Nobel: Proteins and peer groups and prescriptions– oh my!

Posted on October 7th, 2015 by


Another year at the Nobel Conference and it again strikes me that this may be the coolest thing Gustavus does. And that’s saying something, because we do lots and lots of cool things. The very idea that Nobel winners, and those at that level of accomplishment, come to southern Minnesota to share their research is incredible enough. But the event itself has to be experienced to really understand the power of in-person engagement and how world-class thinkers REALLY think. We get their research, as part of their regular lecture, but the once-in-a-lifetime experience for us is what comes next– the panel question and answer session. In the last several years that I have been able to attend Nobel, it’s the Q&A that makes these folks come alive as real people who have to not only execute complicated research schemes but interpret them, and lend judgment to their findings even as those findings can be very controversial and challenging for the wider world audience. That seems to me the true mark of a scientist at a Nobel-level: those who make real discoveries in their field, but then can convince their peers and the world of the value and promise of their work while acknowledging their own research paradigms.

Yesterday’s Q&A sessions were perfect examples of how scientists argue science, and how scientific paradigm forms the foundation of everything they do. Eric Kandel is a physician who engages with maybe the most pure form of the scientific method as any of the researchers presenting at Nobel this year. He sees biological cause-and-effect, using protein markers and direct brain stimulus methods and other stuff I could not understand (although his slides had pretty colors..). Sheigla Murphy and Marc Lewis, though, look at the topic and experience of addiction as more than brain function. Arguments ensued: (Kandel) anything you experience is traced back to some brain function we can measure and describe empirically. (Lewis) but the brain isn’t all there is; we have to take into account personal and interpersonal experiences to understand the way intimately personal life modes like addiction develop and resist change. (Murphy) and the experience of addiction is fundamentally social. It’s very difficult to become an addict while alone.

It’s all true, I think, as long as we can understand from what vantage point the researcher is coming. In my work exploring spiritual and religious experiences in the workplace, I had the chance to explore the work of E.O. Wilson, the great naturalist who essentially created the sociobiological field. In particular, his 1978 On Human Nature argues that ultimately every experience may one day be mapped to brain function, but it’s also a fundamental human experience to be in social structures together. So it’s both/and in the case of the Nobel panelists. If one’s way of looking at the world has become so entrenched that any other way of looking at the world seems inadequate, or incomplete, or (worse) just wrong, the Q&A can serve as a swift kick in the bum to take a step back and consider others’ views.

Even when I don’t understand all the talk about proteins or names of the drugs that are out there or the medical terms, I do understand the power of engagement, argument, and even getting angry about one’s topic. That’s a good thing and I can’t wait to hear today’s lectures!


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