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Science Talk

Where There Was Smoke, There's Science

Wake Forest University School of Medicine neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin talks about the the Winston-Salem area's adoption of biomedical research as well as meetings with Congress about science funding and his comic strip contributions to Scientific American Mind. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news

Wake Forest University School of Medicine neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin talks about the the Winston–Salem area's adoption of biomedical research as well as meetings with Congress about science funding and his comic strip contributions to Scientific American Mind. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news.

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on September 8th, 2009. I am Steve Mirsky. And in this episode we'll chat with neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston–Salem, North Carolina. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. I was down to Wake Forest recently to talk to graduate science students and met with Dwayne Godwin, who coincidentally is an unusual regular contributor to Scientific American Mind magazine. He's writing the stories for comic strips about brain science that appear on the back page of each issue of Mind. We talk about that effort as well as his meetings with members of Congress and the transformation of tobacco country into a leading biomedical research region.

Steve: Tell me about this foray into cartoons that we're doing in Scientific American Mind.

Godwin: Well it's an exciting new opportunity for me. I'm a practicing neuroscientist and it was a challenge that was very attractive to try to put one of the most complex things in the universe into the format of an illustrated narrative.

Steve: That complex thing being our brain.

Godwin: Oh! Absolutely.

Steve: Right.

Godwin: Absolutely. So this started, I guess, about two years ago, when Jorge Cham—who is a famous comic strip artist on his own; he does PhD comics and is quiet famous for that as many graduate students and post docs will attest to—he and I began to collaborate on this project for the Stanford Design School magazine called Ambidextrous;and Ambidextrous is a very eclectic magazine that caters to the design community and we took topics from each issue and began to develop comic strips around them.

Steve: How are you able to get anything of value in this very complex field across in this simple kind of format? That might have come out in a little bit of [a] pejorative way, and I don't mean it that way.

Godwin: Yeah.

Steve: I mean it as a real informational question, because I know it can be done.

Godwin: Yes.

Steve: So what do you try to keep in mind as you're working on it?

Godwin: Well, I can tell you the process and I think in telling you the process it might tell you a bit about how you break this down, this complex information down into a simpler format. The process is, I heavily research each of these comics and so each comic strip might have about 12 to 13 panels. The panels, each have a digestible bit of information that has been researched from the scientific literature. So each comic could in essence have a bibliography associated with it. Now what we intend to do is we push it as complex as we can but still be approachable. The key is, can a layperson understand it? And that's what we are trying to do: We are trying to reach from inside the laboratory and share some of the amazing things that we are able to accomplish in neuroscience with a broader audience. We think this is important because as you know the economy is not in its best shape ever and we feel that science investment is important from a government perspective, and we feel that because we are using taxpayers' money, that the public has a right to know what we are doing. And I think this is just another way of sharing the wonders of the brain with the public and to show them that investment in brain research is a worthy endeavor.

Steve: And most of these comics are going to be related to a specific article in Scientific American Mind.

Godwin: Yes, we've been given an enormous amount of freedom by the editor to both develop independent stand-alone comics but also on occasion we'll take off on a theme that might be present in some of the regular articles within Scientific American Mind.

Steve: And it's fun. That's the key thing.

Godwin: Well, of course. You know, it's something that appealed to me. When I grew up, I was going to be a commercial artist, then I really became enthralled by science and the idea of discovery and nothing offers that more than science, and I think neuroscience in particular is such a merger of different sciences that it became appealing to me. This is really a manifestation of that. It's fun. It's a merger of my, you know, the things that I like to do for fun and the things that I do for a living, so it's a great merger.

Steve: [This is] a key question that may give a lot of way to potential readers: When you were a kid, were you a DC kid or Marvel kid?

Godwin: I was a Marvel kid.

Steve: Very interesting.

Godwin: But I've grown to appreciate DC.

Steve: Okay. You mentioned the taxpayer, and, you know, getting the word out to the people who support so much research in the country. You have recently returned from a trip to D.C., where you spoke to some congresspeople from the area, here around Wake Forest. So what's the mood in Congress right now about funding science?

Godwin: I would say guardedly optimistic. I think there's a realization that we live in very tough economic times, but there is a growing realization that research and development is one of the best engines we have to grow our economy. There are many things that can be outsourced to other countries and should be outsourced to other countries, but innovation is not one of them; and America shouldn't take a back seat to anybody with respect to the cutting edge research that we do. And the importance of that research and the connections that we could make in applied research that will help us to grow out of this mess that we are in right now.

Steve: Can you give me a specific example of the type of thing you're talking about—something that's reasonable to outsource and something that we should never outsource?

Godwin: Well, I don't mind outsourcing every single call center overseas. You know, I think it's a great thing for those who have that opportunity, and it's a money maker for a lot of people that need to make money, but is it something that is important as an economic engine? Is it making something? No it's not, it's selling something. What we need to be good at is creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship. Those are the keys to growing economy in my view.

Steve: So we should really be concentrating on the batteries that you won't have to charge for months.

Godwin: Precisely. Because, you know—and this gets into politics I suppose, but—there is a connection there between research and national strength. You know, if we have independent means of generating our own power, if we have, you know, the next best lithium ion battery then that's going to make us less reliant on foreign sources of oil and energy and that's a good thing. That means less of our people are going over[seas] fighting battles to try to secure sources of energy, and it means that we're, you know, using less of our natural resources and we are being smarter, we are following the evidence [and] doing the right thing.

Steve: The NIH funding situation currently is less than 10 percent of all grant applications wind up being funded.

Godwin: I would say much less than 10 percent at the moment, yes.

Steve: How much less actually?

Godwin: I would say…

Steve: Is it 5 percent?

Godwin: You know, it's on the order of 7 percent. You know, this is an average across all NIH institutes, but it's quite bad right now.

Steve: And in decades past, it was as high as 30 percent.

Godwin: It was certainly on that order.

Steve: And so what do you say to somebody who is considering an academic career, as a scientist, a research scientist who will likely be dependent on NIH funding when it's so difficult to get it, and talk about the general level of NIH funding over the last 20 years. How has that changed?

Godwin: Well, certainly funding has changed over time. We had a period in the '90s when NIH funding doubled but then after that the commitment from Congress dissipated. And recently, the last few years, the rate of increase of funding for all agencies—NSF, NIH—has not kept pace with the rate of inflation, and so that means the buying power has decreased. And the estimates that I've seen put that decrease about 17 percent since that period of the doubling.

Steve: So as a nation we have actually invested less in real dollars.

Godwin: In real dollars, we are investing less at a time, when I would say we need to invest more.

Steve: Then we did 15 years ago.

Godwin: Exactly! Exactly! What I would say to young people coming into science is hold on, because I think things are going to get better. I think there's a realization in Congress based on my meetings and [a] realization certainly with the incoming administration that science is a worthy endeavor. And I feel that the decisions that are being made at the upper levels of our leadership now are based on evidence, and for scientists that's a good thing; because what it means is that, that realization that science is our future and is good to[for] our future, is going to [be] realized at those levels as well. In my meetings on Capitol Hill, as part of the Society for Neuroscience—Capitol Hill Day, this is an annual event where chapter representatives, we even had students up there yesterday and post docs, making the case to members of Congress about the need for funding for NIH and NSF to increase the funding. There are a couple of interesting things that happened as a result of that. One was I totally blew away one of the legislative aides by saying, "I'm not asking you to put money in my pocket; all I'm doing is asking you to give me the opportunity to apply for funding." You know, and it was like, "Well you're here asking for money." "No, I'm not asking for money, I'm asking you to move that bar so that it's not under 10 percent anymore; that it's, you know, [in] the 20 percent, 25 percent range." I'm not getting any of that money. I might not be successful in competing for it. And I think it was an interesting transition, it was, "Oh! You are not asking [for] money for yourself, you are asking money for, you know, just the aggregate." And I think that was interesting.

Steve: Make the pie higher as someone famously recently said.

Godwin: Exactly! Precisely. Then the other part of it was there are certainly individuals on Capitol Hill that are not amenable to spending and, you know, against taxes; they don't see a role for government in the support of research. And they're individuals that I think for whatever reason, whether it's [a] political reason, whether it's [a] personal or religious reason, have difficulty in their support for basic research, especially as it applies to things like funding for stem cells, embryonic stem cells. There are, you know, certainly different types of stem cell funding. So one [of] the situations that we got into was a discussion of those different types. Some individuals are against embryonic stem cells; however they are quite amenable to stem cell research as it applies to things like amniotic stem cells or reprogramming of adult stem cells. That was an interesting conversation. So, in approaching individuals that don't agree with you, my approach was to say simply that, "Think of scientists as individuals that follow the evidence, and we're going to be truth-tellers to you." And I offered myself and I would suggest that other scientists offer themselves to their various members of Congress and say, "Look you need information about a given topic, you give me a call, and I'm gonna give you the very best information I have, based on the evidence that I have, because that's my role. I'm not a policy maker, I might favor certain policies, but you're the policy maker. So you call me, you know, we may not agree and see eye to eye on everything, but I'm going to tell you the truth." And that I think was a very useful approach because it's, "Okay, I will you give you call and probably we're not going to see eye to eye." But I feel as though there's a certain level of trust there, right now, that even though we will not sit at this table and agree on everything that you're gonna be an honest broker of information for me. And I think we have to engage that way in, sort of like Nixon in China, you know—you've got to go and you've got to make the effort; you've got to have that level of engagement in order to get anywhere, otherwise we are at loggerheads with people that are ideologically opposed to what we have to offer.

Steve: You got to keep the lines of communication open.

Godwin: Exactly! You know, that sort of thing where we're at, you know, in this polarized state is not useful for anybody; [it] doesn't help science and it doesn't help those that whose congressional districts depend upon the innovation that science has to offer.

Steve: Some really interesting historical developments on the Wake Forest campus, because this is tobacco country. You still see the smokestacks that say R. J. Reynolds Tobacco.

Godwin: Exactly.

Steve: And yet, I mean, one of the things that blew me away when I got here was the sign [that] said "This is a smoke-free campus." You can't even smoke outdoors on this campus and, you know, I was down here for a summer 30 years ago and the air was just rich with the smell of tobacco and to see the cultural change that has gone on is really remarkable, but it's also pretty impressive that the very buildings that used to be tobacco research buildings have been converted. Talk about that a little bit.

Godwin: Well, there's no doubt that tobacco is a very important part of the economic infrastructure of this region, historically. However, it may surprise you to know that biomedical sciences is actually the [largest] employer right now. We've overtaken and surpassed tobacco as a major employer. Now part of that has to do with just, you know, the number of spinout companies that's coming out of the biomedical sciences; part of it has to do with just a realization that in order to be competitive in that new environment, we have to invest in those things that are going to produce that kind of engine for productivity and entrepreneurship. It is interesting to see the transition that's going on downtown in the context of building up a research park. There is approximately 182 acres that has been set aside to be a premier facility for this region for biomedical sciences. It will be a campus unlike anything this region has seen. It will include medical school education, graduate school education, space for companies; and all of these things will be coexisting for the first time in this area. So there will be greater opportunities to build bridges between historical silos, you know, from research and education to research and development, and I think it's a very exciting time to be here.

Steve: And individual buildings that used to be tobacco research buildings are now going to be structures in which the cures for tobacco-related diseases are pursued.

Godwin: That certainly will be the case; that those things that have historically not been conducive to good health are going to be in the engine, even unintentionally, for those cures and new treatments that will help ameliorate those very same disease states. So, you know, it's an exciting time, and I think it's, you know, we're not what we used to be. I think the whole country is seeing a sea change with respect to economic development and the realization that the old ways of doing things are not necessarily the best ways, even though sometimes they may be the more comfortable things. We've got to all get out of our comfort zone and make those kind of changes where, you know, we're thinking [about] things [in a] new [way]; we're repurposing the old in service of the new and the innovative.

Steve: One of the interesting changes is the very name of the school here, the medical school. It used to be the Bowman Gray Medical Campus and Bowman Gray was the chairman of the board of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco.

Godwin: That's right. And, you know, there's no doubt that this institution owes a lot to that family. So, I think like everything else, there is a realization that new economies need new ways of thinking and part of that is built upon certainly from history and contribution, but there's an extension and an outreach to new technologies, new ways of processing information, new ways of interaction that, you know, everyone has a family and everyone wants to see the region here to develop to take advantage of the new economy, and I think all of that falls under that category of a realization that the new economy is coming and we better be prepared for it.

Steve: I just want to point out we did not purposely insert the cough sound effect while we're talking about the history of tobacco in the region; that just came from an office next door.

Godwin: Yeah, actually those are students who are taking an exam in first year in neuroscience. So we're very close to the heat as it were, you can feel the…

Steve: The tension…

Godwin: The brain working through the wall there.

Steve: Check out Dwayne Godwin's brainy comics called "MIND in Pictures" on the back page of each issue of Scientific American Mind magazine.

Now it's time to play TOTALLY……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Massachusetts leads the nation in the percentage of working-age people who do not have health insurance.

Story number 2: Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer settled pending lawsuits by agreeing to cough up a $2.3 billion payout.

Story number 3: Wood ash mixed with human urine makes a good fertilizer for your tomato plants.

And story number 4: Cheap drinks at college bars lead to more students getting drunk.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. Cheap drinks do lead to more drinking—big surprise! But the study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research does counter claims by bar owners that drink specials bring in patrons who wouldn't be able to afford to drink at all otherwise. The study found that for each $1.40 increase in the average price of a drink, a patron was 30 percent less likely to leave the bar with a blood alcohol level above the usual legal limit of 0.08.

Story number 3 is true. According to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the combination of wood ash and human urine boosts plant growth and increases the tomato yield over untreated plants. The micturated mixture is about as good as conventional fertilizer. Remember that's human urine, not New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

And story number 2 is true. Pfizer did settle the lawsuits by agreeing to fork up $2.3 billion. The money will likely be used to shore up state Medicaid programs. Pfizer was accused of making wrong marketing claims for four different medications, not to mention offering kickbacks to doctors to prescribe the drugs for unapproved usage. Remember, if your deception lasts for more than four hours, consult a lawyer immediately.

All of which means that story number 1, about Massachusetts having the highest rate of working-age people without health insurance is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS, because a study out of Baylor University using 2006 data finds that Texas—the fastest growing state—is also the most uninsured: 31 percent of those Texans aged 18 to 64 do not have insurance. No wonder they want to secede; the national average is 20 percent. Other states with poorly insured populations were New Mexico, Florida, Louisiana and California. The best states for insurance coverage were Maine, Wisconsin, Hawaii, number-two Massachusetts and, the big winner, Minnesota—maybe it's the border with Canada.

Well that's it for this episode of Science Talk. Check out www.ScientificAmerican.com for the latest science news as well as slide shows and videos, not to mention the 60-Second Science, 60-Second Earth and 60-Second Psych podcasts. For Science Talk, the big daddy podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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