A short time ago, I found myself in a conversation with someone who began to ask about my work in the lab. Unlike many scientists that I know, who feel uncomfortable and even unable to explain what they do on a daily basis in layman’s terms, I feel that it is part of my mission to make an effort to really help people understand what I do. After all, my research is funded by taxpayers’ money. Moreover, I am a firm believer that the “average citizen” can become a real advocate of basic science, once I have been given an opportunity to rant on about the values of my work.
In this particular case, though, my delivery was thwarted rather untimely by the big “stem cell question.”
“Do you use stem cells?” That question often throws me off-track, because when it is asked I know that my audience is no longer paying attention to my explanations about the importance of basic research–the religious leanings pushing towards an answer at all costs, and the interest in what I do gone. Despite the fact that I do not work on embryonic stem cells or other stem cells. Although I certainly would, if a question were to arise in my field that could be answered by working with these cells or collaborating with researchers who do.
All this reminded me of another reason that I like stem cells, apart from their usefulness in research and potentially in therapeutics. They once saved me from politics!
Has he gone off his rocker, you ask? Possibly–but that’s unrelated to this post. Well what does Steve and politics have to do with stem cell research? I’ll tell you.
A few years back (and pre-tenure, too), somebody–most likely in an act of vengeance–nominated me for the University Senate. Ha ha, but no joke. Less than a year ago, while I was still a naive OT irregular (as opposed to the regular irregular that I am), I wrote a little blog entitled “Informal Science,” depicting my dislike for anything formal–especially when it has to do with attire. I could just see myself, having to put one of those noose-like ties around my neck to sit around a stuffy bored-room (pun intended) for hours at a time listening to people drone on and on, and wishing I were back in my lab or office. No, this would not do!
But how to escape? How to lose the vote and not be chosen for this dreadful task, without appearing irreverent as a relatively new faculty member?
Stem cells to the rescue!
One afternoon, while searching for an exit strategy in my office, an e-mail came through from someone I did not know. It was a university faculty member and MD based at the main Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska, about 50 miles away from the medical center where I am based in Omaha. The e-mail basically said:
Dear Dr. Caplan,
I understand that you are running for a position on the university senate. As such, it would be important for me and my colleagues to have an understanding of your position regarding stem cell research. Etc. etc.
On my very best behavior, I replied:
Dear Dr. X,
I appreciate your interest in my position on stem cell research, although I must inform you that the university senate makes no decisions about about the use of stem cell research nor discusses such issues. However, since you’ve asked, I am happy to inform you that I am a firm believer in the utilization of embryonic stem cells for research and therapy. My own research does not employ stem cells, but I would be keen to move into that area should the opportunity arise. By the way, is this the reason you are contacting me? If so, I would be more than happy to meet with you to discuss potential collaborations on stem cell studies…
I didn’t get a reply, but I didn’t get chosen for the university senate either.
Three cheers for stem cells!