Associate Professor of Geosciences
Huck Chair in Biomimetic Materials; Pearce Professor of Engineering
Huck Chair of Functional Genomics; Professor of Biology; Professor of Plant Science
Professor and Huck Scholar in Ecological Entomology
Cole Hons: Greetings, fellow Homo sapiens, and welcome to The Symbiotic Podcast. For this episode, we assembled a panel of four very different scientists in front of a live audience of journalists who were here at Penn State for the 2019 National Science Writers Conference. The result was a rich conversation that spanned many topics from life in caves, to biomaterials, to crop resiliency, to malaria prevention. I hope you'll enjoy this special live episode of The Symbiotic Podcast.
How many people have been in Central PA before or know it? A couple? Oh, a lot of you have not. Hopefully you get to see some of it. It's very beautiful. A lot of beautiful nature around here. I think we're all very blessed. Hi, thank you for being here, my name is Cole Hons. I work at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences at Penn State, which is a consortium of about 30 different centers and institutes that cut across all sorts of departments in nine different colleges at Penn State. We want to bring the disciplines together to do things you couldn't do if you didn't bring the disciplines together. With that in mind, we just launched a new podcast called The Symbiotic Podcast.
Today is a very exciting day because we have four different scientists, all of whom work with us at the Huck Institutes, but they come from four completely different disciplines and we'll be learning about their work, and how the disciplines come together in their work, and sharing best practices and visions of why that's important, and how science can benefit and how society can benefit from this kind of activity.
All right, so I mentioned a little bit about the Huck. Why don't we go ahead and look at these screens for a second. This is going to show you just a little 30-second snapshot to set the tone of what we're all about.
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: Our first scientist here to my left is a Jennifer Macalady, Associate Professor of Geosciences. Jennifer brings together geosciences and microbiology. She explores life in deep caves, investigating the ecological rules that govern microbial behavior and evolution and asks how modern earth microorganisms can teach us about the biogeochemistry of the early earth and signatures of life on other planets.
Okay, next up I've got Melik Demirel. Melik is working at the convergence of materials and life sciences focusing on self healing, biodegradable synthetic alternatives to plastics. His research involves emerging manufacturing processes for materials, tissues and devices, multi-scale and multi physics modeling, computational analysis, bionanoscience and engineering. He's the engineer on our panel today.
Next up on our panel is Sally Mackenzie. Sally's bringing together biology, epigenetics, and plant science. Through groundbreaking discoveries in epigenetics and plant plasticity, Mackenzie's work promises to enhance crop resiliency over the coming decades in the face of global climate change. Her research integrates molecular biology, cell biology, genetics, epigenomics, computational biology, and phylogenetic approaches. Sally is the inaugural director of our new plant institute at the Huck.
Finally we've got Matt Thomas down on the end. Matt Thomas brings together entomology, ecology, vector biology, economics, and social sciences, and a few other things I think thrown in for good measure. Engaging a wide range of scientific disciplines, Thomas is exploring the viability of an innovative new malaria prevention technology for potential development across the developing world. His research combines entomology, evolutionary ecology, vector biology, biotechnology, agricultural sciences, mathematics, economics, and as I mentioned earlier, social sciences, which we're discovering is an increasingly important angle and dimension for doing work in the life sciences.
If you would please, maybe a round of applause for our esteemed guests here. They've really been wonderful putting up with me and all these hard questions I'm going to ask them. Part one of our discussion is really about, where are we now? Penn State's been doing this stuff for a while now. I don't know, a good 10, 15 years we've been creating these institutes that cut across the disciplines. Part of it is we're in Happy Valley, we're in Central PA and there aren't a whole lot of other big research institutions around. We've looked inward and we've learned how to collaborate within our own walls.
My first question to our panelists is going to be about how do the disciplines come together, in your research at Penn State to make it possible? Because I feel that the research of all these individuals wouldn't even be possible if we weren't blending different disciplines together. I'm going to start with Jennifer. Jennifer, how does the transdisciplinary approach make your work possible?
Jennifer Macalady: Hi, I am both a geoscientist and a microbiologist and the microbiology part encompasses genetics and genomics and computational biology to some extent by necessity. What I'm really trying to understand is the way that microbes interact with earth materials from a nanoscale up to the scale of ecosystem elemental cycling. We depend a lot on microbes for all kinds of services, engineered and natural systems, both. Right now we don't really know the ecological rules that govern which microbes show up for lunch and what happens when they get together. What I do is dependent both on understanding the chemistry of the physical environment, the solid and the liquid phase chemistry, and on the physiology and genetics and behavior of the microbes that are everywhere around us.
Cole: Thank you. Melik, how do the disciplines come together in your work to make that possible?
Melik Demirel: Yeah. Hi everyone. Thanks for being here. I am a material scientist, but I'm also interested in proteins. We are all made of proteins, 17% of your body is proteins. Basically, your skin has elastin, your hairs are keratin and so on. If you look at nature, like you see the silk for example. Spider silk is one of the toughest material. It's made of proteins. We were interested in proteins as materials. We want to make, for example, very strong adhesives like this one. I'm going to circle around this thing and whoever can break it with tension, don't touch here, but tension, I'll buy lunch. You already ate lunch, but anyway.
We are interested in the application of these things in different areas, one of them is textile. The reason that we are interested is because of sustainability. Human, since the dawn of civilization, have been using natural fibers like silk wool and so on. But in the last century we start to move on from these natural fibers to plastics like polyester, nylon, elastin and so on. We didn't realize for a while that they were causing problems. Microplastic pollution is a big problem that's killing planktons, it's causing environmental damage, and we are hearing that, more and more, there's some health issues about that.
Now the key issue is, how can we make, for example, textile industry more sustainable? How can we create a circular industry in this domain by mimicking what nature did, but by creating new fibers that nature already gave it to us. One of them is the protein coming from squid ring teeth. It is a thermoplastic protein. We turn it into adhesive like that, fibers, and so on. That's where we are interested in.
Cole: That's biology coming together with engineering to make that happen. Right on. Thank you. Sally, what about you? How are the disciplines coming together in your work to make that possible?
Sally Mackenzie: I am originally trained as a geneticist and we now have a realm of genetic information, whole genome sequence for most of our major plant species, those that we eat at least. But as it turns out, what we know very little about is way that plants interact in their environment when their environment changes. It turns out that when plants undergo conditions of chronic stress, chronic I can't really define for you yet, they undergo a change, sort of a reprogramming such that they can give rise to progeny that remember that stress, and are pre-adapted to that stress, and can sustain themselves in that stress. Ecologists have known this for some time, but now we have to learn how to condense that into something that we can actually exploit and understand on a gene level.
That's what my lab studies is how do epigenetic changes, changes in the way gene expression occurs, so that we can actually manipulate and exploit that capability in our, let's say, plant breeding efforts. It turns out that, with reams of data, we have to have some way to model this, which takes a certain amount of mathematics, it takes a certain amount of computational biology that I've never been trained in. But if we can actually master that, we can create platforms on which we can actually analyze data, look for the various decorations on their genetic information that changed the way genes are expressed, learn the way those decorations are patterned, and actually become predictive so that we actually understand and will know the kinds of changes that nature can create, or environment can create, on the genome of a plant.
It turns out that this is not so different from what we're thinking about in the biomedical field. When we think about some of the disorders that we know are largely impacted by environment, autism comes to mind. We know that things aren't quite right, but we don't exactly know what aspects of our environment influence features like autism. Many of our mental health issues are the same. We know that there's an environmental implication, we just don't understand how it works. The more we can build tools that allow us to read that re-patterning on chromatin on our genetic information. The more we can actually move ourselves from the agricultural, to the biomedical realm, to the ecological realm.
That requires an integration of our understanding of genetics, our understanding of chromatin biology to some extent, just the natural understanding of what we would call stochasticity. Just the dynamic noise that goes on in our environment all the time and how we now start to model that into something that we can can use predictively so that we could have early diagnostics in the biomedical field, but likewise in agriculture so we could actually start impacting the more rapid evolution of our crops as we prepare for a more dramatically changing environment.
Cole: Thanks Sally. I've heard you say that students today really need to understand computational biology more and more to put all these things together. That's a critical component.
Sally: Yeah, that'll be a huge part of the new plan institute is that we are now looking for ways... The thing about computational biology, and just let's say computers and mathematics in general, is we have some young people that are really naturally inclined to it and we tend to recruit those people to these fields. But the problem is what about everyone else? How many people are in this room right now who don't feel like they've got a natural inclination that way? The fact is that, in our future training of scientists, they'll need it anyway. Penn State is trying to come up with a peer training effort that actually addresses those people who don't feel like this is what they really want but are going to have to have it in their careers, regardless in it. It's going to be a little bit of a challenge, but I think it's just recognizing where the future is taking us.
Cole: Thank you. Matt, I will restate my question for you. I know that your work, as it stands right now, would not be possible without many disciplines coming together. Could you unpack that a little for us?
Matthew Thomas: Yes. To some extent a little similar to Sally's. I'm an ecologist entomologist, and I work on trying to very broadly understand why some insects are bad and what can we do about it. The insects I care most about or I research most about at present are the mosquitoes responsible for transmitting certain diseases, in particular malaria. Approaching this problem as an entomologist, some of the questions are very single discipline-based. If I want to know, how long a mosquito lives, how temperature impacts its developmental rate, that's something I can study on my own. Well not me, I'd probably get a student to do it, but in the lab, and understand the specifics of development rate.
But if we want to then say, "Well, what does that mean for transmission in the field, and how might transmission change in the future," for instance, through changes like climate change or urbanization, then we really need to think about, this insect doesn't occur in a vacuum, but it sits in this much more complex ecosystem. Understanding those processes that contribute and take you from the insect through to transmission, through to impact in human health takes onboard a whole suite of disciplines, social science, economics, epidemiology, housing infrastructure, land use change, urban development. All of those factors play out in determining whether they're somebody living in one city or one location gets bitten by an infectious mosquito versus somebody else.
Then additionally, if we want to develop a tool to do something about that, we do a lot of research in my lab. One of my biggest activities is evaluating novel control tool that impacts on mosquito survival. Again, the starting point for that is rather simple. It's actually quite easy to set up a simple assay in the lab to kill a mosquito. To take that technology to evaluate it, progress from these very controlled lab studies through to field, evaluating the epidemiological impact, and then ultimately considering how you're going to take that technology to be adopted at scale across, for example, large parts of Africa, really requires that we embrace much more than just the entomology, but that we think about the epidemiology, we think about the social science, we think about the economics, we think about the regulatory landscape, we think about the donor landscape. Who's going to pay for this? Who's going to deliver it? Who's going to implement it, and do the end users want to use it?
To take this, to understand the problem of the disease, in this case malaria, and to develop new approaches to deal with that really requires that you think much more than just about the insect, but you embrace this much greater complexity.
Cole: In Matt's case, I know the technology that we didn't unpack for the audience is in [inaudible 00:16:09] that actually goes into homes. These questions become, do people really want to put these in their homes? Just to make it more specific for everybody. You could have a great thing that that reduces malarial infections and the science can look terrific, but if nobody actually wants to buy it, implement it, put it in there, it'll be useless. So those are the kinds of questions we're talking about. Okay.
For question number two, I'm going to mix it up every time. I will be cognizant of giving everybody a chance to be first and a chance to be last. Melik, I'm going to hit you with question two first. All right. Are you ready for me?
Cole: Okay. What are the greatest challenges you face in bridging different disciplines in your work? Do the challenges come up of, the biologists don't understand the engineers and vice versa? What does that look like?
Melik: I will divide this question into two, one from my perspective, from basically I am trained as a material scientist and typically you don't learn, for example, molecular biology. I had to take off some time in the tenure [inaudible 00:17:14] when I was trying to get tenure at Penn State. Penn state was very nice to me, so they let me to go and spend a year and learn molecular biology for example. The second part of it is educating what I learned, educating the students. Because I have students that are coming from physics, I have students coming from mechanical engineering, material science, I have students that are coming from chemistry, molecular biology and so on. We have projects in the lab that are subdivided, and sometimes I feel that I'm the only one who knows most of the stuff, but if I bring these people together they don't understand each other.
Educational aspect of breaking the walls of current education system, which US is leading in that sense that we are breaking all the barriers for educating, but still educating the next generation of scientists, engineers with these degrees, limit us to jump into these translational topics and let them to learn all these different fields. I think these are the two major challenges that I would name.
Cole: Sally, what are the big challenges you face when you try to bring disciplines together? Do things sometimes go screwy and not work so great?
Sally: I think that bringing disciplines together requires a certain amount of respect. That's because, at least early on, there's a whole lot of stupid that goes on. That's simply because, I'm not really qualified in many of the areas that have to come together for the work to go on. There's a lot of steep learning curves that we have to spend our time encountering and overcoming. It's not uncommon, for instance, in our lab group to have things come just out of nowhere in particular. Ideas that are put forward by, for instance, a computational biologist addressing certain biological things that are happening in our system that just make no sense at all. You have to learn to roll with that until you reach a place of mutual understanding.
I'd say that learning curve is really quite steep, and I think that is the barrier that most people are facing now is that these are really divergent fields. In the old days, it was just simply ecologists and geneticists working together, or it was the language is we're really quite uniform. But now as you've got physicists working with applied mathematicians, working with biologists, the languages are very different, the thinking, the approach to a problem, is so different that sometimes it can feel like you're flying by the seat of your pants, which can be really uncomfortable.
Cole: Matt, what about you? What kind of challenges do you run into with all those different disciplines coming to the table?
Matthew: Yeah, so I think to some extent, one of the challenges is definitely arriving at a common language, and also with very different disciplines comes, to some extent, different motivations. Actually, buying into some sort of common goal is also often a challenge, or common expectations. What does somebody want out of this collaboration and partnership compared with you? And are they the same thing? In terms of dealing with this challenge, a lot of it comes down to having good communication. But again, one of the limitations or one of the challenges in doing that is actually coming up with a common language through which one can communicate.
I think, additionally, with the different perspectives come different priorities. I know within our work, particularly with this novel mosquito control device, we have people approaching it from a very fundamental research perspective, and their motivation is to understand, well, why does it work? Or why does it not work? How does it impact malaria transmission? These are questions which they could ask about this technology, but they could equally ask about a new drug, a new vaccine, or just trying to understand the basic epidemiology of the disease. That's still an academic motivation to some extent.
But we also work with people that actually want to get this technology into the field and their motivation might be commercial, and there's nothing wrong with that. Somebody has to produce this thing, sell it, and get it into people's houses. But with that comes often a different set of motivations and balancing those different motivations can really lead to some tensions within a group. I don't want to necessarily caricature this too much, but there's a real incentive to move forward quickly, maximize impact, and get something out of the door, and that's a big driver that comes from a commercial perspective. But also we all share that in that we would like to see this research out there having an impact in the real world.
But researchers will just research things to death because that's what we do. We love it. We just like asking questions and trying to find the answers and it's like layers on an onion, we can ask the next question, and the next question, and the next question. There's this tension between enough information so that you can move forward confidently, but not spending so much time researching that you can't actually take that next step at all, and I think that's one of the challenges.
Cole: Thank you for that. That's great insight. Jennifer, I'm coming back to you.
Jennifer M.: I'm going to wax a tiny bit philosophical, because I was at an exhibition in Rome last year, which was about Leonardo da Vinci. He is the poster child Renaissance scientist. I was struck by the perspective of this exhibit, which was the human dimension of his discoveries, the dependence that he had on his environment and the society of his time. I started thinking about how Leonardo da Vinci's experience as a scientist and his effectiveness as a scientist is different than ours. What I came to is that, Leonardo could dabble in math, and engineering, and military science, and art. He was able to do that not only because of his gifts, but also because not that much had been explored formally.
Nowadays if you want to contribute you have to really be drilled in. You have to be coached in the language of your discipline and you have to be really a specialist. The challenge then is how to allow people to drill in far enough that they can contribute and yet be able to zoom out far enough that they can collaborate. I guess what I would say is there is even more of a human dimension to being a successful Renaissance scientist in today's world compared to Leonardo da Vinci's.
Cole: All right, this time we're going to reverse not only the order, we're going to go in a different direction too. I'm going to start with Sally and go this way and loop back around. You got to keep things fresh, keep it interesting.
This last question from part one, which is about where we are now and what do we know. I'm going to say, Sally, what outcomes have emerged in your research that couldn't have done so without multiple disciplines coming together? We've talked about serendipity and we've talked about you get the right people in the room and allow things to happen. Could you give us an example or a story that speaks to that whole thing?
Sally: I was not studying the area of epigenetics when I got into this field. The questions that we were asking in my lab had to do with how subcompartments in the cell that control energy, mitochondria and in plants the chloroplast, how they actually sense the environment and can cause plants to grow in new and different ways. During that time, we were fairly unidimensional and I would not say there was much interdisciplinary work in our group.
But I think that as you bring different viewpoints together, we were chugging along in our lab. The first interdisciplinary work we did was to share our lab meeting with another group that had just launched, their lab at the institution I was working at. By bringing two groups together, looking at the same set of data, what we were calling a bioenergetic or a mitochondrial phenomenon, they actually stepped back and saw in a totally different way. Between the two of us, we were able analyze the data and suddenly realized we were looking at epigenetic phenomena, which meant that we were basically looking at programmed ways that plants will express their genes in order to give them new capabilities. It was something I would never have thought up on my own.
That sort of serendipity does happen when you get close enough to other groups that they're actually looking in detail at the sort of data you generate. The question is, how do we create those opportunities as often as possible? The only way it happens is by a willingness by scientists to be in that room with people who think in very different ways or by an institution to create as many different environments where those people naturally have to be in the same room. It's one of the things I do like about Penn State is that we have very few boundaries to very, very different people being in the same room, looking at the same sorts of datasets. I think from that standpoint, serendipity does happen.
Then it turns out that in each area that you pursue, you now have to figure out how do you capture that serendipity? I think being able to bring enough people together to want to work together is not easy, because it's not comfortable. I do think that, to some extent, this is an institutional challenge of how do we mix it up? How do we get our scientists out of their comfort zones and how do we get them into rooms with people who think in very different terms? I think Penn State is wrestling with this in a very positive way. I've worked at institutions that were not as creative in the way they put us in the same room together as Penn State does.
Cole: Thanks for that. We're going to reverse direction, I'm coming back to Melik and say, what kind of aha moments happened for you Melik because the different disciplines were coming together in your work that wouldn't have happened otherwise?
Melik: We were studying proteins and the different properties of the proteins from the material science perspective. But then we start to realize what nature evolved for a long time could be one of the examples that we could be studying. But what happens to the proteins or fibers or any biomaterial that nature used, maybe disappeared in the evolution or maybe nature never created these things. We ask the questions, which is basically a key question of molecular biology directed evolution. Can we create these types of materials in the lab and is there any way that we can look into new materials that has not been created by nature or that has been forgotten by nature? Kind of playing chess with nature. You want to take the next step, but nature already taught about it with 4 billion years of background.
The aha moments for us is rediscovering what nature did and rediscovering some of these pathways, some of the algorithms that nature is using all the time and we are trying to do it and replicate it. But at some point we also ask questions, which basically goes well beyond nature and trying to create new materials that have broadband responses. For example, a new material that we discovered have terminal conductivity change that can increase its thermal conductivity by 10 times. In a daily life, this could be a very nice athletic textile, which as you sweat it can increase its thermal conductivity hence you can release some of this thermal load. Although it originally came from nature, so it wasn't on purposely designed for that or it wasn't on purpose evolved for that. Playing the chess, I think that's what the hormones are.
Cole: Thank you. That's fun, yeah. Jennifer, I'm coming back to you again. Anything that just sprang forth. If it wasn't geosciences and microbiology, forget it, game over.
Jennifer M.: Yeah, sure. I mean, actually, all of the aha moments have had to do with making geochemistry and genomics line up. We're at the beginning of trying to do this. It's a really complex endeavor given that there are more of microbes on earth than there are stars in the universe and there are more of microbial species than there are stars in our galaxy. This is really a mess. Most of these microbes can't be cultivated in a lab, and so we're really out there groping around in the dark, trying to understand what the rules are for which microbes are where and why. That task has been, I think for many people in my field, really overwhelming.
The tools that have emerged that have allowed us to feel like we're progressing and having aha moments more frequently, those tools have to come from both geoscience and microbiology and genetics. They're basically tools that allow us to shrink down to the right size. If we shrink down to the right size, both our chemistry measurements, our measurements of the structure of minerals, and our detections of genes that are turned on and off in certain microbes, even in a single cell, those when we get down to the right scale, things start to match up and we can start to go, "Aha."
Cole: Cool. Thank you. Matt, it's back to you again.
Matthew: Yeah. I think maybe a couple of examples, one very research-oriented and the other a little bit slightly bigger picture perhaps. In the early part of my career I spent most of my time thinking, again, around these questions of, what makes a pest a pest and what are we going to do about it? That was very much oriented towards agricultural problems. Then only in the last 15 years or so is that same set of questions migrated towards public health and thinking about mosquito vectors. I think one of the interesting things is, even at that micro scale and actually taking, even within the discipline of entomology, I came from an agricultural perspective, ecological. I brought questions into public health that people in public health just weren't thinking about. That's not because I was particularly smart, it's just that public health entomologists do things differently and ask different questions than agricultural ecologist or entomologists.
Even just crossing over something within, it's still entomology, it's still ecology, same basic principles. But it really was just approaching the problem from a different lens. I was really surprised. I thought, "Well, I'll dabble a little bit in this mosquito stuff. It's kind of interesting. It's a big deal kills a lot of people." But I presumed that really most of the answers were there already. I was thinking, "I'm not sure what I'm going to do in this area." There are so many things we don't know, and there are elements in agriculture where we know much more about pest insects. Even in basic ecology there are some elements that we know much more about the basic ecology of certain butterflies than we do about malaria mosquitoes. Now, there's nothing wrong with knowing a lot about butterflies, but malaria mosquitoes are the ones that infect 250 to 300 million people a year with malaria. I think, actually, just the different lens that comes from different disciplines is really important.
The second one, if I can be allowed to ramble on, is that we're very fortunate to have been part of this very large project evaluating this novel mosquito control tool. Cole suggested it's a type of housing modification. For the last three years we've been working in Cote d'Ivoire and we've been running this big experiment in 40 villages. 20 villages received the intervention and 20 were our controls.
Just two weeks ago we presented the results of that big study to the ministry of health. We sat there and we presented the results. The ministers and the National Malaria Control Program staff, they had this whole suite of questions, is like, "Well, what did it do to the mosquitoes?" Well, we gave an answer. "What did it do to the epidemiology? How many cases were there? How many lives did you save?" We could give that answer. "How are you going to install it?" We could give that answer. "What did it cost?" We could give that answer. "What did people think about it? Are they going to accept it? How long does it last?" We could give those answers. That's not to be smug, but the only way we could do that is by having everybody sat around the table that had addressed each of those questions. If I had just gone in as an entomologist, I'd have had one answer. It really does indicate the need to place research into this broader context.
Cole: Thank you, brilliant. Being me, I'm going to go completely off book of what I planned and say that I'd really like to hear some questions from you if you have some, because we have a part two where we're looking to the future. We've been talking about what we've been doing, we're going to hopefully look a little into the future. I've got some more prepared questions, but is there anybody out there with a burning question? I figured I could take like four questions and then maybe I'll go back into my questions. Please, if you don't mind introducing yourself, say where you're from. I'd really appreciate that. You can just talk right into this mic and we'll get you on camera. You're going to be on YouTube, don't be nervous. You may end up with a lot of followers, who knows. But yeah, thank you.
Jennifer Huber: My name's Jennifer Huber; I'm a freelance science writer. What I'm wondering ¬– I come from an academic research background before I became a science writer and it was a multi-discipline background. I'm wondering if having the disciplines learn how to communicate, whether that inherently means that they have to learn each other's jargon and science or does that mean that the scientists need to be able to at least initially be able to explain their science in plain English? Because I've gotten to so many... I mean, I was more an instrumentation engineer and I'd go to so many engineering seminars. In theory, they were talking to everybody in the audience, but in practice they were only talking to five people in the audience. I was just curious, do you actively try to get communication skills that are more general public skills, or is it just a bootcamp to learn all the different sciences in your group?
Cole: That's a great question. Does anybody feel compelled? Who feels the spirit move them? Ah, Jennifer, let's hear it.
Jennifer M.: It's very clearly not an exercise of trying to get everybody to use each other's jargon. I mean, some of that will happen by accident, but it's very much, in my opinion, an exercise of getting people to be able to zoom out to the point where they can explain what motivates them and what makes them curious and what matters about their research in plain language. That exercise is important not only for transdisciplinary collaborations, but also for communicating with the rest of humanity. It seems like a no-brainer.
Cole: Thank you. Anybody else in the panel want to chime in on that?
Sally: What I would say that has astonished me is that, in order to have that transdisciplinary work, it does force everyone to learn to speak in simpler terms. I work with an applied mathematician who thinks about information theory and thinks a lot about distributions and how you would use various types of divergences to discriminate and meaningfully between those distributions. For me, none of that made any sense. But for me to translate it into what does make sense to me as a biologist has now taught him to speak a much simpler language. I do think that there's a really healthy interface in forcing all of us to simplify, to remove the jargon and to now be able to see it in its simplest form through someone else's eyes.
He now looks through a biologist’s eyes. It's all very clear to me, I'm just looking for the point at which I can distinguish between my treatment and my control group. How simple is that? Whereas he was off into this information theory place that meant nothing to me until I could distill it. I would agree that we can actually learn by interdisciplinary work to speak a more common language that I think would be very valuable to those who write about it as well.
Cole: So there's like an accidental side benefit that comes along that nobody was really planing on but it happens. Melik, Matt, are you happy with your colleagues' answer? Do you have anything you want to share or you think they've covered it?
Melik: I think this is a fundamental philosophical question, actually I've been thinking about it. What is the capacity of any average human knowledge. How much you can teach them. You take them to high school education and then you specialize them in the college and so on. Then you ask them to jump into these interdisciplinary topics. The knowledge, if you compare from an informational theory perspective a century ago and now, it's immense, and all these big databases and so on that's coming on. Maybe we are going to a new phase of science where the knowledge is not possibly can be digested by only one scientist yet let alone how much this information can be transferred to large classes. So how can we integrate this knowledge into the education?
Beyond the jargon, beyond the frequency of using the correct terminology, I think there is also a bandwidth. There is also a limitation of information that we will be facing soon. I think that one of the key problems is how can we improve learning could be the next challenge of science.
Cole: Thank you for that. Matt, comments?
Matthew: Yes. I certainly agree with what's been said already. I think the challenge... I don't know. I sit in rooms with my colleagues and collaborators that approach these problems from very different disciplines. I usually feel, in fact I probably am, the most stupid person in the room. Everybody knows their thing much better than I do. I think there is this inherent challenge to actually come down to some kind of common language and common understanding. But I think that doesn't mean that it has to just come... that's not the same as dumbing it down. I think one of the skills is in fact being able to assemble a team and for some people in that team to have a big overview, to understand the big picture, and to other people to be able to play their part in doing the specifics and doing the things much better than anyone else can do. I think the challenge is being able to manage that as a productive team, as well as having a common language.
Cole: Thank you. I love the fact that you all had a great answer, but they were all different answers, which exemplifies exactly what we're talking about here. Okay. Who else has a question? Right over here, that's the first hand up. If you would introduce yourself please.
Robert Frederick: I'm Robert Frederick. I work for American Scientist Magazine. Now that you're all in the room with one another, is there anything that you've heard from one another that makes you wonder if you should perhaps collaborate with one another or at least look at one another's data? Because I'm already hearing things that sound like should be getting together.
Melik: We actually just started before we were getting prepared. We were just discussing how, for example, the biofilm that's coming deep into the rocks could be used in my domain of looking at films that we produce like this from bacteria. We took the genes from squid and make these things and we know how to characterize these things. We know how to evolve these things in the lab and so on. Now, yet a scientist that is basically hundred meters away from my lab now we didn't know that what we were doing. Maybe next week or in the next couple of weeks we will be talking and some of the tools that I developed will be helpful for her, some of her knowledge could be helpful for me.
Jennifer M.: Just to paint a little richer picture, this piece of fabric that you're all going to tug on to win the prize. Melik made me do this too and I said, "Oh well this kind of makes me remember this biofilm that we can't disrupt. We'd like to study it under the microscope and it's really, really hard because we can't break it apart." Under the microscope it looks very interesting, and beautiful, and strange. We don't understand it, and I don't have the tools or the training to know how to poke it in a way that will improve our understanding of its properties and instead Melik knows how to do that.
Sally: One of the things that I haven't mentioned is that, the thing that drives me to study epigenetics is that it turns out that if I can reprogram plants in this way, I can manipulate them to create a transgenerational memory where they can remember that they have seen stress even though it was artificial stress. If I cross or manipulate those plants in particular ways that we do in the lab, it'll create, very much, an enhanced growth response. In other words we can make plants, without doing anything genetically to them, produce 20, 30% higher than they normally would, to be larger and above ground biomass, much more vigorous, and much more resilient to the environment.
What I also haven't mentioned is that a lot of what makes them do that has to do with hormonal changes that happen under the ground and they happen to the roots of the plant that gives them this immense amount of growth potential. But nine times out of 10 what goes on in the root isn't just in the root by itself, it's basically interfacing with the soil and with microbes. As I sit here and I'm learning what my colleagues are doing, of course I'm realizing that I now know where a colleague is that's thinking about the microbial world and basically how we learn about the population dynamics of that microbial world as we start interfering with different root architectures that impact that. The more you learn about your colleagues on this campus the more you ferret out that there are new people on campus that have expertise that fits very nicely into something else that you need to know.
Matthew: Yeah. I think that's the unfortunate thing about being at a massive university with a bunch of bright people doing interesting things is there isn't time in the day to meet everybody and go to every seminar. Creating an environment, which Penn State I think does well, where there are mechanisms for that I think is really important. From a personal perspective, just again, talking over lunch before we all sat down for this podcast, I'm involved through an extension of some research I participated in with a spin-out company. It's not on mosquitoes, it's on a bedbug product. It turns out that at least two other people here were are also involved in their own spin-outs.
I think that would be rather an interesting conversation to actually just walk through, "How have you found that experience? Why did you do it? What were the difficult things? Where are you in that process?" I think it's a potentially interesting mechanism to help propagate research knowledge and go down the translational pathway. But it's not without challenges and it's not something necessarily as academics we're trained to do. It would certainly be interesting to have a bit more of a chat and find out what people thought worked and what didn't work and why they did it.
Cole: Perhaps a future episode of the Symbiotic Podcast we'll do a panel at the hub and get an audience for that. Another question. Right here. If you would introduce yourself.
Bradley: Hi, I'm Bradley [inaudible 00:48:55], I'm a freelancer. We've heard a lot about the benefits of cross-disciplinary research. I'm wondering if you also see it as a professional risk at all to participate across disciplinary boundaries.
Cole: That's a good question. We touched on that in one of the podcasts that we've published already a little bit. Anybody?
Sally: Well, along the lines of what we're talking about here with the idea of one interdisciplinary activity that has been more and more a part of many of our lives is that universities would like to see real impact from the work that goes on, particularly as economic growth engines. That's what every university should be to every state. That means commercializing of some of the things that you discover in a lab. As Matt was saying, we're not really trained to do that. That interdisciplinary activity of now retooling to figure out what a business plan should look like, what patent architecture should look like, and how you actually enter that realm without compromising the integrity of the academic adventure you're on, it really presents some challenges and, I would say to some extent, some potential downside sides. There is some risk involved.
On the one hand, you always mean well, and you're really eager to see one of your inventions take hold and be really useful. That is the legacy you hope to leave is that you've basically created a body of work that helps mankind in one way or another. But on the other, just the potential to get into difficulties that complicate your ability to serve as an academic, I think, makes it risky. I would think that's an interdisciplinary skill that we need to be learning much earlier in our careers so that we navigate those a little better than we do currently in my opinion.
Matthew: I think the extent to which you can take these risks also depends on your career stage. I think when you get older, and you have tenure, and you've got a bunch of papers and you've got a track record, to some extent it gives you the flexibility to pursue some of these things. I think it's harder for a postdoc who's trying to make a name for themselves, and for someone going through the tenure track process where part of how classically your dossier has been evaluated is what are you known for. You ask a bunch of peers and say, "Well, what is this person famous for? What's their thing? Why should we support them?" Well, first there's a risk that if they've worked in this and this and this and this, they're not necessarily known for anything. But they might be extracting information, which at some point they can consolidate and make a huge step forward, but that hasn't yet happened. I think that's one of the challenges.
It's also a challenge with publication in that discipline-based publications are what you're known for. Inherently, if it's multidisciplinary, it may not fit into that particular journal, the key trade journal or the priority journal in your particular discipline. It may not even be particularly innovative. If you're applying one element of entomology, well, everybody can do that bit of entomology. But what's novel is that I joined it with climate science and I joined it with economics. The innovation may not come from the application of your bit of the trade, but actually the integration of several bits of other people's trade. I think that's actually a bit of a tension in terms of publishing, in terms of getting grants, and something to be sensitive of, I think, in the tenure process and as people are trying to build their career.
Jennifer M.: I can give you another concrete example of what you're saying. I fully agree that it's a challenge for administrators who are trying to evaluate the value of a scientist's work, especially young scientists. If you were in my lab for example, some of the publications go to purely geochemistry journals and some go to genomics journals, some go to microbiology journals. Those communities are seeing only a fraction of your work. The integrative work, sometimes it's not even clear where to send it. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. But in any case, you are taking a risk because you're sort of diluting your publication stream, in a sense, to three different communities where some people who are staying in their specialty, they're really kicking it in this one community and they're known for that, and the reviewers know who you are. I would say there is a significant amount of risk, especially for young scientists who take that path.
Cole: Thank you.
Melik: Yeah. The risk I think is inherent to the process because of the cost of doing nothing is nothing, so you have to take risks. But there's always the elements of human nature. There is always inherently builds other human responses on that risk. But I think if I take the risk to a different level of understanding how technology evolves. As we go into these very complex fields, we are limited by our understanding of what does today's technology, how will it impact 100 years from now, 10 years from now, one year from now?
If you think about my subject, we taught that polymers would be great, plastics would be great for the humanity. In fact, your mobility to here, your clothes, everything plays around these plastics. But now 100 years later, to give you an example, there was like four Nobel Prizes on the polymer history. But now what has been created a century ago now is causing environmental disaster today is a major challenge. This doesn't end here. Well, how do you know that what I'm creating today will not affect some other processes that we didn't understand. Infinite cycle of scientific discovery and technological discovery is a risk, and that's one of the key challenges of science I would say.
Cole: What I'm wondering is, who's going to take a risk and start up a transdisciplinary journal to start validating some of these things? Somebody's going to get first to market with that. Maybe I shouldn't put that on the podcast and give away that idea, but it's slowing down the middle. Who else has a question? Anybody? Yes, I saw this hand first. And if you would introduce yourself [inaudible 00:56:35] question please.
Kelly Jones: My name is Kelly Jones; I'm a graduate student. My question, you touched earlier on bringing this idea of multidisciplinary science into education and furthering that. But many of you, from your spiels, came into multidisciplinary science out of moments of serendipity. What would be your advice on engineering some of those multidisciplinary connections and how do you further this idea? How do you create this?
Cole: Thank you. I could jump in with a little bit. I could prime the pump for you guys because at the Huck where I work for example, we have the Millennium Science Complex. I don't know if you've seen it. I'm going to give a little tour of our microscope down there tomorrow morning. There's six available slots for that if you sign up at our table. It's like a little exclusive tour. But on one wing we have material scientists, we have the Materials Research Institute. On the other wing it's the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences and we have coffees. We have coffee presentations every Tuesday and somebody from one wing and somebody from the other wing present and people have coffee and donuts and hang out and talk and they see each other's work. They meet one another and they go, "Wow, what are you doing?" "Oh my goodness, this is what I'm doing." We are creating those spaces. That building was designed specifically for that.
We also put instruments in that building, like our one-of-a-kind microscope, that can be used for life sciences and material scientists. Again, the technology can be a place where people cross over and get to see how their work could feed into one another's work. We're doing that by design, so that's one piece that I could speak to in terms of what we do at the Huck, just broadly, that could affect all these scientists and the other 576 faculty members who in one way or another are involved with the Huck. But anybody on the panel want to talk about that?
Sally: I do think that that's the $60 million challenge is, how do we think about the next generation? Because we were not trained the way we need to now train. Things are changing rapidly enough that it is rather difficult to know what students really should look like 10 and 20 years from now. We are training into the unknown. One of the things that we're contemplating right now as I put in place a new Institute here on campus is the idea that students really have to be motivated to seek out their own solutions. That somehow you have to instill in them the curiosity that allows them to ferret out their own way.
For example, one of the requirements we're contemplating just with our own group of students, students that are in our own training program, is that, adding to their additional requirements, that they will be required to mine data on their own and to be able to go out into the masses of data available, whether it be in their own field or in a related field, and mine it for their own research. That means they will not go to the bench, they won't basically be doing experiments. They'll simply be ferreting out information that's out there and turning it into meaningful information.
It's partly to get them to develop the skills, computationally, that they'll need and to work in teams forcing them, basically through peer training, to learn to work with other people who know more than they do. But it's also the idea that what science will become in the future really is remining information that we have in new ways with new perspectives. We're sort of forcing them out of their comfort zone of, "This is the lab I work in, this is the project I work on," into, "Now, what can you find on your own?" It's our first effort to get at your question of, can we actually allow them or stimulate them to build the tools? They've got that inherent curiosity, but as well resourcefulness, to figure out their own way. It's a work in progress. I don't know how it's going to go, but it's along the lines of what we're thinking.
Cole: Thank you.
Jennifer M.: Just to reinforce that, although we all love to talk about moments of serendipity, I think the most important thing is curiosity. If you can enable curiosity, those moments of serendipity will happen, not just maybe, but definitely. I think it's about enabling people to be curious, and one of the ways to do that I think is happening by accident, and that is to put students from different training backgrounds, different disciplines, in the same lab. I think, in part, we're enabling that serendipity and that curiosity already. That's good, because otherwise it's a really long road [inaudible 01:02:00]. It would seem like we don't know where we're going, we're groping around. I would reiterate that we don't always understand exactly how we should best prepare the students that we're training.
But I do see, in my own experience so far as a scientist, that when you put students together that have different backgrounds, it enables a different kind of curiosity. The conversations that they have similar to the conversations that we have as more experienced scientists. Those are the kinds of situations that enable that serendipity and that curiosity.
Cole: Thank you. Melik, Matt, do you have a [crosstalk 01:02:44]
Matthew: No, I mean, I think it's been very well said. I think you can try and manage the problem from a top down perspective and there are certain things that institutes can do to create an enabling environment and I think Penn state aspires to do that. Certainly trying to do that. But then, to encourage from the bottom up, just ask questions, take risks. I think part of the enabling environment is to allow you to do that and to understand that with risk things might fail. It won't necessarily be the right thing to have done ultimately. But that's wisdom of hindsight, doesn't mean that you shouldn't ask the question. I think really, being brave and do the ferreting is my word of advice.
Cole: I think you managed to hit a lot of the prepared questions that I had. I just wanted to think about the future. I wanted to talk a little bit about how Penn State's doing this, we got to do that. How can we bring along the greater scientific community to do more of this? You asked that one. Geez, you guys read my mind. But I guess I will ask the last question then, because I do want to ask our panelists, in their own research, to bring it back to what they're doing in their transdisciplinary work. I just would like to find out from each of them and let them share with you what they see, where they want to go next so you get a little taste of the future of what we're aspiring to. I'll just roll right down. We'll return to the beginning. I'll start with Jennifer and roll down to Matt. Jennifer, what's next for you?
Jennifer M. : Well, I guess I would say that what's next for us it's two things. One is having to do with artificial intelligence and using that to understand big data sets. I think that's probably a common feature of many, many research endeavors across the university and elsewhere. Perhaps slightly more unusual is, I think the next thing for us is space. It's a really exciting time to be studying exoplanets. Right now we have 3000 or more counting confirmed exoplanets. One of the most fun parts of my job is that I get to talk with astronomers and astrophysicists about what earth life is like. This is a big zoom out exercise. They want to know, in terms they can understand, what earth life is like so that we can collaborate on finding it elsewhere or at least looking for it. That is a really high level kind of intellectual exercise with really no charted terrain at all. It's both really fun, and really risky, and challenging, and that's part of the direction that we're going.
Cole: Cool. Thank you.
Melik: For me, I would divide this thing to two separate sides. One is more on the techniques, the fundamentals that we learned. How can we help other scientists to use these new tools that we have been developing? For example, can we take this thing to biofilm formation, as we gave the example to one of the questions, or can we take some of these tools that we learned in wireless research? Looking at new delivery techniques, looking at some new materials technologies that could be implemented into the viruses and so on. On the other hand, also, we also want to scale up some of this research like, can we make these materials that we are making in, let's say gram quantities, into very large quantities?
I am giving a talk tomorrow at the Fermentation Facility of Penn State, for example. Part of this conference, one of the challenge that we face is, we are trying to liberate our biomaterials out of the plastic. Now literally, it is boxed into this plastic or biomaterials inside. How can we liberate it out of this tube by making it in large quantities? Learning it, scaling up, manufacturing are the key challenges that we would like to take a stab on it.
Cole: Thank you. What about you, Sally? What's next for you?
Sally: Most of the things I've talked about have been laboratory-based. The next phase for us is field-based. Can we envision and actually implement very new ways of breeding crops in a really practical sense, soybean, tomato, millet, potato. Can we emphasize new ways of breeding crops for developing countries, especially the Middle East where the vast majority of the Middle East is not even remotely food secure and won't be perhaps ever. Can we just totally rethink the way we develop varieties as we think about, let's say, much more extreme climates and much less stable climates. The thinking is that you can take the very best genotypes combinations of genes that we have out there now, and we can superimpose on those new epigenetic configurations that allow those crops to have, not only resilience, but a capacity for growth that we don't ordinarily see within them using the breeding methods we use now.
What that requires is, yet once again, we now have to interface with the new disciplines because we're not really a crop production group. That means that we have to learn how growers grow crops. Tomato growers want everything in hybrids, but potato growers do everything by vegetative propagation. There is a possibility for grafting in soybean, but everybody's got their own little realm. We're now learning to speak the language of agriculture to understand what they will and will not tolerate, and whether we can develop in their elite varieties, the kind of technology that would allow us to really test this on a large scale. But it seems to me if we could have that kind of impact, it would be a good thing all the way around because we've worked really hard on this system. It's worth learning another language, so we're going to try our hand at it.
Cole: Thank you. Fabulous.
Matthew: I think, in a way, perhaps a slightly more process-based response, not specifically about my research, and I have no answers to how to do this yet, but I'm interested in how to navigate the translational pathway from developing ideas in the lab through to actually getting something that has impact in the field or out in the real world. As researchers, we're trained very much to operate upstream and we're very good at generating outputs where often our performance is measured in terms of outputs, papers principally. There's nothing wrong with that, but if we aspire to do something in addition and have outcomes changes in policy and practice, we need to think about how to take that research insight and navigate that translational pathway. I think we're not well trained to do that. I think there aren't very good mechanisms in place either to just either, from my end, push that all the way through or, from the user end, pull that technology.
I think we need some way of meeting in the middle. If you think, I mean, one, just thinking about the area that I've been most involved with for the last few years, you think about malaria research, you think about novel mosquito control tools, there's an awful lot of research exploring promising new candidates, promising new methodologies. But I think if you were to look at the vector control landscape and say, "Where are the new interventions that have been adopted and had impact at scale over the last 20 years?" I think you'd be very hard pushed to find any. All of this research has yet to walk down that translational pathway, and I think we just need to do better than that. There's nothing wrong with the research, but I think there is a problem with the translation.
Cole: Being real, I love that. Yeah. If we don't see the problem, we can address it and do something about it. Obviously there's much work to do. We're working hard right now to address these things in novel ways and it's going to continue to be a challenge, but that's part of the process and what makes it all exciting, and we're going to continue to do what we can to make an impact. I know at Penn State, in particular with our president, we're really looking at ways we can have real impact in the world. I just want to thank you all very much for coming down to hear about some of that, some of what's going on with some of our great minds, here at the Huck within Penn State. If you don't mind, maybe give a round of applause to our panelists, who I think have done a tremendous job to jump in.
Again, I'm Cole Hons, I hope that you will go online and just check out the Symbiotic Podcast. We've got two episodes out there now, one's broad and the second one's about bugs versus drugs with our director, Andrew Read talking about resistance evolution. I hope you'll consider subscribing and sharing with others so that we can continue to get the word out about this and do our part to help push science into these areas that I think are going to be increasingly important moving forward. Again, thank you very much. Take care and be well.