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Solving This Problem

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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I wanted to highlight a question asked by Barb on my question thread, and share a little about what it’s like to be a biomedical scientist working on basic research problems with possible applications to disease therapies. Here’s the question Barb asked:

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“Mollie, I’d like to pick your brain for resources. I have a son, 30, MIT alum, PhD physics. He has incurred brain damage… If it were your brother, what would you do for him?”

Because my lab’s explicit long-term research goal is to be able to fix diseased and damaged brain circuitry, we get questions like this with some frequency. A few of our postdoctoral fellows did their graduate work in our field, and they talk about the times they answered the lab phone to find a patient or a distraught parent on the other end, begging them to help. We hurt every time we get questions like this, because we don’t have the luxury of being snake oil salesmen with a cure for anything and everything. All we want is a cure for this one tiny corner of human suffering, but we don’t even have that in hand.

I’m a teaching fellow this semester for a class my Ph.D. advisor is teaching, called “Repair and Regeneration in the Mammalian Brain.” We were honored a few weeks ago to host a visit by Travis Roy, who injured his spinal cord in his first college hockey game for Boston University in 1995, and who’s now a motivational speaker and founder of the Travis Roy Foundation, which provides help for people with spinal cord injuries (SCI) and money for SCI research. Travis told the students that his goal is to get a few of them to go into medicine or research, and that he wants them to be part of the next generation that solves this problem once and for all. And I was sitting in the back, tearing up, because I feel so inadequate in the face of the magnitude of the problem. If I could, I would repair spinal cords and fix Travis Roy tomorrow. But I don’t know how, and all the brilliant people in my lab don’t know how, and all the brilliant people in my field don’t know how.

In my time as a graduate student, I have gone to many seminars and met many of the eminent scientists in the brain repair field, and I know that most of them—maybe all of them—believe that we will be able to repair diseased and damaged brains in the near future. Maybe we’ll be able to cure some diseases before others, and maybe there are some that will elude us for a long time, but they (and I) believe that this problem is ultimately tractable. My advisor likens the problem to building a house: at the moment, we’re setting up the frame and figuring out where the doors and windows go, but one day we will put up the walls and install light switches and pick the perfect color of blue for the dining room.

Solving This Problem-mollies_mom.jpg
Mollie’s mom as a cheerleader

I know that optimism alone does not save lives. I have come to this realization head-on in the past few months, as my beautiful, lively little mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. As a scientist, I am aware that the statistics on breast cancer survival are quite good, and that research has led to a bevy of new therapies that extend remission and improve quality of life. As a daughter, I think this is completely inadequate—they are talking about your mother, the odds of survival need to be 100%, and, also, they should not have to stick her with any needles or cause her any pain in the course of completely removing any trace of cancer from her body.

So for my mother, I am doing the only things I can—making sure she is cared for, and not afraid, and knitting her lots of soft, slouchy hats so she can feel confident and loved. And for people with ALS and SCI, I am also doing what I can. For now, that means reassuring them that the smartest, most hard-working people I know are devoting their lives to solving this problem.