Poetry, molecular biophysics and innovation in Canada

There’s an interesting story by Karen Hopkin (Carpe Datum)  in the latest The Scientist newsletter about Gregory Petsko, a would-be student of epic poetry who changed his field of studies to molecular biophysics as he made his way to a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. From Carpe Datum,

With his heart set on the study of epic poetry, Petsko arranged to work with Maurice Bowra, a preeminent classicist, and set sail for England. “Back then, all the Rhodes scholars traveled over on the Queen Elizabeth, which took 8 days,” he says. “And sometime while I was out over the Atlantic, Maurice Bowra died.” Not sure how to proceed, Petsko phoned Princeton and spoke to the head of the lab where he’d worked part-time to earn a few bucks. “He told me to go over to David Phillips’s lab and get a degree in molecular biophysics,” says Petsko. “And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“For me, structure is just a means to an end. That end is function. I care about function,” he says. “I want to know how things work.”

“Greg never loses sight of the big picture. For him, it’s ultimately about the biology,” says former postdoc Ann Stock, an HHMI investigator at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “In the field of structural biology, that hasn’t always been true. In the early years, many structural biologists focused mostly on the nuts-and-bolts technical aspects of solving three-dimensional structures.” Petsko is proficient when it comes to nuts and bolts, she says, “but he sees them as tools that allow him to explore the biology of proteins.”

I find it interesting that Petsko is well grounded in the humanities as there is a longstanding argument that an education in the humanities and/or liberal arts is a “big picture” education. Petsko’s discoveries include the TIM barrel,

“It’s like an alpha helix or a beta-pleated sheet: the TIM barrel is a protein fold that basically implies function,” says [Jan] Westpheling [geneticist at University of Georgia]. “And Greg discovered it. This was a profound contribution in the days when people were just beginning to understand the three-dimensional structure of proteins.”

If you’re interested in more about how scientists think and work, please do read Hopkin’s story as I’m now switching gears to Rob Annan’s (Don’t leave Canada behind blog) latest post, Innovation isn’t just about science funding.

Rob raises a number of points about innovation in Canada, along with this one (from the post),

Expecting researchers to produce innovative research and to translate it into the broader world is unrealistic. And giving more money to researchers isn’t going to change that.

Much of the discussion about Canada’s lack of innovation is focused on how money can be made from research. Scientists are quite innovative in their research; the problem, from the government’s perspective, lies in bringing the research to market. Back to Rob,

… Unlike scientific research, social and commercial innovation isn’t a relatively linear process you can lay out in five year funding applications. It doesn’t require a highly-specialized skill set. It requires a broad skill set that involves creative thinking, communication skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cultural and civic understanding – all of which need to be applied to the varied stages of innovation development.

These are the attributes of successful entrepreneurs. These are also the attributes of a liberal arts and science education.

You might say that Petsko embodies “the attributes of a liberal arts and science education,” although as far as I know he’s not an entrepreneur.  Rob expands on the notion of “big picture” education,

Even a who’s-who of Canadian high-tech CEOs have made an explicit case for the importance of liberal arts and science graduates in their industries.

Yes, we need to fund scientific research to ensure that we have a deep pool of innovation from which to draw. But translating this research into world-leading social or commercial innovation won’t happen if we leave it strictly to the scientists. Individuals trained in the social sciences and humanities bring an essential skill set to the process, and we neglect funding these areas at our competitive peril.

Thank you, Rob. It’s always good when someone who’s a scientist makes these kinds of comments as someone with a liberal arts/social science/humanities background could be accused of being self-serving.

While the  Petsko story doesn’t perfectly illustrate Rob’s points, it does hint at the importance of broad-based thinking for breakthroughs and, ultimately, innovation. I’d add one item to Rob’s list of skills, risktaking.

I do have a few questions but I’m going to take those to Rob’s comments section.

3 thoughts on “Poetry, molecular biophysics and innovation in Canada

  1. Rob

    Great post, Maryse. Thanks for drawing my attention to Dr. Petsko’s story. I think it’s bang on to argue that combining the best attributes of a liberal arts and science education and research training provides the widest perspective, and a real advantage in understanding “the big picture” (though Dr. Petsko’s status as a Rhodes Scholar suggests he may have had a stellar career, regardless…).

    I think education in general suffers too much from a “silo” effect, especially at the undergraduate level. Too much specialization, and too little actual education. Lots of knowledge, not so much thoughtfulness. I don’t know why critical analysis and effective communication aren’t considered essential outside a liberal arts and science education, but it seems to be the case. I would suggest that there’s too much emphasis on knowledge and training in the sciences, and not enough actual education – but I don’t want to be accused of ranting…

  2. admin

    Glad to hear from you Rob and thanks for both the kind words and for expanding on your thoughts re: liberal arts and science education. My impression is that the ‘silo’ starts earlier and earlier in the educational process. I was shocked to discover that an official in the administration office of an educational institution here in Vancouver had never heard of Chaucer (rendering my literary reference useless). I knew he had a BComm from the University of BC so I wasn’t expecting a great literary discussion but I was expecting that he would recognize Chaucer from his high school studies.

  3. Pingback: US National Science Foundation on science and communicating about its impact on society and OECD report on innovation as a societal effort « FrogHeart

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