Plastics Diploma

By Frank Blechman

The Biotech Comic Strips | The Comic StripsDespite encouragement by the editors of this blog, I will NOT write this week about (soon-to-be-ex-) Governor Cuomo of New York, troops in (or out of) Afghanistan, the COVID crisis, NASA’s problems with its next moon-mission, the heat/humidity (with chance of afternoon thunderstorms), building infrastructure, or demolishing voting rights. I won’t speculate about how the census data released last week will guide the redistricting process. These are all good topics and may get ink from me in the future. But this week, I want to give career counseling to any reader under 20 (or someone over 20 who will forward this to the appropriate persons) who is trying to figure out where jobs will be in the future.

Those of us old enough to remember the 1967 movie The Graduate remember the scene in which a young Dustin Hoffman is advised that he should pursue his future in “plastics.”

In the ‘70s the future was in telecom, as the breakup of the Bell empire took shape. (The exception was here in Northern Virginia, where the fortunes at that time were being made in real estate development. The telecom wave would hit here a decade later.) There was also disco, but who wants to revisit that as a lifelong career path?

In the 1980s, all the cool kids wanted to be into computers. The next decade saw computers and telecom blur together, leaving school counselors completely confused.

The compromise of the new millennium was to simply avoid specialization and study business. There would always be a need for trained middle managers. Wouldn’t there? Eternal life in cube-world may not have been attractive (see Dilbert by Scott Adams), but it offered the promise of stability in a rapidly changing world.

The compromise of the new millennium was to simply avoid specialization and study business. There would always be a need for trained middle managers. Wouldn’t there? Eternal life in cube-world may not have been attractive (see Dilbert by Scott Adams), but it offered the promise of stability in a rapidly changing world. Should a manager learn Chinese? If so, Cantonese or Mandarin? Is ‘greed’ really always ‘good,’ as proclaimed in the movies?

The economic collapse of 2008-09 raised a few questions about the stability of business and management gurus. But, what could take its place?

Thanks to Walter Isaacson’s new book The Code Breaker . . . [we follow] the career of Jennifer Doudna, a bioscientist based at the University of California at Berkeley . . . [who] focused on the role of RNA (ribonucleic acid, the so-called “messenger molecule”) in implementing the genetic instructions in the helix. . . . She was one of a small group that figured out (both structurally and biochemically) how bacteria have evolved the ability to fight off viruses. It turns out that bacteria have been doing this for billions of years.

Thanks to Walter Isaacson’s new book The Code Breaker, we might have the beginnings of the answer. The author follows the career of Jennifer Doudna, a bioscientist based at the University of California at Berkeley. Doudna was inspired in her childhood by the book The Double Helix, by James Watson, one of the discoverers (along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin) of the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the central molecule in genetic evolution. As a dedicated and skilled researcher, she focused on the role of RNA (ribonucleic acid, the so-called “messenger molecule”) in implementing the genetic instructions in the helix. In that work, she was one of a small group that figured out (both structurally and bio-chemically) how bacteria have evolved the ability to fight off viruses. It turns out that bacteria have been doing this for billions of years, giving them a big head start over us. They key is a process (inelegantly named, but known by its acronym “crisper”) by which bacteria can clip out part of the virus’s genetic material and insert it into the bacterial cell’s own DNA, making the cell better able to recognize that virus and fight it when encountered in the future.

Sure, it worked in a test tube, and in bacteria, but would it work in humans? By 2012, she and others were able to demonstrate that the same process could be used to edit the human genome. By 2018, they had shown how to edit RNA too.

Concerns about ethics might have ended the story there. Should the rich be able to buy better genes for their offspring? Taller? Stronger? Smarter? Maybe not, but shouldn’t science do everything possible to eliminate crippling human genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia, Huntington’s, and HIV?

Then, in 2020, a novel coronavirus exploded worldwide, causing the pandemic eventually known as SARS-COVID-19. Doudna and dozens of other scientists’ laboratories were suddenly critically positioned to address this challenge. Within weeks, teams began work, and within a few months, they had the first reliable tests for the coronavirus, and soon after, the first genetically modified RNA-based vaccines.

[With] SARS-COVID-19, within weeks, teams began work, and within a few months, they had the first reliable tests for the coronavirus, and soon after, the first genetically modified RNA-based vaccines.

With success like that, who needs to learn Chinese or computer code? Why learn how to live in a cubicle? The code of life itself is now the master textbook available for those who know how to read it. The laboratory is the entire world. Walter Isaacson concludes this account with the observation that bioscience, particularly genetic science, is the new frontier.

We cannot know if this will be the work that supplants physics (the glamour transformative field of the first half of the 20th century), or computers (the smash hit of the second half of the 20th century) as THE place to be for the next generation. Yet it is hard to argue that bioscience would be a bad bet.

My children are grown, and they were not that interested in math or science at the time. I have no grandchildren. Therefore, I am reduced to approaching my great nephews and nieces at family gatherings to whisper in their ears, “genetics.” In The Graduate, Hoffman’s character (Benjamin Braddock) does not take the advice given him. I doubt if my relatives will even ask what the heck I am whispering about.

But, you know. Biotech is THE tech to watch. You heard it here first.



Categories: Book Review, HIGHER EDUCATION, Issues, National

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