An organic chemist I know tells her doctors that she is a professor of Southern literature whenever she is in the hospital. That’s because organic chemistry has come to symbolize all the irrelevant science hoops that premedical and medical students jump through on the way to becoming physicians. Today, we are told, medical students should be learning “people skills,” placing medicine in the context of the community and learning how individuals make choices related to their health. These preferences are reflected in the revised medical admissions test rolled out earlier this year, with its newly added questions related to sociology, psychology and the humanities. This summer, as interviews begin at medical schools around the country, candidates who want to make the final cut are sometimes playing down their science credentials in favor of their relational skills.
This seems to me to be a false dichotomy. To be sure, I want my physician to understand how to deal with me as an individual and as a member of my social group. But I also want her to appreciate the underlying molecular nature of disease and to know how to evaluate scientific and statistical evidence about clinical trials and treatments.
The movement away from science springs from a misunderstanding that is not limited to the premed curriculum. Many people have the experience of science taught as a series of isolated facts to be memorized. All physicians recall memorizing biochemical pathways for which they have no use past the final exam in a given course. If there were ever a time when memorization had a place, that time is gone. Facts are cheap and readily available on every smartphone and computer.
The truth is that science is about so much more than memorizing a set of facts. Practitioners with a solid scientific grounding are able to analyze data and put that data in context, rely on what is known from previous studies and extrapolate to the future, and understand how changing environmental conditions are reflected in bodily conditions.
I have taught biochemistry to medical and undergraduate students for over 30 years. Premedical students usually come into my classes expecting to memorize structures, nomenclature, and pathways and are a bit taken aback at the idea that there is anything to learn other than that. By examining experimental data and case studies they become familiar with the core of biochemistry and are able to go far beyond rote learning. Unfortunately I hear back from them once they are in professional schools that, “it was great that you taught us about concepts, but you should have had us memorize more since that is what we have to do here.” As long as the health professions emphasize the acquisition of facts rather than their application, science will be seen as dry, uncreative and mostly irrelevant to the “real” world.
Along with colleagues at Wellesley -- Lee Cuba and Alexandra Day -- I recently published a study of science majors at liberal arts colleges. Our major finding was that science majors who took many courses outside of the sciences were better able to make connections among disciplines. Some medical schools -- Mount Sinai in New York is a prominent example -- have begun recruiting humanities majors to their classes, requiring fewer science courses than for the typical applicant because they are thought to bring different strengths to the profession. This move is well intended, but it misses the point.
Privileging humanities majors in medical school admissions may inadvertently reinforce the opposition between the “soft skills” associated with humanists and the technical capabilities associated with scientists. Long before the health sciences became deeply specialized, renowned physicians such as Hippocrates, Maimonides, John Locke and John Keats were as much philosophers and poets as scientists. Although that kind of Renaissance career may no longer be practical, today a strong liberal arts education in both the arts and sciences provides the most effective preparation for the medical profession.
Medical schools would do better to recruit broadly educated science students who bring the complementary strengths of integration among disciplines and a deep grounding in the process of scientific discovery and analysis to their study and practice of medicine. If we want knowledgeable and competent doctors who are also well-rounded and compassionate individuals, we must stop treating the arts and sciences as mutually exclusive. We must help our students see the connections between what they are learning in the classroom and what they will practice in the “real world,” to see that organic chemistry and Southern literature are not irreparably separate, but that each may have a role in a medical education.
Adele Wolfson is Nan Walsh Schow and Howard B. Schow Professor of Physical and Natural Sciences and interim dean of students at Wellesley College.
So it turns out that -- title notwithstanding -- Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (Princeton University Press) is not a do-it-yourself manual. What’s more, cloned mammoths are, in the author’s considered opinion, impossible. Likewise, alas, with regard to the dodo.
But How Not to Clone a Dodo would never cut it in the marketplace. Besides, the de-extinction of either creature seems possible (and in case of the mammoth, reasonably probable) in the not-too-distant future. The process involved won’t be cloning, per se, but rather one of a variety of forms of bioengineering that Shapiro -- an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz -- explains in moderate detail, and in an amiable manner.
Her approach is to present a step-by-step guide to how an extinct creature could be restored to life given the current state of scientific knowledge and the available (or plausibly foreseeable) advances in technology. There are obstacles. Removing some of them is, by Shapiro’s account, a matter of time and of funding. Whether or not the power to de-exterminate a species is worth pursuing is a question with many parts: ethical and economic, of course, but also ecological. And it grows a little less hypothetical all the time. De-extinction is on the way. (The author allows that the whole topic is hard on the English language, but “resurrection” would probably cause more trouble than it’s worth.)
The subject tickles the public’s curiosity and stirs up powerful emotions. Shapiro says she has received her share of fan and hate mail over the years, including someone’s expressed wish that she be devoured by a flesh-eating mammal of her own making. Perhaps the calmest way into the discussion is by considering why reviving the mammoth or the dodo is possible, but would not be the same thing as cloning one. (And dinosaur cloning is also right out, just to make that part clear without further delay.)
To clone something, in short, requires genetic material from a living cell with an intact genome. “No such cell has ever been recovered from remains of extinct species recovered from the frozen tundra,” writes Shapiro, whose research has involved the search for mammoth remains in Siberia. Flash freezing can preserve the gross anatomy of a mammoth for thousands of years, but nucleases -- the enzymes that fight off pathogens when a cell is alive -- begin breaking down DNA as soon as the cell dies.
What can be recovered, then, is paleogenetic material at some level of dismantling. The challenge is to reconstruct an approximation of the extinct creature’s original genome -- or rather, to integrate the fragments into larger fragments, since rebuilding the whole genetic structure through cut-and-paste efforts is too complex and uncertain a task. The reconstituted strings of genetic data can then be “inserted” at suitable places in the genome of a related creature from our own era. In the case of the woolly mammoth, that would mean genetic material from the Asian elephant; they parted ways on the evolutionary tree a mere 2.5 million years ago. In principle, at least, something similar could be done using DNA from the taxidermy-preserved dodo birds in various collections around the world, punched into the pigeon genome.
“Key to the success of genome editing,” writes Shapiro, “has been the discovery and development of different types of programmable molecular scissors. Programmability allows specificity, which means we can make the cuts we want to make where we want to make them, and we can avoid making cuts that kill the cell.”
Cells containing the retrofitted genome could then be used to spawn a “new” creature that reproduces aspects of the extinct one -- pending the solution of various technical obstacles. For that matter, scraping together enough raw material from millennia past presents its own problems: “In order to recover DNA from specimens that have very little preserved DNA in them, one needs a very sensitive and powerful method for recovering the DNA. But the more sensitive and powerful method is, the more likely it is to produce spurious results.”
Also a factor is the problem of contamination, whether found in the sample (DNA from long-dead mold and bacteria) or brought into the lab in spite of all precautions. Shapiro leaves the reader aware of both the huge barriers to be overcome before some species is brought back from extinction and the strides being made in that direction. She predicts the successful laboratory creation of mammoth cells, if not of viable embryos, within the next few years.
It will be hailed as the cloning of an extinct animal -- headlines that Shapiro (whose experiences with the media do not sound especially happy) regards as wrong but inevitable. The reader comes to suspect one motive for writing the book was to encourage reporters to ask her informed questions when that news breaks, as opposed to trying to get her to speculate about the dangers of Tyrannosaurus rex 2.0.
Besides its explanations of the genetics and technology involved, How to Clone a Mammoth insists on the need to think about what de-extinction would mean for the environment. Returning the closest bioengineerable approximation of a long-lost species to the landscape it once inhabited will not necessarily mean a happy reunion. The niche that animal occupied in the ecosystem might no longer exist. Indeed, the ecosystem could have developed in ways that doom the creature to re-extinction.
Shapiro is dismissive of the idea that being able to revive a species would make us careless about biodiversity (or more careless, perhaps), and she comes close to suggesting that de-extinction techniques will be necessary for preserving existing species. But those things are by no means incompatible. The author herself admits that some species are more charismatic than others: we're more likely to see the passenger pigeon revived than, say, desert rats, even though the latter play an ecological role. The argument may prove harder to take for the humbler species once members of Congress decide to freeze-dry them for eventual relaunching, should that prove necessary.
By now we should know better than to underestimate the human potential for creating a technology that goes from great promise to self-inflicted disaster in under one generation. My guess is that it will take about that long for the horrible consequences of the neo-dodo pet ownership craze of the late 2020s to makes themselves fully felt.
A colleague at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where I am dean of the College of Engineering) recently emailed me Bloomberg’s interview with Harry Lewis, interim dean of Harvard University's Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science. Lewis talked about the school’s plans for the $400 million gift it received in early June. My colleague highlighted Lewis’ description of an ascendant engineering program at Harvard and a cultural shift at the school in which “making things, doing useful things is no longer … considered the sort of thing that gentlemen and gentlewomen don’t do.”
My colleague added, “Welcome, Harvard, to the work that public research universities with great engineering schools have been doing for 150 years.” Sarcasm, apparently, isn’t the exclusive province of the Ivies. We heard it all over the place after the announcement of the Paulson gift. But, in my opinion, it’s misguided.
I’ll paraphrase venture capitalist (and University of Illinois alum) Marc Andreessen’s tweet on the topic. This gift and Harvard’s vision for what it wants to accomplish are “moral virtues, full stop.”
Harvard has set the standard for the liberal arts and sciences. Public institutions like the Universities of Illinois, California at Berkeley, and Michigan have done the same for world-class engineering education for the masses. That combination is extremely powerful, and it has made America the most innovative and prosperous country in the world.
Lewis made it clear that Harvard intends to redefine what a well-rounded education means in the 21st century. And John Paulson's investment allows the university to develop an engineering and applied science program to match Harvard’s reputation.
Harvard and similar private research universities lack one major virtue, however: excellence at scale.
Private institutions simply cannot satisfy the demands of 21st-century engineering alone. And turning away top talent is in no one’s interest.
It limits our nation’s economic growth, our ability to make the engineering profession more diverse, and our ability to help students find their true calling regardless of their socioeconomic background. However, growth in student numbers and innovations in how we educate them require more resources.
Given this fact, and the fact that state funding for public universities has declined precipitously in the last two decades, philanthropic support has become just as important to Illinois as it is to the Harvards of the world. Without new levels of philanthropy and new investment models, the American public research university, the world's golden goose, will not be able to deliver on its goal to ensure there are enough top-flight problem solvers available to advance our civilization and to look after our future.
That isn’t to say that elite and exclusionary is still a universal condition at Harvard and other small, private institutions. As Lewis points out, Harvard’s demographics are changing with more rural and first-generation students. Students from these backgrounds tend to gravitate to engineering because it leads to a secure career. An engineering degree is rarely an opportunity to go into the family business. Instead, it’s a way for those from low-income backgrounds -- bright, marginalized and ambitious -- to invent the family business.
Thus, the art of engineering appeals to an ever-broader swath of students, from those interested in entrepreneurship to those creating solutions for the engineering challenges that underpin the modern world. For example, more than 3,100 students applied for about 200 slots in the Illinois computer science program this year. Carnegie Mellon receives twice that many applications for about 30 percent fewer seats.
With demand like that, we are all in an unparalleled position to serve a broad spectrum of students in ways we haven’t before. That’s not only a moral virtue for Harvard. It’s a moral virtue for all of us.
Students are driven by a desire to solve problems with real and lasting societal impact. Today, “making and doing” extend far beyond the disciplinary confines of engineering and the fine arts. With the Paulson gift, Harvard is in a unique position to bring down disciplinary boundaries, to inspire new curricula and experiential learning, and to transform the very concept of a university education.
I have no doubt that Harvard’s engineering and applied sciences program will catalyze such a transformational change. But will all that effort and all those resources transform Harvard’s educational model or the world’s?
Harvard has to take full advantage of this incredible opportunity, and so do the engineering powerhouses. Globally, more and more students recognize the sheer impact they can have by studying engineering. How do we support and serve them?
Even more students seek an education founded on disciplinary depth and enriched through cross-disciplinary experiences. How do we embrace their interests and turn them into the idea creators, the problem solvers and the makers of the new and the better?
How do we inspire them and empower them as they put ever more pervasive digital technology and ever more important engineering principles to work? What does that well-rounded and well-educated student of the 21st century look like?
These are questions for us to answer together, taking full advantage of our variety and our diverse strengths.
So welcome, Harvard, to the conversation.
Andreas Cangellaris is dean of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering and the M. E. Van Valkenburg Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.