
This is really interesting to see where it sort of starts, and I would say it starts with the tobacco industry. We’ve known for over 200 years that tobacco results in cancer. But people have continuously been saying, that’s fake, that the science and the medicine that’s saying tobacco causes cancer is not real. And that’s of course not true, but the tobacco industry really wanted people to carry on buying tobacco. Now we see this, of course, with COVID. A lot of people don’t like certain parts of the pandemic, that we need to wear masks, and that masks protect us. And they say, “Oh, well, that’s fake science.” Today, the masks are an example. Climate change is a huge, big one where a lot of people say that that’s also not real science. Vaccinations, there are groups of people who think that vaccinations are very dangerous and don’t help much. And with genetically modified organisms, there is another group of people that don’t really want to believe the science.
With so many people saying that some Science is fake news, how do you say we convinced them otherwise?
For example, with climate change, a lot of people don’t believe in climate change, because it’s more a way of thinking that their political identity is tied up with in denying climate change. So a lot of studies have shown that some might be swayed by arguments, but then a few months later, they’ll just swing back against denial, because all their friends are denying climate change. So they’re also denying it. It’s an extremely difficult thing to do to convince people. The best way, I think, is to make sure that the news is correct, and that the news isn’t trying to just get controversy. With climate change, where 99.9% of all scientists agree that climate is going to change, because humans are releasing too much carbon dioxide, and it’s going to get warmer, we’re going to get more hurricanes. Instead of having a person saying, “Oh, it’s not going to happen,” on the news, and arguing with the person, just accept that it’s happening. 99.9% of the scientists say that. So there’s no need to have a dissenting opinion on the news. I think that would be the most important way of changing, and getting people to believe in things like climate change and real science.
In your book, you talk about racism and sexism in science. What are some ways, in your opinion, that we can change this where underrepresented populations are being represented correctly?
There are two sort of groups. For example, women in Physics and Computer Science. There it’s really a question of the culture in Computer Science and Physics. Where people really tend not to listen to women, tend to ignore their opinions. It’s happening less and less, but it still happens. The way to deal with that is if you see somebody do something like that, speak up. And for me, for example, this is extremely hard in South Africa. Everybody’s incredibly polite, and always says, thank you and sorry. But if you see somebody do something like that, speak up. I’m a full Professor now in Chemistry. If I see another Professor ignoring a woman, who’s talking, I should say something. I think that’s a really important thing. If you’re looking at minorities in Science, (Blacks, Hispanics) that’s a much bigger problem, because a lot of that stems from elementary school and high school. Really what we have to do is make sure that everybody gets an equal education, not just at University, but in all schools.
What are some ways that people without a Science degree can be an amateur scientist?
It used to be that 200-300 ago, as a scientist, you pretty much knew all the science. But today’s science is so specific. Even I have been doing science for 30-40 years, and I only know a small part of Chemistry. What can you do if you haven’t got a degree? Well, there are a lot of things that have really opened up, thanks to the internet. For example, if you’re interested in birds or animals, there’s something called iNaturalist, and you can take a picture of something that you haven’t seen before. The internet can then tell you what the animal is. But really the interesting thing that happens is with everybody in the world who takes a picture of the animal, it then goes in the database. Scientists can then see, “Oh yeah, you know, this rare Bobcat has been spotted in all these different areas during these temperature conditions, but when it gets really cold, they aren’t there anymore.” They can see patterns emerging or they can see, “Oh dear. You know, in the last three years we saw a lot of this animal, but now we don’t see them anymore. And should we be worried?” With computers and lots and lots of amateurs out there looking at things, we can find out a lot more about what’s happening to animals, birds, or plants that we wouldn’t know otherwise.
There’s also software that you can load on your computer so that when your computer is not doing anything, it does calculations. For example, there’s one program that’s called Foldingathome, and it calculates how proteins fold. One of the ones that they’re calculating now is the protein that is on the surface of the COVID-19 virus that attaches to other proteins in the body. If you’ve got a computer that’s not doing anything, and it’s linked to this program, it’ll do this calculation. They can then find out how this spike protein on COVID-19 folds, and then how that could bind to something.
What do you find so fascinating about fireflies and jellyfish proteins that produce light?
Isn’t it just cool at night to go outside and to see these fireflies. The fireflies that you normally see are male fireflies, and they’re flying around looking for females. They flash a signal, and each species, and there are about 2000 species of fireflies, each one of them has a different signal. The female will be sitting hidden in the brush. She waits till the male flashes the signal that she likes, and is the same species as her, and bright. She’ll flash hers just once, it’s called a come hither signal. Then the male sees it, he comes down, and then they reproduce. They live for about two weeks. The male does nothing except trying to find a female mate. So he’ll just fly around, flashing his signal, until the female signals that she’s interested. There’s one species which actually turns out to be the state insect of Pennsylvania. And in this species, once the male has come down, the female then waits for a male of a different species. Not her own species. And when she sees a different male come, she flashes the come hither signal, the male comes, and you can guess what she’s going to do. She eats the male, but once she’s done, she spits out everything that she ate, and she keeps a sort of smelly, stinky, little poison. And if you take this female firefly, shake her up and then lick, you’ll taste this yucky stuff. She’s eaten the other male just to protect herself. So fireflies are fascinating.
Jellyfish are really cool, because you can use the gene for the light that comes from a jellyfish to light up anything. You can genetically modify an animal, or you can genetically modify a cancer cell. The cancer cell glows green. When it grows somewhere, you’ll see the more cancer there is, the more green light there is. If the cancer cell moves, you’ll be able to see the movement because of the light. So you can use it in really cool ways. So yeah, I’ve been studying things that give off light for 20 years now.
Climate change is real. How do you see it impacting our future?
Well, if you just look in the last few days, we’ve had the two hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the first time we’ve had two hurricanes come at the same time. Also, if you look at the hurricanes, we don’t seem to getting more, but we have a higher intensity of hurricanes from all the calculations. What we should be finding is that our climate is going to be more extreme. We’ll have more droughts, we’ll have more major floods, cold spells, hot spells. And on average, it’s going to be a little warmer. So that’s going to have a lot of impact on things that we probably haven’t even thought about. Things like COVID might come about because an animal species, like a bat, has had to move. The bat moved, because the temperature changed, and then came into contact with humans, and then humans pick up the disease. Or something like malaria comes up further North from South America, because it’s getting warmer here. And so the malaria mosquito can live here. There’s going to be a lot of consequences, besides the temperature going up, and the water levels going up.
What are some current obstacles hindering scientific growth? And how can we overcome them?
Let’s go back to the jellyfish. So the jellyfish gives off light, and there was a Japanese who spent about 30 years, and caught over a million jellyfish. He got funding from the National Science Foundation in America to do this. All he was trying to do was figure out was how does this jellyfish species give off light. Once he figured that out, other people sort of figured out, “Oh, here’s the genes, the recipes for how to make this protein that gives off light.” Then about five years later, other people thought, “Wow, we can use this like a flashlight. We can take this jellyfish protein and put it on a cancer cell. We can take this, put it on a cell, it’ll give off light, we can see where it’s made, and where it goes to.” Nobody could have predicted that.
Looking at a jellyfish would have such an important consequence, and many, many other examples of what we call basic Science. One of the big dangers at the moment is that sort of Science isn’t being funded. The science that’s being funded is where you can see a logical, and fairly rapid, utility so we can use the results. We aren’t funding these sort of strange things like, why the jellyfish glows, because we can’t see a use in those. And 30 years ago, we didn’t see a use in jellyfish glowing either, but now it turns out to be really important. That’s one of the big things that concerns me is that sort of science isn’t being funded as much as it used to be.
What are some of the recent discoveries that have changed science besides the jellyfish one that you just discussed? And were you involved in any of those discoveries?
The jellyfish one was one that I was involved in, and I was lucky enough to go to the Nobel prize ceremony, and see the three people who got the award for green fluorescent protein. More recently, there’s something called CRISPR. So if you think of DNA as a recipe book, and if you’ve found a gene recipe, and you wanted to put it into another organism, it’s always been very, very tedious and very, very difficult to do that. But now there’s this new method called CRISPR, and it’s incredibly easy to genetically modify pretty much any organism. You can genetically modify a mouse, or you can genetically modify an Oak tree. Just this week, for the first time, they’ve genetically modified somebody who had a mistake in one of the genes in their eyes, and was blind because of this. They went and changed the recipe of how to make this protein, and with a little bit of luck, it’ll work and that person will then be able to see again. I think CRISPR, and this way of genetically modifying things, is a huge, big new thing.
Artificial intelligence is also very important, especially something called deep learning. Deep learning is where a computer can actually go through lots and lots of data and find hidden connections between data that we didn’t see before. The computer will be able to, for example, determine what’s wrong with a patient if they’ve got a certain disease. They’ll be able to take a whole bunch of data from the person and compare it to millions and millions of other people and see, “Oh yes, all of these people had that certain disease,” and be able to tell very quickly from something that we haven’t thought about, like the smell or color of their eyes. Deep learning is also going to be very important.
In your book, you talk about where science was and where it is now, what are some challenges and successes in modern science?
Artificial intelligence and CRISPR are two examples of modern science that are working really, really well, but sometimes with big breakthroughs like that also come dangers. There are a number of genes in humans that are responsible for really important characteristics. For example, one actually slows down muscle growth. If you were to change that gene, the muscle growth would occur much, much quicker. You could actually genetically modify a fertilized egg so that the baby that results from that fertilized egg is a lot more muscular. There are a lot of really great discoveries that have been done, but there are also a number of dangers associated with them.
Is there any other information you would like to share with us about the state of science today?
It’s really a cool area, because there’s so much happening at the moment. There’s probably just too much happening, and it’s really, really hard to keep up with. I think in 2020, scientists have been having such a hard time. There are things that you would never really think about, for example, there are fewer flights because people aren’t traveling that much. It turns out that a lot of the airplanes that fly actually collect data for scientists. There are scientists who’ve been studying all kinds of natural phenomenon for decades that are no longer getting their Science, because there just aren’t enough flights out there. The state of Science is certainly influx right now, because of politics, because of the pandemic. Just because of the change in behavior of humans.
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