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Science Talk

Nobel Laureate Peter Agre: From Aquaporins to Lutefisk

Peter Agre, 2003 Chemistry Nobel laureate for his work on aquaporins, the proteins that allow water into and out of cells, talks about his research, his upbringing and why he almost ran for the Senate, in a conversation recorded at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany

Peter Agre, 2003 Chemistry Nobel laureate for his work on aquaporins, the proteins that allow water into and out of cells, talks about his research, his upbringing and why he almost ran for the Senate, in a conversation recorded at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany.

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to the Scientific American podcast, Science Talk, posted on July 20th, 2011. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast:

Agre:          And I sense that she probably wanted me to say, neurosurgery or radiology, but I'm from Minnesota; I told her the truth. I said, "I'm interested in diarrhea" and never saw her again.

Steve:          That's Peter Agre. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003. A few weeks back I was in Lindau, Germany for the 61st Annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, which this year featured laureates in Physiology or Medicine and in Chemistry. Twenty-three Nobel winners lectured and schmoozed with more than 550 graduate students or postdoctoral fellows at the beginning of their scientific careers. And I had a chance to catch up with a few of the laureates between events, interviews that I will be rolling out over the next couple of weeks. First up, Peter Agre. He currently heads up the Malaria Research Institute at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and he won the Nobel for his discovery of the systems that move water into and out of cells. We spoke outside the Inselhalle, the site of the Lindau meeting, which means you can also attempt to identify European birds by their calls.

Steve:          I would like to offer hope to many of our listeners who are students. You got a D in high school chemistry.

Agre:          Thank you for reminding me. I could've done better. I'm sure I could've earned a C. It was, a sort of, a matter of acting out. And you know, I don't think you have to be perfect to do something worthwhile in this world, I think that is a message. But I think if you get a D in chemistry, it's a wake-up call that you should not ignore.

Steve:          Should not ignore—you should actually buckle down, is that what you're saying?

Agre:          I did. I paid my penance.

Steve:          Now this was after Linus Pauling, the legendary Linus Pauling, had been a family friend.

Agre:          Sure. Well, you know, there's a train of succession in life. In the middle comes, the younger days, comes something called adolescence, the wonder years, and somehow my childhood in idyllic Northfield, Minnesota, and that sabbatical year, we were at Berkeley, California, all that was great. But as an adolescent, I became somewhat of a rakehell—no permanent damage, but I got very interested in other things.

Steve:          Not for a lack of trying for permanent damage—you find yourself in Cambodia in 1969.

Agre:          That was later, that was later. Yeah, so I actually as a young person, I had a really interesting opportunity, went to public schools; and my high school German teacher, who was all of 24 years old at that time, brought a group of his university friends for a camping trip in Russia, and one person canceled, so they had an extra slot. So as a 17-year-old tagalong I had an international experience and that kind of flavored where I went, in terms of my academic trajectory. So as a high school student, I was a lot more interested in world events, politics, I never entered a single science fair. I was very interested in athletics, cross country skiing, girls, you know normal-life stuff and so I…

Steve:          I took you off the Linus Pauling track. You were going to talk about his relationship with your family when you were young.

Agre:          Well, it wasn't like we were the best of friends, but on the other hand, the importance of role models can't be underestimated. Dad was a chemistry professor at Saint Olaf College in Minnesota, then Oxford College in Minnesota, and a very active member of the American Chemical Society education committee, where he sat on the committee with Linus Pauling, who had authored a very phenomenally important textbook of chemistry.

Steve:          The Nature of the Chemical Bond.

Agre:          That's it. Well Pauling and Dad become friends and in one occasion, dad invited Pauling to come to Minnesota to give a lecture. This is just after he received a peace prize. So, here's a man with two unshared Nobel prizes, and he stayed at our house for several days and having breakfast, you know, eating cornflakes in the morning with Linus Pauling was pretty interesting. And he had a sense of humor. My youngest brother, Mark, was in kindergarten at that time, and I remember Dad and Pauling sitting in the living room when Mark came home from kindergarten and Pauling said, "Young man, what did you learn in school today?" and Mark shrugged and said, "Nothing." Pauling thought that was pretty funny that children going to school and learn nothing. Well Mark's a medical doctor now, he did learn something along the way, but I'll never forget Pauling. And I guess I talk about him more than may be necessary. On the other hand, he set a trajectory we should take seriously. He was a scientist, a phenomenally good scientist, but he didn't stop his exercises at the laboratory door. He brought science to the public. And his second Nobel in Peace, was for launching the worldwide effort to forbid the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere—the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which John Kennedy signed just weeks before his death. Really it emerged because of the meetings with Linus Pauling. So he contributed in many ways.

Steve:          I want to talk about your science just a little bit because it's very basic, and yet it has really critical biomedical ramifications, and many of our listeners might not be familiar with it. So your work, was on water channels in the cell membrane. And so let's talk briefly about how you got interested in that and what that means for people in their daily lives.

Agre:          Well, all life forms are dependent upon water. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi is remembered for having said, "Water is the solvent of life". Well, so the whole notion of water in biology is something that concerned a group of physiologists and biophysicists because for theoretical reasons it was impossible to explain how rapid transport of water across some tissues occurred but not others; and even that the rapid transport seem to be regulated. Foreign body in our eye, we rapidly tear; we take in fluid in excess or drink alcohol, we release dilute urine. And for a fluid-deprived, we become dehydrated, we concentrate our urine. How does all this get together? How can we explain that movement of water across tissues? And of course the barrier is the cell membrane. So for more than a century, physiologists had argued about the nature of the water transport mechanism. But sometimes in science, there are technical obstacles which are not easily overcome. And since water is ubiquitous we can't chemically modify water, how can you identify the carrier for water? So we identified the carrier for water, really by sheer serendipity.

Steve:          By the carrier for water, what do you mean?

Agre:          The transport mechanism, the proteinaceous channel that allows water to cross membranes. And a number of experiments supported this. I think a very important experiment reported in 1970 by Robert Macey at U.C. Berkeley, showed that red cells which are osmotically very active, shrink in hypertonic solutions, swell in hypotonic solutions, in milliseconds. He could inhibit this with mercuric chloride;. he could block water transport by using reducing agents, he could restore it, he could turn off and on. The first, really convincing evidence that there must be a membrane protein with a free sulfide that carried water. So we were working on the Rhesus blood group antigen—I am a blood specialist, or I was in my earlier days; I'm sort of a clinical dropout these days—and surprisingly as much information as is out there about the Rh blood group antigen, the molecular basis was not known. My mother went no further than high school; she got married, she knew, she learnt from the doctors that she was RhD-positive because it's so important, Rh incompatibilities. But what causes it? Is it a protein? Is it a lipid? Is it carbohydrate? We were working on that. We actually made the first isolations of the Rh complex, the Rh energy complex, and in the process had a contaminant which initially distressed us. So we decided a contaminant, this co-purification molecule, which is of a similar size to Rh was kind of interesting. And by sorting things out and talking to colleagues—very important talking to colleagues, because it was the discussion with another colleague John Parker at the University of North Carolina that first turned on the lights that this new protein might be the long-sought water channel. So here we were working away, had this potential diamond in the rough in our hands and not recognizing it but with the wisdom of others' help. So we went after this, and now of course that protein is known as aquaporin 1, the first defined water channel; a large family of hundreds of different water channels and different organisms—these green plants around us here have aquaporins in their rootlets. So it explains how water moves rapidly through cell membranes.

Steve:          But in that research you found that because you were very interdisciplinary you've talked to other people…

Agre:          It's called attention deficit.

Steve:          But you found that you still had to protect your priority of the research, so I think that's interesting for anybody who is actually doing research. How do you collaborate with people informally by sharing your ideas and your results and still make sure that you get the credit when you've done the research?

Agre:          Yeah.

Steve:          Especially today when people are just yapping back and forth on the Internet.

Agre:          Well you raise an important issue—how can you both share information and yet not give it away? And we were aware of that. In fact there were groups who were determined that they would discover the water channel. We were warned that they would move aggressively onto this, and they did, but that's fine. We got our first studies out rapidly, and there was no question, there has never been any hint that this was not correct. And by maintaining the high road—we were encouraged by others to do that—I think we benefited. We were able to, as a small group, attract the interest of others, and we could collaborate actively. And basically it was the way of finding that science is a mechanism of building friendships with labs in the U.S. and abroad. Their young people would come to our lab, our young people would go to their lab, so in fact I think it's an example of how the goodness of the community can trump the sharks.

Steve:          And your network…

Agre:          They often do.

Steve:          Your network was so large, that everybody knew that you had done it first.

Agre:          Well, I guess it turned out that way; it could have turned out differently but it didn't. So, my advice to young scientists is, think critically about your work; probably don't blab unnecessarily. But the advice of others is oftentimes precious, and it really was this conversation with John Parker—John sadly didn't live to see the Nobel. He never sought to be part of the studies; he was a mentor suggesting something to a young person who trained with him in the clinic. John developed a malignancy a couple of years later and died…

Steve:          He was only in his fifties.

Agre:          That's right, that's right. But his memory lives on. And he did live to see the early recognition of this water channel story. So, I think there are multiple levels of effort there, and being friends with other scientists is very important.

Steve:          So the understanding of the water transport mechanism within cells—I don't know if I should call it within—on the surface cells…

Agre:          On the surface, yeah.

Steve:          What does that do for the general practitioner out there? What kind of products does the general practitioner have at his or her disposal now because of that knowledge or in the future?

Agre:          Well that's a critical question, and to date I can't tell you that there's been a change in medical therapeutics because of our discovery. It explains what was going on, for example.

Steve:          I mean anybody taking diuretics for blood pressure.

Agre:          Right, how does the water get through the membranes? It's through the aquaporin. Can we inhibit the water transport as another line of diuresis? Patients with refractory congestive heart failure. There is efforts now to block the reabsorption of water through aquaporin biology, but we're still not there yet. One example, though, where existing practice was not explained is the lung disease of premature infant. Part of this is a deficiency in surfactant release; a large part is the fluid overload. They can't clear fluid from the lungs. And the work of Landon King, who is the director of the pulmonary and critical care medicine program at Johns Hopkins now; when Landon was a fellow in our laboratory, he discovered that in fact glucocorticoids, corticosteroids induce regulation expression of the aquaporins in the microvasculature of the lung. In fact this is one of the explanations for why a pregnant woman goes into premature labor and they can't reverse it—they will empirically treat with high doses of steroids because they know the lung outcome of the infant is better. In part it is because of the expression of the aquaporins. So we use the information like that to design the therapies. And my answer is, I believe we can, but it is going to take a lot of hard work by a lot of young people like the young scientists here in Lindau to look for opportunities where their wisdom and their hard work can lead to practical advances. As my mother is famous for saying, "It is important to do something useful; winning Nobel prizes is not enough."

Steve:          Yeah, that reminds me—what was your mother's reaction upon you winning the Nobel Prize?

Agre:          Yeah. So the call came early in the morning. My wife Mary called mother—Dad had died eight years earlier; Mother is a farm girl, never had formal education beyond 12th grade in rural Minnesota—and she thought for a moment and said, "Mary, tell Peter that's very nice but don't let this go to his head". And that "don't let this go to his head" was not meant sarcastically but sort of a reminder that we really must do something useful. That's a lot more important than prizes. Although the prize was nice.

Steve:          Sure it was. Well that sounds like a story Garrison Keillor would tell about his Scandinavian…

Agre:          Interesting you should say that. See Garrison Keillor and I are from the same part of the country. When I was in high school, evening news KUOM, the University of Minnesota station, read by Garrison Keillor; but there were no jokes then, you know? He just read the news—snowmobile accident in Burnsville, that kind of thing. I have met him. He talks about life back there, and these are mythical stories he is telling, but they're based on our experience.

Steve:          Have you ever talked about the chemistry of lutefisk?

Agre:          Chemistry of lutefisk. Yes, in fact, I used that as an example talking about biodiesel generation back in Minnesota. Tried to think of terms they could understand, you know, this whole idea of saponification, you know. That's lutefisk technology. They have new methods, and there's actually a firm out in Minnesota that's working on this using a zirconium-based catalysis for breaking up membrane lipid into biodiesel. Yeah, lutefisk; better brush your teeth after you eat the lutefisk.

Steve:          Floss and brush. It's basically turning it into soap and then eating it.

Agre:          Well, you see the Norwegians are simple people. What they discovered a thousand years ago was that they could preserve cod fish for long ocean voyages. They dried it and soaked it, and dried it—they soaked it in lye.

Steve:          Right.

Agre:          That's the "lu" is lye in Norwegian. So it's the lye fish. And of course, here's Garrison Keillor; he announced in his radio show that new technology in Minnesota has led to a big development in the preparation of lutefisk. It's actually laborious but two cycles in the automatic dishwasher and it comes out pretty good.

Steve:          (laughs) That's great. So let's talk politics. You seriously considered a Senate run, a United States Senate run.

Agre:          Well, I was serious. I'm not sure everybody else was serious. This was the Minnesota Senate seat occupied by Norman Coleman.

Steve:          Right.

Agre:          Who was originally a very effective Democratic mayor of St. Paul; became a Republican when he was convinced to change parties, and was very ineffective in the Senate. Targeted as the most vulnerable incumbent Republican. Basically far to the right.

Steve:          Beaten by a comedian eventually.

Agre:          Eventually. In fact, my home state of Minnesota had a Republican incumbent with no credible Democratic opposition. Al Franken did announce he'd run in the state. Although he was a New Yorker; he lived in Minnesota for a short time.

Steve:          As well as Coleman. Coleman is from Brooklyn.

Agre:          You're right. I think that's a little odd—A couple of New York City guys running for Senate for Minnesota. And what are the chances of two Minnesota guys running for the Senate for New York? I was very concerned about this. I was not looking for a job. I was the Vice Chancellor at Duke University, had a nice job. I was being offered and recruited to head the Malaria Research Institute at Johns Hopkins. But I felt an obligation to explore. And I was talking to very good people, Vice President Mondale, General Wesley Clark and others, encouraged me to look into this. But they were very cautious. You should run, but don't step in unless you know you can win. Because as a employee of a tax-exempt institution, a university, you have to distance yourself, you can't get health care insurance, salary from federal grants and run for office. So, we're at a huge disadvantage. That first step of announcing means you got to take a leave of absence. And we're not wealthy people. We don't have millions stocked away. So I looked, how does a scientist approach a new idea? They do pilot experiments. Politicians do polls. So, I scraped together from our life savings, enough money. And I had some very good people—Joe Trippi, who was Howard Dean's media advisor helping me. And we looked in and there was large interest in Minnesota. We did a poll, and the poll was interesting. Conclusively showed that on the day of the poll, I or any other credible Democrat could easily beat Norman Coleman, clearly beaten him; except for Al Franken. He was not liked, looked like he couldn't win. The second poll was—so the first poll was of all voters, a cross-section: 40 percent Democrats, 30 percent Independents, 30 percent Republicans. The second poll was likely voters in the primary, Republicans excluded. So it's just Democrats basically. And that poll showed I would have real trouble getting through the caucus and the primary process without a lot of money, and the party was interested in seeing money before getting serious. And at that point, I said, if it's not important to them, I won't do it. What is it that Che Guevara said? "Never engage in a battle you cannot win." Well, he did, and he lost.

 

Steve:          Right.

Agre:          So I thought at that point, I'm taking the malaria job. It was great at Duke, but Minnesota will have to go on their own. And Franken went through the process. He worked incredibly hard, raised $25 million, which was matched by $25 million from Norman Coleman. Of course 90 percent or 85 percent of this was raised out of state. So it was New York and California funding it.

Steve:          It was a proxy war.

Agre:          And it was all negative campaigning. My friends and family out of Minnesota were disgusted with the slime that those two candidates threw at each other. But in the end, Obama carried Minnesota by 360,000 votes, and it was enough to take on the recall to bring Franken across the finish line. And give the man credit—Franken was the 60th vote on the health care bill.

Steve:          Right.

Agre:          So, I think I have great fundamental differences of mindset with Senator Franken, but he did a good thing, and he's trying to gain credibility. I mean, he's a good person. I mean it's pretty clear to me that his motivation is sincere. He does not want to go to his grave as another New York City comedian; he wants to do something useful, and we should respect that.

Steve:          Let's talk about what your motivations were for even considering this. Why as a scientist did you feel—I'm sure that there were scientific, not scientific reasons, you know, you could analyze, but you know—what was going on in the attitudes in the country about science that were part of your thinking?

Agre:          Well, my take was people of Minnesota, these are good people. They're in many ways more generous than other parts of the country. They're better educated than other parts of the country. Al Franken's position was to run I hate George Bush, and then we're going to end the war. It didn't seem to me that was credible. What bothered me was the lack of commitment to education, to the environmental issues, and health care reform. So I was going to run on the trifecta—education, climate change and health care reform. I didn't foresee, nor did anyone, the importance of the economic decline, which is in the end probably the most important issue. But I think that's what the voters considered important, and someone has to represent this. To my knowledge, there's never been a scientist in the U.S. Senate. And at that time…

Steve:          There are in the house.

Agre:          In the house there are few, sure.

Steve:          Rush Holt.

Agre:          Oh! Rush is tremendous, although he is very careful to use his science as a way of approaching policy; he's not there preaching science. But there are very few in the House, none in the Senate, and the three physicians in the Senate were far to the right. And Senator Frist, who's left the senate has moderated his tone. And I've  served on committees with Senator Frist after office and I respect the man, but Senator Coburn, Senator Barrasso are quite far to the right, now joined by Rand Paul. Why doesn't the Democratic party think that actually having a physician, a scientist might be useful? When it comes down to a health care debate, we have Senator Coleman on one side and Al Franken on the other. I mean, I wouldn't consider this a fair fight. I thought as a physician scientist, I might have something to offer, and others will. So it wasn't a personal need for publicity or the office itself. I felt it was more of a civic duty. And so I looked, and decided it was not going to happen and went onto my other options, which I must say I have been really glad worked out as it did.

Steve:          There seems to be a real anti-science aspect to a lot of our politics now though.

Agre:          Well, there is an anti-science by the far right. We have to be careful that the far left doesn't balance this with a naïve approach of promising what we can't deliver. I mean, science is neutral; it's not politically conservative or liberal. These are the facts; this is how nature works.

Steve:          But that very statement has become political.

Agre:          Yes, although I'm firmly impressed by President Obama and his approach. He's not a scientist. It became clear during the campaign, when I asked his—I was part of an advocacy group—I asked his handlers just what is his background? Negligible. But he surrounded himself by very knowledgeable, articulate scientists, Steven Chu, John…

Steve:          Secretary of Energy.

Agre:          That's right, Secretary of Energy, Nobel Laureate; John Holdren, presidential science advisor; Harold Varmus, Eric Lander of the President's Committee on Science and Technology. So I think we've got intelligent science represented in the White House. The agenda has been largely on other issues, but I think it's something that we have to be careful that we don't present sciences left wing or right wing. And I personally feel scientists are not very convincing when they get off on this, "We've got to teach evolution to conservatives that believe that evolution is anti-biblical." They're both wrong. I think there's nothing about evolution in the Bible; I think this is a statement of religious insecurity. But people have their beliefs. As long as they understand that there is pressure, environmental pressure, on organisms to adapt—antibiotic resistance by bacteria represent a form of evolution—but let's not call it evolution because that buzz word turns people off. I think the important issue is in understanding the importance of the concept. Natural selection is not an inflammatory phrase, evolution is. So while, of course, I believe in evolution and virtually every scientist does, I tried to be convincing. And my mother who I talked about earlier, after Dad died, has been going to a very conservative church in Minnesota for multiple reasons. In part, they don't view themselves as the academic elite. These are working folks, many of them with scars. And I have two siblings who were born with significant handicaps. Paul is mentally retarded—that's the medical diagnosis, this is not a pejorative term. He has an IQ of below 70, he reads at the first grade level. And they welcome him into the men's group in the church. Ruth is emotionally disabled, morbidly obese; again these are not people who fit in, well in a lot of organizations, but that church has been very inclusive of them. So mother goes to this, and I use her to, kind of, get a sense of what are people thinking and some of what I think they preach is very sensible, and some of which I don't agree with at all. But not knowing what's out there is sometimes dangerous. I think, you know, the United States is a big country with many different groups and many different opinions, and I think the middle ground oftentimes can be effective. And looking for problems that we can solve, approaches that we can solve would've been my choice in the Senate. I didn't expect they'll have 60 votes in the Democratic side for health care, and I worried that there was not a single Republican on the other side. My job would've been to convince them to come over. And by targeting the moderates we're kind of losing the middle ground. So all of that has something to do with advocating for science, but in a more general sense; far from the lab origins that I had and I loved, and I still have a lab. But you know life is short; I think it's very adventurous out there, and if we have an interest, we should at least consider pursuing those adventures.

Steve:          Let's talk very briefly about a subject that's related to politics, and that's the importance of diarrhea in your scientific awakening.

Agre:          The importance of diarrhea. Well, when I entered Johns Hopkins as a medical student in 1970, I had spent many months previous to that traveling in East Asia, South Asia; Because I had an interest in world health, global health. This was long before it was, kind of, trendy. It had to do with our origins in the Norwegian community in Minnesota, the Lutheran Medical Missionaries—they were not preaching evangelism, they were providing health care in rural Africa and Asia. So I joined a wonderful group at Johns Hopkins to work on diarrheal diseases—in part because I, like anybody who traveled in the outbacks of Asia, was plagued with diarrhea there for months—and it was a breakthrough that occurred at the University of Texas. Richard Finkelstein had isolated the toxin from Vibrio cholerae causing cholera. So I found this really interesting, and I worked with Bradley Sack at Johns Hopkins and teamed with Pedro Cuatrecasas at Johns Hopkins who welcomed me into their labs. I mean, I was just an upstart medical student. But we isolated the toxin. It was a very interesting time, and it convinced me that biomedical research was my path to world health.

Steve:          You're familiar with the works of Paul Ewald.

Agre:          I know this name, you have to…

Steve:          Well, he's sort of a pioneer in evolutionary medicine.

 Agre:          Okay.

Steve:         Diarrhea was also his instigating factor.

Agre:          Well, yeah, I don't think I was inspired by diarrhea. I do remember one amusing event wherein I was at a mixer at a women's college outside of Baltimore and talking to a very attractive young lady, who asked me that fatal question, "Peter, which medical specialty are you interested in?" And I sensed that she probably wanted me to say neurosurgery or radiology, but I'm from Minnesota, I told her the truth, I said, "I'm interested in diarrhea" and never saw her again. My wife, Mary, who I met subsequently, who worked at a lab at Hopkins, farm girl from Maryland, studied biology in college. We fell in love and she was not squeamish about these things. So, she did point out that if I was going to work on diarrhea, it would be nice I didn't bring my work home at night. I agreed.

Steve:          Tell us about your current project, the malaria work.

Agre:          Well, you know, it's something I wanted to get involved in for a long time. But in science when things work, you tend to follow the next step, and it was in the mid-1980s working on red cell membranes, and I was trained as a hematologist, malaria was next on the agenda. When we discovered the water channel, it was too interesting to look up, and this is 15 years in the lab and now thousands and thousands of papers are in the textbooks. But I still had this sort of sense of unfulfilled interest. And we had received a grant from the Malaria Institute at Johns Hopkins. The institute was started in 2001, by a generous gift, then anonymous; but it's not anonymous, it's from Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, who had a meeting with Diane Griffin and Alfred Sommer from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and decided he would fund a research institute to study malaria. And Diane, whose a virologist, led it initially. And we got a grant from the agency to do some malaria studies and after, sort of, successive R01 grants, we were funded to work on malaria, and they offered me the directorship of this, that's when I decided to leave the vice chancellorship at Duke and to return to Johns Hopkins, which is really my academic home. I've been at Hopkins pretty much constantly for 40 years. And the center has a basic scientific component and epidemiological component as well as a clinical component. And we are very fortunate to have received an ICEMR—I-C-E-M-R—International Center of Excellence for Malaria Research for Zimbabwe and Zambia. There are 10 ICEMRs worldwide, and we're fortunate to have one so I spend a third of my year in Zim and Zam, as we say, working with Zimbabwean and Zambian scientists. Sandra Chishimba, who was here at Lindau was on a—I'm very thrilled and feel very wonderful—she was my nominee to come to this conference, and I think she represents what third world scientists can accomplish. Origins are modest, but heavens, you go back a generation or two, our origins were modest.

Steve:          True.

Agre:          And as much as I like some of my previous jobs, I can't say that in the vice chancellor's position at Duke, I came to work very often and people patted me on the back; it was more like being chairman of the complaints department at Macy's. Whereas at the Malaria Institute, it's different. There are a lot of people who show up on my doorstep looking for money, but it's always a malaria issue. And my object here is unabashedly to put malaria and third world disease research in front of these wonderful young scientists—580 of the best graduate students of the world. I think some of them will come along and decide that this is something that they'd like to get involved in. And maybe at this stage in my life, this is what I do best.

Steve:          So it's like planting seeds that should take root.

Agre:          We hope, we hope. Someone is going to do the science. If we make it, I think, inherently interesting and show that it is actually feasible—again you don't have to be perfect to do something really useful on life—and there have been four Nobel prizes awarded for malaria and there will be more. I don't think it will be the people of my generation, it will be these young people.

Steve:          More Nobel Prize winners from Lindau coming soon. In the meantime, get your science news at our Web site, www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can check out our section on Citizen Science. It has info on research projects that you can take part in, from ornithology to entomology to astronomy. And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet each time a new article hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. S-C-I-A-M. For Science Talk, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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