Director, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences; Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and Entomology; Eberly Professor of Biotechnology
Director, Human Evolution and Diversity; Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology
Assistant Professor of Plant Pathology & Environmental Microbiology
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Intro (Nina Jablonski): Evolution involves more than the survival of the fittest. It's also about the survival of the most cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships are critical to the survival of every species. Welcome to The Symbiotic Podcast, where we will explore the collaborative side of life and work to consciously evolve science itself.
Cole Hons: Hello, fellow Homo sapiens, and welcome to the pilot episode of Symbiotic. The purpose of this show is to explore and celebrate the increasingly important topic of transdisciplinary research. In future episodes, we'll be sharing fascinating stories about specific research projects. But today, we're going to kick the whole thing off with a conversation about why that's worth doing.
So, joining me for this conversation are three outstanding scientists from three different fields here at Penn State. Andrew Read is the Evan Pugh University professor of biology and entomology here at Penn State, Eberly professor of biotechnology and director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. Read's research focuses on the ecology and evolutionary genetics of infectious disease, particularly pathogen evolution related issues that may harm human health, such as antibiotic and vaccine resistance. Welcome, Andrew.
Andrew Read: Thanks very much, Cole.
Cole: Nina Jablonski is Evan Pugh University professor of anthropology at Penn State. She's also the director of Penn State Center for Human Evolution and Diversity. Jablonski is known worldwide for her research into the evolution of skin color in humans. She is deeply engaged in public education about human evolution, human diversity and racism, and is involved in the launch of a new genetics and genealogy curriculum to be featured on PBS's Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Welcome, Nina.
Nina: Thank you, Cole.
Cole: And finally, Cristina Rosa is assistant professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology here at Penn State. Rosa studies the interaction of plant viruses with their plant hosts, and insects that carry them. Her work touches on virus evolution, viral co-infections, the effect of climate change on viral resistant breaking strains, and the use of nano technologies for virus detection and virus disease management. Welcome, Cristina.
Cristina Rosa: Thanks. I'm happy to be here.
Cole: Thanks for being here. Yes, welcome, everybody. So, let's kick it off. Let's talk a little bit about why is transdisciplinary research increasingly important today. Does anybody want to jump in with a first comment on why is this stuff important?
Nina: We're all looking at one another because we all know just how incredibly important this has become, and it's not something that's sort of just happened. It's been brewing now for 30, maybe 40 years, but it's become more practical in the last decade. Science increasingly is porous. The boundaries of scientific disciplines are porous, and people are recognizing that they not only have to talk to their colleagues, they have to work with their colleagues in order to really answer the remaining fundamental questions. Certainly, in the life sciences.
So, transdisciplinary approaches are essential, they're not optional anymore. So, it's a matter of figuring out how they're going to work.
Andrew: And most of the really interesting problems in science lie in these interfaces between very different disciplines. So, for instance, chemistry of life is important, but in order to understand the molecular interactions inside a cell, you need to understand how the cell is working and the broader context of the cell within the tissues, and then, indeed, how that whole organism is interacting with the social spheres around it. So, there isn't any sort of simple one size fits all answer now. Those have already been plucked, at least in the life sciences. And now, we're in an era where we're trying to tackle bigger problems, different problems, and that may requires a much broader perspective.
Cole: Yes. Cristina, what are your thoughts on this?
Cristina: I completely agree. The science I study is based on many, many disciplines. I work on entomology, plant pathology, plant sciences, and I cannot address any of these questions without working with my colleagues and without facing each other every day.
Cole: I often think about how our world's becoming more and more interconnected on a global scale with all these new technologies that have emerged, these disruptive technologies with the internet, et cetera, and we're starting to become more aware, in my view, that we have these common really big complex problems. Do you think that this interconnected world's making us need more disciplines? Are we seeing problems that we couldn't even see before perhaps?
Andrew: Yeah, I think it's a combination of things. We can see, because of the interconnectivity, we can see things we couldn't see before, and you can see areas of expertise that you, yourself, can't specialize in but that could bring things to your own discipline. So, it's easier to see what's going on now, but the interconnectivity itself is bringing you problems.
For example, in my area, infections disease, just the travel process, the interaction of people across the globe, between people and wildlife, that's changing as a result of technological advances and traffic and transport. And so, the problems themselves are starting to become very transdisciplinary.
Cole: So, in a sense, it's probably impossible to solve these highly complex interconnected problems without bringing the different disciplines to bear.
Nina: Without bringing the different disciplines and without bringing people from very different cultural perspectives together. This is the beauty and the challenge because you not only have to bring different disciplinary vocabularies and methods together and try to harmonize them, but often, you have to bring together people from very different cultural backgrounds. And so, this great interconnectivity that we all have now is something to be reckoned with socially as we put together research teams.
So, this is an extremely exciting and important time, but we have to be very reflective about how we do the science.
Andrew: Would you like an example?
Andrew: You just take an issue like measles. Measles vaccination in the scheme of things, developing the vaccine is a relatively simple problem. I don't mean to diminish that, but relatively simple. Getting vaccine uptake, getting vaccines into difficult parts of the world to reach, getting people in many societies including our own to accept the vaccines, that's a difficult issue in supply chain science, as well as social science. And some of the communication that is going on with the internet, the social media, and so forth, means that we have new and interesting challenges to do with the measle. Even though it's a fundamentally simple problem caused by one virus, we've got a solution to it, actually implementing that, getting that through, that's a difficult transdisciplinary problem.
Cole: Yeah, absolutely. I can see that. Yeah, we just look at the nightly news and you can see examples of that all around us for sure.
So, Andrew, I thought about asking you this. I know you recently took over at the Huck, although you've been here for almost a dozen years directing the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, and now you're thrust into this new role, so you're really carrying that flag for transdisciplinary work, which is what the Huck's all about. So, what does "business as usual" approach to scientific research look like, and how does it fall short? Can you give us some examples of the negative side of why something's aren't as valuable to advance where we need to be?
Andrew: Well, "business as usual" means the individual professor getting on and making sure their lab is functioning, getting their grounds, tackling their problems, and oftentimes he will collaborate, but it's usually around a problem which is of interest to the primary professor. And that usually means it's a problem that he or she can solve in a few years with the level of resourcing available within that lab.
And many of the bigger problems we're interested in are much, much larger than that. And so, I mentioned before the measles example. People are interested in measles and measles elimination on the planet, that's a huge number of different disciplines needed to bring to bear to do that, and you can't tackle that from a single lab. No one individual can come up with a magic bullet that is going to transform that problem.
So, "business as usual" means not solving some of the bigger problems that we have. And I think that's true in many of the medical settings, but it's true of the many fundamental issues in life too. It involves collaborations between mathematics, mathematicians, chemists, physicists, social scientists, everything. I mean, it's "business as usual" is to not solve problems. You just take some of the big successes of the 20th century, for example, getting to the moon. That's a very, very transdisciplinary problem. There are people [inaudible 00:09:16] rocket fuels, metals, Newtonian mechanics, right through to how do you train an astronaut, how do you get those groups of people to work together. Achievements like that don't come from a single lab.
Cole: Great point. Great point. Nina, I wanted to ask you in particular, as a social scientist and anthropologist, what gets left out of life sciences research when the social sciences are left out of the equation?
Nina: A lot, in short. But to be specific, there are many aspects of life science research that require immediate and direct collaboration from and with social scientists. Anytime you're talking about biology in the broadest sense, including medicine, that involves people or that is influenced by people, you need a social scientist or a few of them to help you figure out how people are responding to a situation, how they might contribute or exacerbate a situation. Basically, when humans are either victims of a disease, or are implicated in some kind of ecological situation, you need social scientist to help you interpret from the inside what it's like to be a human. In this way, you can build your science without retrofitting it later to try to correct mistakes. You can build it from the beginning to be appropriate to the systems.
Also, you really need social scientists to build your team. A lot of people think the teams just come together naturally and everything is just wonderful, and you're doing all this collaborative stuff, and everybody's really happy with one another. No. People are people. People not only have disciplinary differences, they have personality differences. The science of team science is really important to successful transdisciplinary work. So, even if you don't need a social scientist in your field site or working on your project, you need one to help steer the social relationships to finesse the psychology of team members so that people can work optimally together.
And the last thing that social scientists are really important for is that they help us see what our natural or culturally determined sort of restrictions may be on the way that we see a phenomenon. Let's say, if Cristina is trying to judge the color of plants, or seedlings using an objective or a subjective scale, who is making that subjective judgment? It's a person in most cases. You need a social scientist to help guide what criteria the observer is going to use to record their observations.
So, social scientists, first of all, they're really fun to work with. They're really well domesticated as a species. They're not these sort of unruly, bizarre types of folks. They're really handy and they want to be involved. And involving them in these three ways I think is incredibly important to the success of 21st century science.
Cole: Thank you.
Andrew: Yeah, can I give you a couple of examples there?
Cole: Absolutely, sure.
Andrew: Just to take up on Nina's first point. I work on antibiotic resistance, this is the problem of how the bugs, the diseases that harm us becoming more resistant to drugs. That's a microbiology problem in some sense, but actually maybe getting the behavior change, getting them used in a way, antibiotics used in a way which can mean we can stop those, solve those problems, that might be five to 10% microbiology and 90% human behavior change. And so, to me, if we're not involving social science in that problem, how can we expect ... And that's [inaudible 00:13:27] good example, you can come up with solutions that aren't implementable. We, now at the Huck, have social scientists involved in that second point that Nina made, trying to figure out how teams should work together, that we're actively engaging social scientists in the process of trying to form good groups, and that seems obvious to me.
And on Nina's third point about the social scientists themselves being social beasts is very interesting to me that some of the biggest and most successful cooperative scientific programs on campus are coming in the social science arena. Substance abuse, for example, or healthy aging. Those are areas where social scientists are themselves working together, bringing their complementary skills together in a way which is making way more than sum of the part. The idea of this sort of genius physicist working on his own or own whiteboard, in our own office, that's not going to work in most of these other areas.
Cole: Yeah, one would hope that if someone's in the social sciences, they'd practice good social skills as well and hope those could go together.
Nina: They're getting better.
Cristina: And I feel like a scientist, we are not trained sometimes to understand this social problems and issues. I think it is extremely important to be aware of them, both in the classroom and also when we collaborate together. And how do we express our ideas, and how do we communicate our results? Well, if we don't have social scientists helping us, usually it's pretty inefficient.
Cole: Good point. You're leading me into my next question, which is for you, Cristina. You mentioned being inefficient, right? And so, another aspect of transdisciplinary project and teams that comes to my mind is could things be sped up? To your point of inefficiency, or things breaking down, or slowing down. And we're going to get into this in part two of our conversation where we look at how nature evolves life, and see can we evolve science in a similar way, and I'll be asking you more about your research and some models we can draw from nature itself.
But as kind of a precursor to that, I just wanted to state people are used to thinking about evolution as a very long, slow process. But viruses, we know, evolve incredibly fast. Andrew, you were just talking about resistance evolution, and bugs versus drugs, and how quickly these viruses can evolve to resist different medicines that we come up with. So, I'm wondering do you think research programs can evolve faster if we act like viruses, or if we become more transdisciplinary? Have you had any experiences where the research, more knowledge was gained quicker because you had more people in the room with different perspectives?
Cristina: Yeah, I think you're touching on two questions that are really dear to me. One is how can we use the knowledge about viruses to improve our research, and viruses are extremely streamlined. They're genetic material is really aim at few things, but very essential, and especially plant viruses, and they can also multitask and they can help each other.
So, I think the first thing I would say is, for me, viruses are an example in terms of how do we accomplish our research every day? What can we take out from our daily schedule that can simplify our problems and our processes? Can we go faster if we focus on something very important and we take away the distractions?
On the other sense, you are touching about evolution of viruses, and how can we cooperate together. Viruses can be in the same organism, and there sometime [inaudible 00:17:06] in the bad cases, they will prevail on each other, but if the outcome is good, they will have benefits. So, can we do the same in our research?
Cole: Yeah, that's an interesting question and in kind of part two of our conversation, we'll be digging into that a little deeper.
Cole: I'm Cole Hons, this is The Symbiotic Podcast from the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State. We'll be back in just a moment.
Nina: At Penn State's Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, we investigate life from every angle. We study life's forms at multiple scales, from nano particles to global biomes, and we confront life's challenges across the globe, from the farm to the city, to the wild. Welcome to the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, collaborative discovery brought to life.
Cole: All right, folks. Let's get into part two of our conversation here. It's very exciting, very cool stuff. And next, I just want to take a look at this next question. So, let's look at what does nature tell us about collaboration as an evolutionary driver, and how can we use this knowledge to get better at transdisciplinary research? And before we jump into that, I just want to share one quote. This is by Lynn Margulis and her son, Dorion Sagan. Lynn was married to Carl Sagan, one of those names everybody knows. Lynn is a revolutionary biologist who brought forth the idea of endosymbiosis in the 60s, which was a radical idea at the time, and now, it's considered absolutely accepted within science. This idea that it is collaboration indeed that is equally key to competition in terms of driving the evolution of life itself. And I love this quote from a book she wrote with her son, Dorion. "Life did not take over the globe by combat but by networking." Does anybody want to jump in on that?
Cristina: One of the things that comes to mind is related to my research, and my research is focused on plant viruses and how this simple organism can interact with each other. And one of the things that viruses are good at is at exploring different niches. And how do they do that is by creating small diversities. And so, when a virus enters inside a cell, it can create a progeny that is slightly different and that maybe very, very adaptive to the next environment. And can we harbor this information in our research, and can we make our programs better by exploring different niches? I think today, research is very focus on key questions that everybody's exploring, but we don't have so much, basically, an understanding of what the ideas of the outliers do for us. And really, outliers ideas are the one that have brought our science much forward in the last years.
So, can we accommodate these ideas that are a bit different, and research programs that are not following the main source of funding and maybe come up with this niche expertise that will be very useful in the future? And maybe we can do this through education. Can we get our students in exploring different niches, and can we foster these multidisciplinary cultural space?
Cole: I hope we can. I think we need to. I think we're recognizing that here to a greater and greater degree, and for all the reasons we've been talking about today.
So, unless somebody else wants to just chime in on that, I could also just take us back 1.5 billion years ago, when there were these little bacteria, little one celled life forms on our planet, a life decided to create something that was basically a permeable membrane, right? With the evolution of eukaryotes, with a permeable membrane that would allow material in and out, that is precisely what led to multicellular life, which led to plants, and animals, and fungus.
None of us would be here if it wasn't for that permeable membrane, which just kills me because at the Huck Institutes where I work, I joke all the time about a permeable membrane. I never know who's in the Huck and who isn't because people are in and out all the time in so many various ways. I can't tell who to put on the website or not. And it's frustrating as a communications person, but it's brilliant for the evolution of science because that is precisely what we need. We need people to cross those boundaries and let people in, and let people out, and let people take what they need and move as they will. So, does anybody want to talk about the permeable membrane a little bit?
Andrew: I was just going to say I'm sorry that you find the marketing of this [crosstalk 00:22:06]. The problem is it's very hard to wrap life sciences up in one package and even have it hold still for very long because it's moving and so fluid now. And so, the restrictions, the collaborations, the knowledge is changing so fast it's not so clear anymore where the boundaries are. And in fact, that's one of the reasons for the Huck Institutes because traditional departments like chemistry, and biology, anthropology, they don't make much sense from the intellectual perspective anymore. The connections are often bigger between departments than within them. Things are splitting, fusing, reforming, very, very rapidly changing.
It's a super exciting time to be a scientist and a little bit challenging for the marketing folks and for the departmental administrators.
Cole: That's okay. We'll take the pain. It's [inaudible 00:22:52]. We'll take one for the team.
Nina: And another aspect of this, of the evolutionary process that really pertains to our sort of social fabric in transdisciplinary science, is that nature has had to respond in contingent and emergent ways because stuff happens. Forms of life becomes extent, others come up. And what you see is ... to use a modern phrase, a constant series of pivot events, where organisms do something different. They interrelate to one another differently. And that's what you see in a good, flexible academic setting for science is that people see, "Oh, oh, I need to collaborate more with Andrew or Cristina," or, "I need to work on something altogether different, where can I get that expertise?" People now know that they have to sort of, in themselves, be organisms and take advantage of the crises to really grow their science and interrelate to others.
Cole: Right. Right. You're tapping right into another idea I've had. We decided to name this podcast Symbiotic because that's what we're exploring, these symbiotic relationships. And when I was researching different stories out there about symbiotic relationships, you see them in the microbiome, like in the gut, from the gut level all the way to the macro level. You see them with plants, you see them with animals, you see them with single cell life, you see them with viruses. It's all over the place at every scale, and I thought about that classic idea of symbiosis from when I was a kid watching the nature show of the rhinoceros and the bird on the back of the rhino, and the bird gets a meal, and the rhino gets a skin treatment, right?
And so, as I've been thinking about scientists, do you think that scientists are like different species of animal in some ways? If you talk about maybe like the engineer and the biologists, [inaudible 00:24:56]. I mean, they can be that different, can't they? Do you ever experience that in your work, and as an academic?
Andrew: I'm feeling nervous about [crosstalk 00:25:08]. There's no question that different scientists occupy different niches, and they can move through niches, and in time, and during their careers, and often quite fast, even over a space of a week. But the complimentary that comes from the equivalent of the rhino and the bird on the back, that happens all the time. And so, there are people just because of the nature of the expertise required, I mean, don't forget, it's not possible for any one person there to know everything. It's just the techniques are ... there's a very high level of expertise required, for example, to do modern day genomic analysis. So, if somebody's an expert on genomics, they spend a lot of time doing that, but therefore, cannot do, let's say, behavioral phenotyping well. And somebody who's an expert on behavioral phenotyping hasn't had the chance to become a world leading expert on genomics.
Andrew: So, first, people want to tie, for example, autism to the genetics and we know that autism is an extremely genetic issue. You want to tie this together you need to marry the behaviorist together with the cognitive psychologist, together with the genomicist, and both have to be experts. And there, you got a situation where you've now got the rhino and the bird, although, maybe the scales not [crosstalk 00:26:20]
Cole: Right. Yeah, and maybe they can arm wrestle over whose who, or whatever it is [crosstalk 00:26:23]
Andrew: Yeah, and it probably changes depending on the question, and the time, and the paper they're producing, or the ... Yeah, the patients they're looking at, or whatever.
Cristina: But I think we also have very many commonalities as a scientist, and the first one maybe is curiosity. I think this drives our need for interdisciplinary research is we really want to ask a question and get the answer from different points of view.
Cole: That's a great point. Back to what Nina said about teams, people have to have a common vision or a common goal. I mean, even with this podcast, everybody in the room helping, all the tech people are not on, they're outside. The cameras right now are all lending their passion and their skills as well. So, true in so many arenas.
I wanted to ask Cristina about the coevolution of insects and vectors that carry diseases a little bit. Is that something that co-evolves? Because that's another idea that I think is pretty interesting. That as one branch of science can evolve in partnership with another, perhaps they start to coevolve. One discovery ... I know some of our labs at the Huck, we can have one little grant that affects the way we use an instrument, can affect five different research tracts in five different disciplines at Penn State, with that one thing is co-evolving everything together. So, could you speak to that a little bit?
Cristina: Yes. So, here, the problem is how are viruses moving from one organism to another one. So, very often, they move through vectors or insects, and how are these virus able to manipulate the hosts, in this case, a plant, to attract the insect and be moved from one site to another one, from one organism to another one. So, basically, these coevolution allow the vectors, in this case, insects, to sense the plant is infected and to move toward that plant. And why is this insect doing this is because maybe the plant now tastes better or has more nutrition than the plant that is not infected. So, in this case, viruses are really clever and they can manipulate different characteristics of their environment. But these evolution will not happen if basically the insects will not get something back.
So, when we look at this story, there is something that can be learned from it. I think it's very interesting to put people from different fields in the same rooms. We are going to start talking, we are going to start exchanging ideas, but what is the evolutionary process of how we bring these ideas forward? So, we have to have the same goal probably, and then we have to have time to spend together and to evolve these ideas.
I think this is one of the ... probably the field of research that is not yet well studied. We know how to bring people together, we don't know yet how to maintain this relationship.
Cole: Maintain the relationship overtime because evolution does require some time, and it also requires engagement, close engagement, overtime I imagine as well.
Cristina: Yeah. If you think all the relationship that don't work, those are going to fail. But how do we make good relationship that'll lasts for a long time?
Cole: That's a great question, maybe that's a new branch of research that we ... Researching the way that we can put these team together, and keep them together, and keep them working effectively perhaps.
Nina: People are doing this because there is the recognition that we must understand the human dynamics between and among members of a research team, and that in a sense, these research enterprises are like big organisms. They have a life course of their own, and we can't wish them into permanence. They're going to have their own birth maturity and death, and it's important that we recognize this and that we sort of design our projects recognizing that things are going to fall apart, but then something new will form again, and that's okay.
Andrew: That's all evolution itself. I think in the case of trying to manage the scientific process, we have to accept that a lot of this will not work. We have to prepared to take risks, and we have to accept this so called failure is the price of success. And as many entrepreneurs, for example, they expect 10 ideas, nine of them will fail, one might, if they're lucky, really go big. We have to learn to live with that. And that, that sort of risk taking, large scale risks would involve groups, that's not naturally a part of much of the scientific culture, where [inaudible 00:31:06] is particularly won't guarantees success. And so you end up with sort of incremental success, small steps.
These big steps that we'd like to be able to take, game changing steps, they typically take ... you have to ... a lot of failure, and the payoff can be enormous. And that's a bit like life, that symbiosis, especially the big ones, the forming of the eukaryotic cell, multicellular life itself, societies. Those big steps that led to huge innovations and lots and lots of change, they happened because the symbiosis worked, the cooperation worked.
Andrew: Lots of productive stuff can come from competition too, but it's typically more incremental. The really big game changers come from the cooperation part.
Cole: Absolutely. Well then, Andrew, maybe I can ask you what do you see as the biggest hindrances to putting together impactful transdisciplinary research projects?
Andrew: Oh, I think initially there's a lot of language problems. It takes quite a bit of time to trust that you can get things out of this communal good, and everybody's got to trust that and trust each other. That takes some time to build, especially when the disciplines are very, very different, and what they consider to be good, or the reward system, or whatever, that takes a lot of time.
It's relatively easy for me to collaborate with another microbiologist because we all agree what the metrics of success are, we all know the sorts of equations we find interesting. When it's a very different sort of person, like let's say, a communication scientist, working with somebody who's in health messaging, it's a very different even who's going to be what on the authorship, what's taken aa success, what is the right way to think about a theory, all of these things are very, very different. And you can overcome that, but it takes time, and it takes communication, and it takes the development of trust. So, that's long-term investment.
I think the other key thing is to make sure that the skills are complementary so that no one person or one group is dominating the arrangement and getting the most out of it. It's got to be good for everybody, it's got to be exciting for everybody, intellectually satisfying for everybody, so that no one group feels like they're serving the needs or the purpose of the other.
Cole: Yeah, I was trying to decide if I wanted to go into this territory in this pilot episode. When you look up symbiosis, it's not always mutually beneficial. There are parasitic relationships as well, where ones just a host, and the other ones [crosstalk 00:33:35]
Andrew: And actually, the same arrangement can move through from mutualism, where it's good for both parties, through to parasitic, where it's good for one and not the other. The whole spectrum can happen even with the same players depending on the environmental conditions and what's going on. It can be very, very easily moved to a parasitic stage/system, but it can also move back depending on the conditions and who's providing what. So, I do think that's a very ... we got to accept that that is going to ... and that is part of the reason for the instability in the long runs, why something's can die because the way the science leads you starts to benefit more the one group than another, and that can easily lead to the end of it. That's okay. It's okay, so long as it's all done with good intent. That's okay.
Cole: Right. Right. Thank you.
Nina: And if I can just put in a little practical note, one of the things that is an issue in putting together working transdisciplinary teams is that the best teams have junior and senior people, but often, university administrations at various levels do not recognize the value of this work, especially for junior investigators, especially if it's a project that's slow to get off the ground. And so, junior investigators can find themselves in a very invidious potion of wanting to be part of a really exciting research team, but then, drawing back and saying, "No, I've got to show these very specific results, and I've got to hit these particular milestones for my promotion and tenure dossier." The university has to understand that it has to change its standards to reflect the way that science and knowledge is now put together.
Cole: Yeah, I agree. There are a lot of old school in so many aspects of culture. So many old ways that really sort of are being outmoded, right? I think it was Buckminster Fuller that had said something like, "Don't waste your time railing against the thing you hate. Build something new that makes it obsolete," so hopefully we can muster-
Andrew: That's [crosstalk 00:35:34] in the Huck.
Cole: ... muster the resources to build a better model and prove it out there in the world. One thing I've noticed in some conversations I've had here is that sometimes the mission can drive ... It's a lot easier to have an impactful mission that you want to accomplish some sort of change that isn't necessarily tied to a research paper, and you can actually go make a difference out there. It gets trickier when you go into that standard academic world of publishing in the big journal, et cetera. So, some-
Andrew: There really are scientific communities that do that. Astronomy is a really example. By necessity, they have to get together because [inaudible 00:36:09] there only going to be one instrument of that size. So, you can get 50 people on a paper.
Now, that does happen in biology, but if you look at the 50 authored paper, there's typically a few that have led it to get the most out of it, and everybody else has put their bits in. In astronomy, everybody is getting chunks out of this telescope or out of this cube buried in the ice in the Antarctic. They all get their bits, and they all get their paper, they all get their ... The community as a whole is benefiting because all of the elements get [inaudible 00:36:35]. And we, in life sciences, need to try to work towards that. Not everybody, but in many settings, we need to be able to get towards that sort of model, large scale problems. And of course, if you do want to look at a gravitational wave or the origin of the universe, that's a problem that gets a lot of people excited and interested. The mission, as you said, focuses more [inaudible 00:36:56] on that, and then if you can package up the submissions in a way that everybody's getting their bits, then you can get magic.
Cole: Well, that leads me back to the context you said of whether things are mutually beneficial or whether they become parasitic. A lot of it is the way that everything is set up, and it reminds me of what Nina said earlier about not having to retrofit after the fact, "Oh no, we should've thought of this before." So, it seems like if we can develop more foresight into the importance of making sure that everybody involved gets something important. In the same that co-evolving viruses with the plants, there has to be something for everybody, some sort of benefit for everybody involved, or they just won't get involved, right? There won't be any impetus to do so.
Andrew: And you asked about the hurdles. I would say that one of the hurdles to making this work is you need good leadership. So, we can do better than evolution. Evolution is largely a random process of trying things, fail, trying things, and there's no foresight, whereas we can have foresight. We can build our teams deliberatively and carefully, and think about the mission, and who's going to do what, and build the complementary skillsets in a much more efficient way than evolution, but we need that leadership. People who are prepared to step up and do that, or take that organizing role, which is going to benefit them in the long-term, but perhaps, not the short-term.
Cole: Right. Right. They have to have that long game. Yeah. I'm a student of conscious evolution actually. I’ve taken a couple courses in that, and one of the big taglines is "evolution by choice, not by chance." We're conscious beings, we can evolve. We can drive evolution, right? We've mapped the genome, we actually can start tooling around with the evolution of life itself. That's how much power we've developed as human beings, so we better be conscious about how we're going to use that power, right?
Andrew: And sometimes, we can see that what might be good in the short-term, isn't going to be good in the medium term. And evolution can't see that, we can see that. And sometimes, humans are capable of taking the medium to long-term view [crosstalk 00:38:55] short, [crosstalk 00:38:57]
Cole: Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes, some of us get [crosstalk 00:38:57]
Cole: More of that, please, yes. While we're still on this section of looking at nature in sort of a biomimicry kind of way, we talked earlier while we weren't rolling about human beings are getting pretty good at looking to nature and figuring out, "How do we build a better wing?" Or, "A better fan?" An engineer making a new material by looking at how biology of living organisms is structured, et cetera. We're getting pretty good at that.
But now, I think what we're trying to figure out now is how do we look at the evolutionary drive of nature and evolve our processes, not our materials but our processes, to mimic nature and gain from the wisdom of nature. And with that in mind, I want to geek out a little with a new phrase that I learned in my research phase of this podcast talking to Cristina about her research, and I learned what a cloud of genetic variance is. And I wondered if do you think we can design a research project the way that clouds of genetic variance work? What would that look like? And if you could define it for our listeners a little bit, it could be a teachable moment for us and we could maybe dig into that a little bit.
Cristina: Sure. So, what's happen when a cell gets infected by a virus, so the virus replicates and makes progeny, and the progeny should be clone, but it's not. So, every individual is slightly different than the parent, and so this is what we call the genetic cloud or variant. And this is a very important characteristics of populations of viruses because basically they're pretending to be similar to the best individual [inaudible 00:40:38] to that environment. But then, when this virus is there to move, either from cell to cell or from one organism to another one, they are [inaudible 00:40:47] ready to adapt. So, they have already innate in that population these differences that are going to make them more fit maybe in a different situation. And maybe, originally, these different individuals they were not really fit, so they will not have been surviving, but because they take advantage of the cooperation of their brothers and sisters, they can survive in the original status. And then, when they move to a new one, they're going to maybe to be the winners. So, the new quasi species, or genetic cloud, or variant in the new cell or the new individual, maybe will be more similar to them.
I think for we, as a society, are almost like a quasi-species, where each of us has a different, slightly different, characteristic. And how do we maintain these differences is crucial not only for science, but for society. How do we allow these different individual to thrive in an environment that is maybe not perfect? And can we do that also in science when we have maybe students or colleagues that are exploring different questions than we are, and maybe they're not so successful but their questions are very important. And so, we have to have a maybe a university ability to give them money, to give them support so they can explore these different questions. And then when the time comes, this question, if they're very important, they will be ready to go basically. And these people they will hit the ground running, and they will answer this question much better than everybody else in the room basically.
So, I think maybe students, it would be a good bridge between ... they will be our progeny basically of what the [crosstalk 00:42:29]
Cole:Intellectual progeny, yeah.
Cristina: ... intellectual progeny where they are slightly different than us, and maybe we can prepare them, and we can foster their differences, and making sure that they are learning from each other and from others here at university. Maybe we are not able to do that, to share knowledge and language, but maybe we can train our students to do that, and they would be better prepared for evolution, basically.
Cole: They can evolve as people and as scientists.
Cristina: Yeah. And evolution doesn't happen on us, but on our future colleagues and how our students. Those are part of the evolution I think.
Cole: I like that a lot. Well, Andrew, I believe you shared a little something about this topic earlier, that you learned recently, perhaps it was at a workshop or-
Andrew: Yeah, it was a workshop here a couple of weeks ago, and results were presented about a type of virus, which apparently, the plant virologist have known about for a while, but I didn't, called multi-parasite viruses. And these are viruses that exists not as one virus, it's one genome that's packaged up inside a particle, but instead separate segments of the genome, usually one gene, and each one is packaged up separately. So, it becomes its own little virion. And depending on the species, there might be five of these, so five genes, or seven. But they all exist as separate individuals, in any spacial sense. Packaged separately, in different places in the plant, but they need each other. And so, if you take one of the types away, then the whole thing collapses.
So, you have these groups of five or seven entities moving together, making the infection in the plant work, each contributing their bit, talking to each other. They don't even need to be in the same cell. They talk to each other presumably via products that the cell is producing, or via that the cell is passing onto another cell. So, they're talking to each other, and they need to exist as a whole.
Now, to me, it's kind of like, "What do we call this thing?" It's not an individual because they're not actually ever together. They are not a single genome because they're not connected, but then some sense they are a genome because each of the gene is required to make that thing work. What is the thing here? Well, the thing is some collective thing we call an infection. So, it's a population that works, but it's driven by separate individuals, all of whom are necessary. Very odd. It's not ... and they can be in different cells.
So, it's kind of like a whole different way of organizing life. It'll be like us having 23, 30,000 separate bits of us that all need to come together in some plant to recreate us. It's weird.
Cole: Fascinating. Yeah.
Nina: The Borg!
Cole: The Borg!
Andrew: The Borg.
Cole: Basically, it's the Borg that's going on here.
Cristina: Maybe we can call it symbiotica.
Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I'm Cole Hons, this is The Symbiotic Podcast from Penn State's Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. We'll be back in just a moment.
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Cole: Welcome back to The Symbiotic Podcast. I'm Cole Hons. This is a production of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. And we're going to wrap up our conversation today with Andrew Read, Nina Jablonski, and Cristina Rosa by taking a look at Penn State, where we all work. Penn State University has developed a new hot bed for this kind of work, the transdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, however you want to term it. We're getting pretty good at Penn State, not to toot our horn too much. But now, we're trying to figure out why that is, and let's talk about how we can extend that out into the world and do some good with it.
So, I'm going to start off by asking Nina to chime in. We've spoken in the past about what it is about this particular place, where we are here at Penn State, that kind of caused us to almost accidentally I think get good at this stuff. Could you tell us what your perspective?
Nina: Penn State has benefited greatly from having some very prescient administrators back in the mid 20th century. They recognized that, "Here we are in the middle of Pennsylvanian, and we've got a bunch of interesting colleges and a bunch of interesting departments in those colleges, and wow, there are some overlapping interests. How are we going to make this work? How are we going to make sure that facilities don't get duplicated? Oh, let's make centers. Centers that might bring together people with common interests."
Fast forward into the later 20th century, let's not only make centers that bring together people from diverse places that have common interests, but let's make institutes like the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences that bring together groups of centers, and then more individuals who have common interests in life science research from every possible angle.
Now, the beautiful thing about this institute structure that was created, is that it was meant to be cross, multi, inter, and transdisciplinary by design. It was meant to demolish, or at least reduce the effect of these silos in which administrative departments exists. And for the most part, it has worked and it has worked for decades now.
So, when I say that Penn State is sort of pre-adapted to transdisciplinary work, this is why because we've been doing it for a long time. Initially, because of financial necessity, but now, this is the way science is working. This is the way much of knowledge building is working. So, we're in a great shape.
Cole: And how much do you think that that have to do with being kind of in the middle of nowhere in the middle of central PA for [crosstalk 00:49:12]
Nina: That certainly helped.
Cole: ... urban areas? That's another piece of the puzzle I think we've discussed is that if we were in a more urban area, we'd have other kind of big institutions to collaborate with with outside of Penn State. And it's almost like we had to look inward and do that within our own university to some degree, yes?
Andrew: Plus, there's a scale issue. We are a very large institution. So, 50,000 students on this campus, another 50,000 or so in the Penn State system as a whole. That's a lot of faculty involved in the teaching. So yeah, a lot of expertise around the place. So, the scale really helps. If you think about some of the smaller institutions around the US, the Princeton's or the Rockefeller, they can specialize in their areas of excellence, as they do, they can't bring to bear this very, very transdisciplinary approach that we can.
Cole: That's right.
Cristina: And I think the third element is proximity. We are all forced to stay in very, very close proximity. The campus has been designed to be a center campus and not to expand too much, and we are in a small community where we meet our fellow scientists every day outside in town. So, we are forced to talk to each other.
Cole: Yeah, I've heard that you better be nice. You can't get away with being too grumpy or too much of a pain around here because there's nowhere to hide, [inaudible 00:50:30] around, right?
Cristina: Yeah. Yeah. And symbiosis cannot occur if you don't meet each other.
Cole: That's right. That's right. Absolutely. I would like to ask each of you a little bit about how this transdisciplinary work has benefited you personally at Penn State with some of your own research if you don't mind?
Cristina: Maybe I can start since I'm the youngest in terms of career here. And for my career, it was very important to come to a community that is very welcoming and very open, and I found this incredible after being at other universities. So, for me, I was able to interact with people and collaborate on plant sciences, entomology, biology, but also engineering and physicists. For me, this has been crucial to set up my new lab and to go ahead with my research.
Nina: Ever since I arrived here almost 13 years ago, I've been interacting and collaborating with people from the Eberly College of Science, the College of Agriculture, the College of Education, and within my own College of the Liberal Arts. And actually, Health and Human Development. And the fact that you can pickup the phone or drop somebody an email and they'll say, "Oh yeah. Yeah, I'd like to talk to you. It will be great." The fact that there is this immediate interest. Now, some people are busier than others and we understand that, but there is this immediate sort of, "Yeah, I want to hear." "Yeah, let's try this." That ability, that willingness to roll up your sleeves, listen and try something is fantastic.
Cole: Right on.
Andrew: Yeah, I've been here 12 years now, and in that time, I'm a [inaudible 00:52:17] between two different colleges. So, I go to two different types of faculty meeting, and I meet lots of people that way. I'd say the intellectual input I've had from the agriculture sector has been actually amazing. Made me look at a lot of the biology I do in a very different way. I probably, in my research itself, has benefited most from working with mathematicians, although, one of the most striking ... Oh, and I've also got a project running at the moment with communication scientists, social scientists who work on health messaging, which is really stretching my ability too, my intellectual ability.
The biggest accidental collaboration I have had was one of the chemistry professors had heard somebody give a talk about resistance, and said, "You must meet Andrew." And so, this guy, an engineer and I, decided that we would have lunch together. And it transpired within the first couple of minutes that we're using the word "resistance" in a different way. And we thought we were now stuck with a lunch with nothing else in common for an hour. But it turned out that the mathematics that he used to study, it turned out to be cellphones batteries, the mathematics he used to deal with cellphone batteries is the same mathematics that we use to figure out how to treat patients with infections in cancer.
Now, who knew that the underlying math would be the same. And we now have a collaboration going with the engineers who are figuring out how well we need to measure what in stuff that we thought we were doing uniquely for many years. And that was completely accidental, and is one of these things because of the scale of the place, you can bump into an engineer who works in cellphones and discover commonalities.
Cole: That's beautiful. We're talking about evolution, we're talking about the evolution of science, and we're talking about accidents versus being conscious, right? So, I'm going to send a challenge back to you, Andrew. As the new director of the Huck Institute where we have people working at all these different scales, right? We've got people down to nanotechnology, the nano scale, the tiniest, tiniest we can even conceive of all the way up to macro, global biomes of huge areas of terrain around the earth, and diseases moving across the earth. How do you think we can stitch together all of those pieces in a bigger way to take on some of these challenges? All the way from the micro to the macro?
Andrew: Well, first, let me just say that you got the scale wrong. We go from angstrom through to the galaxy. People in the astrobiology-
Cole: Okay, okay. Yeah, it's even bigger than I-
Andrew: People in the astrobiology [crosstalk 00:54:42]
Cole: Yeah, excuse me.
Andrew: ... so don't think of the Earth as the limitation here.
Cole: Yeah. Sorry, didn't mean to diss you like that.
Andrew: Yeah. I think there are several ways we can do it, but the most obvious way, to me, is to focus around a particular problem. And at the moment, I can see several medical ones that we can think of. I mentioned autism before, and that's an example where there are elements to that issue, which flow from the genes, how the molecules are interacting that those genes produce, and that's down to potentially the angstrom level that you're talking about, right up to the social structures in which we raise, and support, and help people of various different degrees of autism difficulty, but also the positives that go with those states as well. That's an issue that runs from the angstroms right through to population health and population stresses.
Another one of those is nutritional issues and obesity. Sure, we know what we should eat. Actually, sometimes we don't. There's still an ongoing debate about quite a bit of what we should eat. Some of the answers to that are molecular at the angstrom level, and then behavior change is often a societal issue, and it goes right up to the question of overall population health and what's available. Flows of food around the planet, wastes systems, all of those issues. That's [inaudible 00:56:01] full scale.
So, I think if we can, as Penn State, find ourselves issues around which many people at these different ... with expertise on these different scales will work complementary on these problems, then that will allow us to make full use of this scale and interdisciplinary culture that we have. I completely agree with Nina that we've had this built into our culture intellectual environment for many years, and there's lots more we can do with it, which will really be fantastic in the years to come.
Cole: Sounds great. Terrific. Does anybody else want to chime in on scale? You can ask one last question beyond that. My final question to everybody is where do you think this is headed from here? What do you see as maybe a next step or somewhere to aim to kind of advance and consciously evolve the way that transdisciplinary research is done? What's it going to take?
Nina: Well, one of the things that really impresses me is that the highest levels of the Penn State administration recognize that this is important. It isn't just down at the level of the faculty members. The president, the provost see this as the future, and they're trying to make it happen. Now, they have their own difficulties and logistical things that they have to overcome, but they recognize that this is the way that knowledge is going to increase, this is how the university's going to thrive. And so, I think that is something that is enormously important for us to recognize that we have the sort of the wind in our sails pushing us forward, not blowing in our faces. There'll still be a lot of work for us to do, but the fact that we have the highest level at the administration recognizing this issue is critical.
Cristina: Yeah, I think this is our legacy as Penn State. I think proceeding in this direction is what we have to do and what we are going to train our students and ourselves to do for the future.
Cole: [crosstalk 00:58:05]
Andrew: Yeah, I think in terms of next steps, there are lots of things that we've tried in the past that had worked well and we need to learn from those, and then try a whole lot of new things. And I think there's a lot to work on about optimal sizes of groups, how you get the complementary skills together in the same room, what works in terms of personalities. We can try a lot of that. Money is a part of it, but it's not a huge part of it. A little bit of money is often needed to stand something up, get people’s attention, but I would say it's a question of finding the right problems around which people can congeal.
Andrew: The right problem. You know, going to the moon, that's a problem that was well defined. And you start with [inaudible 00:58:46] but, and then you go from there. And it's a great problem, and it was posed as a really good challenge by Kennedy, and it got all those very, very ... thousands of people working together on one thing at all sorts of scales. Amazing. And I think there's a lot of scope for trying to find ourselves some problems that we can own that are like that, that get lots of people around. And it might turn out we start with four or five people to start with, but the problem is big enough, it'll soon bring lots of groups in.
Cole: Well, let's hope we find the right problems to marshal all those forces and put them all on the same trajectory working together in a symbiotic fashion, where everybody learns from everybody else, and then the world benefits as a result. It's what we're here to do, right?
Nina: Indeed. It'll be fun.
Cole: Absolutely, and that's important too. Let's not forget to make it fun. Well, thank you all so much for being a part of this, first conversation. In future episodes, we'll be digging in on specific research projects, and the challenges and tribulations, and what people learn, and how they grow, and how we advance science in this way. But I just want to thank you again for being a part of getting it all started. So, cheers, thanks again so much.
Nina: Yes, cheers! Thank you.
Cristina: Thank you.
Andrew: And good-
Cole: Here's to the [crosstalk 00:59:54].
Nina: Thank you.
Andrew: Good luck with the series.
Cole: Thank you very much.