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Science & Environment

Faith And Aquarium Pumps: The Stuff Of Science In 2014


Listening to the way science is typically portrayed in the media, you might get the impression research proceeds by leaps and bounds from one breakthrough to the next and that scientists are these aloof geniuses.

Well, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has been trying to change that picture. He's been working on a project called Joe's Big Idea. It's an effort to explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors and reveal the process of science as it truly is. We checked in with Joe a year ago to see how his project was going, and we are checking back today to see what is new. Hi, Joe.


MARTIN: Happy New Year.

PALCA: Thank you.

MARTIN: So one of the stories I remember from this past year involved a scientist whose son had this kind of rare eye cancer. And he was working on software that could help other parents. Can you give us an update on his work?

PALCA: Right, so he wanted to build this software that would - you could take a picture with your smartphone. And then the software would look for a white reflection from the picture, which might give you an early warning that there was a problem and that you should get it checked out - it might be cancer, it might be nothing, but it might be something.

Now it's kind of easy to understand why a scientist would want to do something like this for his son. But then the scientist, whose name is Bryan Shaw, told me he had an even more compelling reason for wanting to create the software.

BRYAN SHAW: 'Cause I'm a Christian, and if I can make good come from this bad stuff that happened to my son, and I can show him when he grows up what happened to you, son, isn't as bad as it might seem.

PALCA: He wanted to be able to tell his son that when he grew up, that something good had happened from this terrible experience. That his disease would lead to an invention that would save another kid's.

SHAW: I know it's going to strengthen his faith 'cause it helped other people out.

MARTIN: His faith?

MARTIN: We don't often hear scientists talking about their faith as a motivation for science.

PALCA: No, you don't. And I thought it was an interesting reminder that science and faith needn't be at odds with one another.

MARTIN: Let's talk about another scientist you met this past year. Her name is Rebecca Richards-Kortum. Can you tell us what you learned from her?

PALCA: She's at Rice University, and she runs an undergraduate program where Rice freshman, in fact, are encouraged to design and build hospital equipment for places that don't have a lot of money to spend on hospital equipment.


PALCA: So one of the devices that these students created was a device that helps premature infants breathe. It's called a bubble CPAP. And they made one that was affordable.

REBECCA RICHARDS-KORTUM: One of the wonderful things about working with 18-year-olds is that they're so creative. They don't have fixed ideas about what might not work. And so you get really crazy ideas like inside our bubble CPAP machine, there's aquarium pumps.

PALCA: Aquarium pumps.

MARTIN: A lot of times scientists, as you know, are accused of not considering the consequences of their work. But you showed that's certainly not always the case.

PALCA: Right, well, this comes from a story about a scientist at Berkeley named Jennifer Doudna. She's invented a way of editing genes. That's not being done on humans now. It's way before that. But it does raise a lot of really interesting questions and...

MARTIN: A lot of consequences to that work.

PALCA: ...And she's thinking a lot about that.

JENNIFER DOUDNA: You know, as time goes by, it's more and more clear how powerful a technology it really is. And so I've had moments of, I wouldn't say cold sweats, but, you know, waking up in the night thinking, wow, that's kind of profound.

MARTIN: One of the more interesting parts of Jennifer Doudna's story is that she has developed this tool that could be powerful in curing diseases, but that's not what she set out to do, right?

PALCA: Right. She was actually studying something fairly esoteric. She describes it as she was studying how bacteria fight the flu. But she had one of those lightbulb moments that maybe she could modify this to do something different.

DOUDNA: For me, this just kind of really hammers home the serendipity of science.

PALCA: And that's what I really liked about her story. I mean, she starts out with something that's very basic and then it turns into something that's potentially really important. But it wasn't what she was looking for.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, Joe, I want to remind people that last year, you did not feature any female scientists when you and I spoke. And this year, there are two. So that was something that you did set out to rectify.

PALCA: Yep. No, I made a promise that I would make a point of covering more women in this project. And I have, although I have to tell you, there's still room for improvement.

MARTIN: OK. We'll check back with you. NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca.

PALCA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.