Did you know that three Duke faculty have the name, Anne West? Anne J. West, Anne E. West, and Anne West. The Anne West who directed the faculty seminar this week is Anne West from the Department of Neurobiology.
Dr. West’s convincing argument for the value of basic scientific research captivated my attention. Last week, another Duke faculty member, Kathleen Donahue, began her discussion by asking us about the value of basic scientific research, which, to the average person, does not seem to have practical, real-life applications. This week, Dr. West followed Dr. Donahue’s intriguing introduction to the topic nicely as she also addressed the value of basic scientific research.
On the long whiteboard located at the front of the classroom, Dr. West drew a timeline. As an example, she told the story of CRISPR, the widely popular genome editing technology. When she marked the year 1987 on the timeline and wrote the word, “Archaea” above the year, I must admit I did not see a direct connection to the gene-editing technology. It turns out that in 1987, scientists studying Archaea noticed repeating sequences in Archaea, but did not know what these clustered, interspersed repeats were. When Dr. West mentioned “clustered,” and “interspersed,” I thought, “ah, CRISPR!” (CRISPR: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). Later, CRISPRs were found in bacteria, and in 2005, people trying to make better yogurt recognized CRISPR as a defense system for bacteria to protect themselves against phages. In 2012, CRISPR as we know it today was discovered as a method to target and modify genes in living cells.
Although it may be hard to think of the direct, practical applications of “undirected research” to society, this type of research can change lives in the future. Hence, this type of research has considerable value. The sad part is that basic scientific research is being deprived of funding because many fail to perceive the benefits of this type of research to change lives for the better. The discovery of CRISPR as a method to alter the genome is huge, and without the “undirected research” of Archaea, who knows how long it would have taken to reveal this important discovery.
Dr. West mentioned one of her long-term goals to create a book composed of stories about curing diseases, which would challenge people to consider the value of basic scientific research. After listening to Dr. West’s engaging presentation, that is one book I sure would like to read.
Every week I look forward to the faculty seminars more and more. I love to hear about the various life journeys of scientists at Duke. The inspirational faculty talks not only introduce us to the thought-provoking research of highly esteemed faculty at Duke, but also allow us to discuss life goals and the various journeys through life as a scientist with these wonderful people. What an exciting life of exploration it is to be a scientific researcher.