Dress Codes for Martians: how the Theater of Science can give us glimpses into the future

On Monday evening Friends of the Berkeley Lab hosted Science at the Theater. This ongoing series is a great example of how complex scientific topics can be made accessible to the public, and how the public will turn out to hear about them. Another example is CIRM’s grantee elevator pitch competition.

During the Monday event five LBL researchers gave short pitches describing why their research will lead to the “next big thing” . After all the pitches were completed the audience and a panel of judges voted for their favorite.

My personal favorite was by the chemist Guoying Chen. Her pitch was titled Making Better Batteries. She described how her research is designed to prevent lithium batteries from overcharging. Given recent problems such batteries have caused in airplanes and automobiles, I found her work very contemporary and compelling.

My son’s and the audiences’ overall favorite was a talk titled, Dress Code for Martians. In this extremely clever presentation, physicist Alex Zettl described research developing boron nitride fibers. He described how boron nitride is stronger and more resilient than existing materials. He also suggested boron based materials would make excellent scaffolding for cells, thus, there may be stem cell applications for his research. His punch line was, if we want to get to Mars, we will need the kinds of advanced materials his group is developing.

Two of the judges differed from the audience and voted Gloria Oliver’s Molecular Velcro as their favorite. Dr. Oliver described her work to create a new protein-like material that resembles tiny sheets of Velcro, each just one-hundred nanometers across (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter so this is unbelievably small). This “molecular Velcro” mimics the way natural antibodies recognize viruses and toxins, and could lead to a new class of biosensors. She imagined Molecular Velcro being integrated into environmental sensors.

One judge voted for Dr. Sylvian Costes who presented Tracking and Hacking Personal DNA Damage. Dr. Costes described his technology that allows individuals to monitor damage to their DNA and to assess their DNA repair capacities for the purposes of personalized and preventive health care. The technology is publicly available through Exogen Biotechnology.

I was actually intrigued by the idea of combining the Molecular Velcro and the DNA Tracking. Conceivably, these technologies combined, particularly if used on the population level, could be used to correlate exposure to environmental agents to impacts on DNA and or other biological markers. As technologies become cheaper, more portable and more accurate, the possibility for more precise measurement of the relationship between the environment and health becomes increasingly possible.

After the presentations, there was a question and answer session. Besides the Velcro and DNA tracking technologies, Dr. Steven Lanzisera described an approach for monitoring buildings to improve energy efficiency. One person in the audience asked the scientists whether they saw ethics and privacy concerns from these range of monitoring technologies. Lanzisera gave a very thoughtful response letting the audience know data about energy use are “not shared” out of concerns for privacy. [The question and response are at time stamp 1:31:58

The issue of privacy comes up frequently in biomedical and stem cell research. As reflected in the question Monday night, concerns typically center on protecting the privacy or identity of the person whose cells, DNA or even building you are looking at – the individual(s) that are subject to the research or monitoring.

However, as early adapters are embracing technologies, like those offered by Exogen, another group comes to mind – individuals who would rather not know. Personally, I find the idea of environmental and voluntary personal sensing appealing with a variety of up-sides for health and personal awareness. In fact, I have consented in the past to have environmental monitors placed in my home. At the individual level participation may not be risk free, perhaps someone could use my DNA for some nefarious act, but the risk seems minimal compared to everyday activities such as using a credit card on the Internet. As more and more people participate in biological monitoring, genetic testing and environmental sensing activities, we will learn more about the relationships between people and places. In some instances, as Dr. Costes noted, this knowledge may enable modifications in diet or other behaviors that could enhance health.

However, as another LBL study tells us a large fraction of particulate pollution in California comes from Chinese coal burning power plants. What if we learn that this particulate pollution is having a measurable health effect and there is nothing one can do about it? The literature on risk and society suggests that some individuals would find such knowledge stressful and disempowering. Thus information considered beneficial to those generating it may have the opposite impact on some.

Personally, I remain a technological optimist and believe there is an overall benefit to society from greater knowledge about health and the environment. However as we celebrate these technologies and imagine their future, we should be cognizant of possible downsides (as Lanzisera pointed out) and think creatively about how we may avoid them.

Geoff Lomax

One thought on “Dress Codes for Martians: how the Theater of Science can give us glimpses into the future

  1. Seems to me that one of the things we should concentrate on is exporting the technology to mitigate environmental damage. In other words, if we're sending oil to china, and buying stuff from China, doesn't that give us the economic leverage to say, “Scrub your coal emissions. Here's the technology. Have a nice day.”

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