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Out of Order: Inspired cynic
I am a cynical old man, but I came by it honestly. Perhaps it started with the decade of academic research, where failure was not just an option, but also a constant reality that was only punctuated by moments of clarity. Perhaps it came from all my years as a science writer, working in publishing or advertising. Heck, I started my writing career with a column called "The Grumpy Old Tech," and I was only in my 30s.
As with all but our youngest readers, I have watched technologies and insights cycle several times over the span of a couple decades. Success in a test tube is immediately hailed as a paradigm-shifting breakthrough that will lead to cures for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, gout and hiccups. When the genome hits $1,000 we shall join hands and enter Elysium (not the movie).
Oh, yes—I am also jaded and very sarcastic. What makes it worse, I think, is that I don't want to be cynical. I actually want to believe. I want to see miracles at the human level.
Earlier this week, I had a momentary respite from my cynicism as I watched my evening news, which ran a story of a remarkable young man, Adam Noble of Peterborough, Ontario. In his mid-teens, while studying the water ecology of a local river, Adam noted an influx of silver nanoparticles that seemed to be emanating from a nearby water treatment plant. Not content to simply develop a new test to quantify the nanoparticles, he also developed an algae-based test to determine the toxicity of the nanoparticles. His observations of the aggregation of the nanoparticles within the algal cells then led him to develop a way to retrieve the silver before it entered the watershed and provided a financial boon to local economies.
So what does this have to do with DDNews? Adam then delved further into the biological impact of the nanosilver in fish and realized that it had a teratogenic effect on cells. He reasoned that if he could better target the particles, it might be possible to reverse that effect and actually kill tumor cells. In vitro, he was able to do just that with a variety of cancer tissues—to the point where he is now, at the ripe old age of 19, working with researchers at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and Princess Margaret Hospital, as well as the University of Calgary, to develop a treatment for neuroblastoma.
But didn't I just complain about success in a test tube? What excites me is not his discovery—although I wish him well—but rather, how he got here. Adam took his interest in water ecology and made a scientific leap that damned few others would have made. Put succinctly, his imagination works in ways that few others can master, and we have to tap into that.
There is likely a whole world of Adams out there, and we have to do everything we can to first recognize them and then support them in any way we can. They are unlikely to come from traditional directions, because their ideas are not traditional, the connections they make are not traditional. And this will make them harder to identify, despite many of them no doubt standing on chairs and yelling to all the world, "Look at this! Isn't it cool?"
People like Adam—whether 19, 49 or 79 years old—give me hope that we are not doomed to the same old, same old. That serendipity and old-fashioned daydreaming still have a role in helping us understand out universe. That we have not lost our wonder for pure, unadulterated discovery for the sake of discovery.
For a few days, at least, this grumpy old tech has regained a degree of excitement about what is out there and what is possible. It's a good feeling, and one that I wish for everyone out there.
Willis is the features editor of DDNews. He has worked at both ends of the pharmaceutical industry, from basic research to marketing, and has written about biomedical science for almost two decades.