Students bring 'fresh air' to science

What motivates a scientist? How does research today affect the universe tomorrow? These are the questions that keep the students of Triple Helix awake at night.

Triple Helix is an international, undergraduate-run organization that explores the intersection of science, society and law. Its 27 chapters and more than 800 students originate from leading universities across the United States and abroad.

David Edwards, a double major in molecular biosciences and biotechnology and creative writing, is the president of the ASU chapter of Triple Helix. A senior, Edwards also is a student in Barrett, the Honors College and oversees the production of the Triple Helix podcast series – a collection of audio episodes recorded in the Grass Roots Studio in the School of Life Sciences, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The podcasts, featuring the expertise of students, researchers and professors at ASU, highlight the work in which he and his fellow students engage.

To listen to the most recent podcast – “Popular perceptions of genetics” – click here.

Taking time away from his busy student schedule, Edwards answered some questions about Triple Helix – and the need to communicate science to the world.

When did you first get involved with Triple Helix?

I first got involved with the Triple Helix during my sophomore year when, during my fourth semester, I wrote an article for The Triple Helix. I was interning at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes during that time, which is an organization dedicated to understanding the current and future impact of science and technology in policy.

It was a really great internship, and I loved working with smart, capable people who understood better than most how important it is to understand the application of science. Science is important, but without proper direction, it becomes somewhat crippled. (Wasn’t it Einstein who said, “Religion without science is blind, science without religion is lame?” This quote applies somewhat indirectly to this situation.)

One of my fellow interns announced one afternoon that he was the editor-in-chief of this organization which published student-based research and, by the way, he was looking for abstract submissions. I became intrigued. I had been looking for a way to synthesize my science and English degrees and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I submitted an abstract about scientific communication because I had realized there is a stark divide between English majors and science majors. In particular, creative writing majors never really encounter science, except as vague and unequivocal facts that spruce up character development. And science majors never really encounter English, except through the linguistically warped practice of writing lab reports.

The Triple Helix seemed like a wonderful opportunity to bridge both worlds and transform science into something creative and interesting – something that I believe already describes science.

Triple Helix is not just about science. The Grass Roots Studio podcasts in which you are involved bridge various areas of inquiry, such as ethics, business and law. What is the worth of (re)framing science?

Reframing science is essential in a world increasingly dependent upon its discoveries. We’ve never lived in a time more dependent upon understanding something so complex and, as scientists, it’s our responsibility to demystify those complexities. Sure, technical jargon is important among other scientists, but almost all our research is designed to better mankind, and who else deserves to know about this research than the people for whom that research is intended?

I have a tremendous admiration for personal heroes like Carl Sagan who, through brilliant analogy and prose, unraveled the mysteries of the cosmos. Unfortunately, there are too few Carl Sagans within the scientific community. It’s really challenging not only to explain something highly technical to someone else, but to inspire them about that technical thing, to encourage them to care and want to learn more about it. All researchers have passion for their work – otherwise, they wouldn’t be spending their lives conducting it – and reframing science allows ordinary people to experience that passion for themselves.

Most of the people involved with the Triple Helix think in broad terms. I’m not unique in double majoring in completely random things, actually. Many of our organization’s leaders are “Biology and Society” majors, meaning they look at biology from a public perspective. Our current science policy director is double-majoring in molecular biosciences and biotechnology and music. We either have become accustomed to stretching our minds in a couple directions, thereby constantly bringing ourselves out of pure science, or have discovered something fascinating connecting those couple directions. Ultimately, the Triple Helix is packed with people who think big.

How has your work with Triple Helix and the Grass Roots Studio informed your undergraduate work and career goals?

My unique combination of majors made me really attracted to the Triple Helix. I’m planning on attending medical school, potentially working to become an oncologist. Originally, I wanted to become involved with the Triple Helix as a convenient outlet for my personal love of writing. I thought that I might use the knowledge I’ve gained about communicating science to improve my bedside manner. Perhaps I would be better able to explain the complex science behind chemotherapy to a concerned patient, or answer their questions about chances of long-term survival appropriately and sensitively.

But this idea of communicating science has become increasingly attractive to me during my college career. I still want to become a doctor, but I’ve also considered writing books popularizing science, or maintain a blog discussing cancer research from a doctor’s perspective. My first article for the Triple Helix was on helping undergraduate scientists become better communicators. I started the podcast because I became interested in this form of communication. And now, I’m working with Dr. Jane Maienschein for my honors thesis on creatively translating and explaining the life of a researcher.

Triple Helix is still fairly new (six years roughly) – what is the power/impact of this type of forum run by university students – for both the students and audiences.

I’m going to be honest – there are some difficulties because the organization is run exclusively by college students. Everyone’s busy with classes, of course. And because the organization exists in so many different colleges across the country, we have staggered exam schedules, which make communication very difficult.

But there’s inherent power in this method of organization, too. After all, we understand what college students are interested in. We knew, for example, that heath care reform was going to be an important issue on the minds of college students during the fall and spring semesters, particularly about affordability and the availability of plans. That’s why I organized a health care forum where we invited an economics professor and a legal professor to discuss health care issues with a group of students.

The newness element is exciting, too. Lots of cool things are happening in our organization like, for example, our podcast, which has never been done by any chapter throughout the Triple Helix. Our mission is to inspire and educate students about interdisciplinary science. Because we’re new and because we’re run by enthusiastic students who are willing to take risks and embrace new formatting and technology, we are constantly evolving. And I think that’s what makes our organization so amazing.

What are your leadership plans for the upcoming academic year?

As for my leadership plans for the upcoming year, I’m going to, among other things, expand our number of podcast interviews from one or two a semester to four or five a semester. Also, I’m going to have three well-advertised science policy events every semester, where we invite one professor to our biweekly meetings to talk about their research. I’m planning to partner more with the Honors College and with other science-related organizations to host events.

And, most importantly, I will be expanding distribution of the Triple Helix Science in Society Review journal. Dean Jacobs from the Honors College has allowed us to place magazine racks inside the main hall and personally requests the journal every semester. The journal is the pillar of our organization – and it’s a really strong pillar – and I’m going to try to have it read by more people in more locations across campus.

What was, in your opinion, the most interesting topic covered on your show – and why?

Well, we’ve only had four full episodes, so it’s really hard to discuss our most interesting topic. But, I guess my favorite topic would be the transhumanism discussion I had with Dr. Braden Allenby. Allenby is, without hyperbole, one of the smartest people I have ever met. Picking his brain for 25 minutes, and whittling down that brain-picking session to 15 minutes, was extremely difficult. Every question led to another question, which led endlessly to another question, all of which were interesting and brilliant and really fun.

Transhumanism, as he explained, is improving human beings with technology. He explained that some of the technology already exists for this improvement but, as it becomes more commercially available, there are important ethical questions that must be addressed. For example, he explained that if rich people could afford self-improvement technology and poor people couldn’t, this discrepancy would widen the already cavernous gap between both groups. He’s working on exploring and addressing these ethical scenarios and anticipating problems with our increasing reliance on technology.

Who are you trying to reach on the air waves?

College students – in general, any college student with a slight interest in science and technology. Our articles are supposed to be interdisciplinary explorations of current events that balance accurate language with colloquial writing. Currently, our audience isn’t that informed about our group.

For our budget and for our informational output, we’re a small organization. That works for us because we have a core group of exceptional students who all recognize the importance of communicating science. To use a business analogy, we have an awesome product and we had an ideal market for that product. In the future, I imagine the Triple Helix becoming some incredible forum where students from all backgrounds can dive deeply into their own disciplines and, tethered securely to science, bring back some pearls of wisdom. (Excuse the somewhat labored metaphor!)