My TEDxCincy Xperience

On October 7, 2010 I was proud to take part in the first TEDxCincy Conference at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in downtown Cincinnati. I joined 18 other speakers talking about everything from corporate culture to new media to inner city violence to personal encounters with wildlife to high tech tools in the study of Cincinnati's history. I spoke about the revolution in the life sciences created by the widening availability of next generation DNA sequencing. Now that a little time has past and I've got some other things out of the way in the lab I can sit back and reflect on the experience.

It is very easy in science to be insular. You can go your whole career barely talking to others outside of your field let alone to the general public. Making your research broadly accessible requires considerable effort on the part of scientists who typically aren’t rewarded for public outreach. However, communicating with the public, while still a challenge, is getting easier. Social media tools have had a major impact and with a twitter account or blog scientists can give the public a glimpse of the excitement and challenges of scientific investigation and hopefully impart a little scientific literacy along the way.

Another pitfall in the science game is the old "forest-and-the-trees" problem. Modern scientific investigation is highly specialized and one can spend years working out a narrowly defined and often very technical problem. This specialization is necessary to gain the technical expertise needed to tackle complex problems in nature but it is not without its pitfalls. I had a naive expectation upon entering the academic world that people were roaming the halls in college and university departments and museum corridors sharing big ideas with their peers and discussing all things deep and heady every day. In general, this simply isn’t the case. Not that there aren’t dynamic academic departments and innovative, forward-thinking museums out there, but, in my experience, that situation hasn’t been the norm. More often than not people at these institutions are having many discussions about the trees rather than the forest or worse yet hardly ever talking about the forest or the trees but their institution’s political and bureacratic woes. Luckily TED has grown as an outlet for scientists for talking about the forest, the trees and everything in between and has inspired many to think big.

Started in 1984, TED is a non-profit devoted to the mantra of “ideas worth spreading” across an ever broadening array of disciplines encompassed by the fields of technology, entertainment and design (hence the TED acronym). Two annual conferences, the original TED conference in Long Beach, California and an international sister conference held in Oxford, UK, have served as a conduit for big ideas in basic science, engineering and technology to a broad audience. TED lectures are a hot ticket acquired by applying for the privilege to pay around 6 grand to sit in the audience and hear the likes of Al Gore, Jane Goodall, Brian Greene, E. O. Wilson, Kary Mullis, and any number of other movers and shakers of science, technology, science policy, design, and entertainment. But, if you don’t get the coveted invite to Long Beach, or can’t drop 6K, no worries as TED makes all their talks available online. TED has proven to be a great resource not only in disseminating science and technology innovation to the public but doing so in a big picture way, all under the rubric of the TED “big idea”. The multidisciplinary nature of the TED paradigm, bringing together thinkers in disparate fields and those who managed to merge ideas from a diversity of disciplines to gain new insight, provides perspective allowing us to step back from an insular stance where the forest can be so invisible.

TED has been a big influence on me since I started watching the lectures online about five years ago. The TED lectures often provide a good model for presenting complex information to the public in a compelling way. I use TED lectures in my undergraduate teaching as a way to not only to convey some scientific innovation but to personalize the scientists themselves. Hearing about quorum sensing from Bonnie Bassler or biodiversity from E.O. Wilson provides a perspective for students that I can’t provide alone in the classroom. There is nothing quite like seeing a laid back Kary Mullis, biotech pioneer, reflecting back on his childhood experiments with launching homemade rockets with live frogs as passengers to augment a lecture on the polymerase chain reaction and make science and scientists more accessible.

The success of TED has spawned local TED events, called TEDx [insert name of city here], where regional artists, scientists, designers, engineers, techno geeks, and just about any other flavor of creative mind delivers public lectures on the topic of their choice in an officially sanctioned TED environment. It’s the next best thing to sitting in the audience at Long Beach. Who knows, maybe better? Being a long time TED fan imagine my surprise when I was asked to speak at the inaugural TEDxCincy event at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Of course I jumped at the chance to present my own thoughts on “ideas worth spreading” to Cincinnati and choose to talk about a looming revolution in the life sciences as the result of cheap, fast and widely available next generation DNA sequencing.

Now that some time has past since the October 7, 2010 TEDxCincy event, and I’ve had time to get caught up on lab work, I can reflect on the experience. At over 1,000 participants, this my largest audience for any public lecture and being at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center for the Arts the venue was a little intimidating to say the least. I was given an 18 minute time, TED talks are characteristically brief (3, 6 or 18 minutes), and was the first speaker following the lunch break. The theme for TEDxCincy was passion so I felt I needed to tie that in to the talk somehow. For someone who is pursuing their childhood dream of being a professional researcher in zoology that wasn’t difficult. I explained how I never lost that childhood passion for learning about animals, a passion fostered in part by 40 years worth of trips to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. It may seem a stretch to link a passion for animals with next generation DNA sequencing but examining DNA has allowed researchers to probe the evolutionary past and explain animal diversity with a precision once thought impossible just 30 years ago. As new DNA sequencing technology rapidly spreads in accessibility the breadth of questions about animal diversity we can answer will grow enormously. Using the Sanger DNA sequencing methods of the past 30 years it took researchers over a decade and 2.7 billion US dollars to sequence just one composite human genome. Next generation DNA sequencing technology can now sequence whole genomes in matter of weeks not years and for costs in the thousands rather than billions. It is impossible to overstate the impact this new technology will have on our knowledge of life. With faster cheaper sequencing we can sequence multiple genomes within and across species to describe biological diversity and delimit species, the most basic starting point for virtually any conservation effort. We can identify specific genes for everything from basic development to behavior. We can also test ideas about evolutionary relatedness with a precision that was unimaginable even 10 years ago. Emerging next generation sequencing efforts, like the Genome10K project, whose goal is to sequence 10,000 vertebrate genomes, will initiate in new era in biodiversity research and allow academic and museum researchers to document biological diversity in ways the founders of modern systematic biology, like Linnaeus and Darwin, never dreamed. In short next generation sequencing technology will allow us to understand biological diversity and its basic evolutionary underpinnings like never before.

The wide availability of next generation DNA sequencing will influence biology far beyond my childhood obsession with explaining animal diversity. Basic research in zoology has proven very adept at adopting technologies developed in a biomedical context for use in studies of evolutionary biology. While researchers in zoology will put next generation sequencing to use in sequencing everything from velvet worms to rhinoceroses the primary application will be in medicine. Next generation DNA sequencing will create a new frontier in personal medicine where the genomes of individuals will be sequenced by prescription so physicians can tailor treatments to work against the backdrop of an individual’s genome thereby increasing effectiveness and reducing side effects. In preparing for my TEDxCincy talk, my fellow University of Kentucky alum Dr. Thomas Badgett of Javed Khan’s lab at the National Cancer Institutes was nice enough to bring me up to speed on the latest advances in cancer genomics spurred by availability of next generation sequencing technology. Next generation DNA sequencing has allowed researchers in the Khan lab to sequence all the expressed genes in neuroblastoma tumors and compare them with an individual’s genome, scanning the tumor for mutations which can provide clues on the most efficient treatment.

You always walk away from a big talk thinking about all the important points and examples you left out or wishing you would have phrased something slightly differently, but, given the fact this was my biggest public talk to date I think it went OK. There was ample time to mill about and mingle with the audience between talks and feedback on this talk was generally good (if you are reading this and saw my talk feel free to leave your comments here, positive or negative). People approached me afterwards with genuine excitement about the promise for next generation sequencing and personal medicine. Others were hopeful about the new precision next generation DNA sequencing offered for deciphering human genealogies. It was fantastic to be discussing these big ideas with genuinely interested people. I felt this experience was a little taste of what the naive me, all those years ago, at the beginning of my academic career, thought the world was supposed to be like. I hope that this is the beginning of renewed dialogue in Cincinnati between scientists and the general public and maybe will allow us a means to see the forest and the trees.

I stayed for the entire event and for a bit of the after party at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, where frankly between the DJ, tiny hors d’œuvres and a sprinkling of well-dressed celebs (including fellow TEDxCincy speaker Dhani Jones) this suburban, poorly groomed, low-rent zoologist felt a little out of place. The other talks ranged from uplifting personal accounts by former University of Cincinnati Design, Architecture, Art and Planning student Claire Thompson and Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones to new media devotees Brad King and Ben Nicholson. Fellow Cincinnati Museum Center employee Carlton Farmer and assistant curator of the Cincinnati Museum Center'sAmerica I Am exhibit reminded us of that American history and the specific histories of its minority groups are inseparable. Patricia Van Skaik of the Cincinnati Public Library gave a fascinating account of the high tech exploration of the 1848 Cincinnati Riverfront Panorama daguerreotype (featured in a recent Wired magazine story) providing an example of how high resolution digital imagining can peer into recent human history. Patricia’s talk on technology’s role in peering into the economic and cultural history of Cincinnati provided a view complementary with my own talk on technology’s role in probing evolutionary history. Shasta Bray of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden presented a talk, complete with a live Little Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor), that reminded me of the lasting influence of personal encounters with wildlife on my own decision to pursue a career as a zoologist. Throughout the conference performance art and videos from the main TED conference were interspersed among the talks. All the talks were good but a few had a distinct corporate bend and felt more like advertisement than “TEDesque big idea” and others were a little too far along on the motivational speaker spectrum for me. My comparatively minor personal peeves aside TEDxCincy was a truly incredible event. The TEDxCincy organizers, Mary Riffe of Proctor and Gamble, and Michael Bergman, Emily Venter and David Volker of LPK, deserve enormous credit for creating a new forum for creative dialogue in Cincinnati. I hope they will build on the success of this inaugural TEDx event with many TEDxCincy events in years to come and maybe help create other venues for dialogue between scientists, artists, engineers, educators, philantropists and the broader public.

Oh, and by the way, I did very briefly meet the top draw for TEDxCincy, Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones, while I was backstage and at the after party we were standing right next to each other fielding comments and questions from conference goers. Much to my wife and son's disappointment, they are big fans, I didn't have the nerve to ask for a picture with Dhani. I didn't want to be "that guy". A brush with celebrity and a missed opportuntity! Maybe next time?