Hopkins geneticist revels in 'age of biology'


Dr. Daniel Nathans was awarded a National Medal of Science last week by President Clinton. He is a molecular biologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who won the Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology in 1978 for his genetic research, which he is continuing at Hopkins.

His current area of investigation is with the genes that cause cells to grow and divide.

Dr. Nathans, 64, has been at Hopkins since 1962, teaching and researching.

Among his enduring concerns is the need "to keep the dialogue going" between scientists and the public.

QUESTION: Genetic science is becoming increasingly more sophisticated as it advances from breakthrough to breakthrough. The atmosphere you operate in is rarefied, and the process and results of your work are arcane, perhaps incomprehensible to the great majority of people. Does this ever produce in you a sense of isolation from other people?

ANSWER: I am surrounded by colleagues and students with whom I can talk, and who are fully conversant with the concepts I am immersed in. I don't feel isolated.

Even when I talk to a general audience, those audiences can understand the principles. They are eager to. The basic principles of biological science are not complicated. It's the details that are complicated.

Q: What could be done to make science more accessible to the average person? And do you think it is necessary to try to do so?

A: It is important for us scientists to spend some of our time and effort and thought on how to do that.

It is not just the public at large, but young people. Students for example, in beginning biology courses, can really be turned on by discussions that stress the principles and the thinking that goes into the scientific process.

From my own limited personal experience with students, in high school and junior high school, they are extremely responsive.

Science teachers need to be kept abreast of developments in science. This is very important. Scientists can contribute to educating the teachers. And it is a lot of fun from the teachers' point of view, spending summers learning about experimental science. This is the way to multiply the effect by concentrating on the continuous education of teachers of science.

Q: Doing science at the higher levels today requires many years of study and technical training. In your experience, are scientists today less well-rounded, less in touch with the arts and humanities than they might be?

A: Yes. I don't know how much it reflects my early contacts with people directly from Europe, where the tradition has been that scientists are very broadly cultured people. That is less in the tradition of the United States.

My personal conviction is scientists ought to have a broad education, not a narrow, technical education.

Q: Why?

A: First, it increases their enjoyment of life. And it may well affect their decisions on what is appealing to them. Believe it or not, scientists consider the aesthetics of what they do. I don't know to what extent a general education influences that decision, but I would guess in some instances it has considerable influence.

For example, many biological structures -- molecules, cells, organisms -- have the visual impact of works of art. And within the structure there is scientific meaning, a synthesis of art and science for those who are sensitive to it.

Q: What do you think about the state of science in the United States today?

A: In the life sciences, I think it's terrific. Let's take molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics. Many of the boundaries between these disciplines are down now. Contemporary biology has few if any boundaries left. We are at a point where information and new concepts are coming in at a rapid rate.

Also, the boundaries between applied science and fundamental science are almost disappearing in many areas.

Q: Does a kind of pre-eminence develop among the sciences from time to time? Does physics, say, dominate the imagination for one period, the life sciences the next? If so, which is dominant or becoming dominant today?

A: There was a period earlier in this century when physics clearly was the dominant science. Entirely new concepts were being developed. They were the fruit of wonderfully imaginative people, like Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg.

Now, new concepts are being developed in biology, and there is no question we are now living in the age of biology.

It started gradually, but there has been enormous progress since midcentury. The most significant single accomplishment was uncovering the structure of DNA, because so much followed from that. It gave us insight into the fundamental workings and relatedness of all living organisms.

Q: Research in academia is paid for by grants, usually from the government or private foundations. Thus, academic researchers

must spend much of their time writing grant proposals, and to be constantly publishing. Is this the best system to do science under?

A: I can't think of a better system, in principle.

Under the current system, scientists make proposals to granting agencies, mostly the federal government. Those proposals are evaluated by scientists, and they're tough.

However, there is a defect, in practice, in the biomedical field, namely insufficient willingness to take risks on scientists who want to do original things -- risks that involve supporting imaginative people who can't guarantee a payoff. As a result, too many academic scientists are under pressure to do more routine science.

Q: What do you take the most satisfaction from, the pure research you are engaged in, or the application of it that generally follows?

A: I enjoy the fundamental part of it, but in my mind there is a conviction that I am doing something worthwhile, both by increasing understanding of life and contributing socially useful applications.

I've gotten an enormous amount of satisfaction knowing my work has contributed to those applications in the last decade or so, even though I didn't do any of the applied work.

Q: When you were young, who were your heroes in science?

A: I had heroes among my college professors, but I have to say they weren't scientists. They were the philosophers, the teachers of literature.

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