On Friday April 25th, Dr. Bruce Alberts, a noted biochemist who is a former Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine and former President of the National Academy of Sciences, spent an afternoon at TJ giving a TEDx talk and then meeting with students for an 8th period Q & A session.
Two related themes wove through Dr. Alberts’ talk and his answers to students’ questions: 1)The United States needs to develop more of a “scientific temper” so that we can approach all problems “tolerantly and rationally,” he said. Thus the goal of science education is not only to hone the problem-solving skills needed for research, but also to produce “rational citizens who look for evidence and think logically” so that they can be wise consumers and informed voters. 2)Noting that current science assessments primarily test “recognition of science words” rather than understanding concepts, Dr. Alberts maintained that until we work with top teachers to redesign our testing and curriculum, “bad testing will continue to drive bad teaching, trivialize the subject, and drive good students away from science.”
Below are some of the students’ questions from the Q & A, along with brief excerpts from Dr. Alberts’ responses.
Q. “How would you compare the state of biomedical research today with that of the past?”
A. “There are too many mega-projects . . . and too much pressure to solve specific problems when it’s often basic research that ends up leading to solutions.”
Q. “Why shouldn’t science be even more goal-directed, especially in areas where we’re close to an answer?”
A. “We need both kinds of research, but the balance is off. For example, recently we learned that the immune system plays a role in cancer, but without more work in basic immunology we can’t do much with that knowledge.”
Q. “I’m a big fan of your textbook [The Molecular Biology of the Cell, now in its fifth edition, pictured with Dr. Alberts]; can you tell us what it was like to write it?”
A. “My co-author Martin Raff was an expert in immunology but not in biochemistry, and I knew nothing about immunology, so we each wrote one chapter and went back and forth until we understood each other’s chapters. After that process, we were ready to write the rest.”