THE BLOG
01/08/2015 02:54 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

A Social Side of Science With Rich Roberts

This November I was selected to partake in a life changing experience, The Congress of Future Medical Leaders of America. At the conference students from all over the world who had the same aspirations and goals in mind joined me for an unforgettable weekend. During this time I heard Nobel Laureates and National Medal of Science winners talk about leading medical research, was given advice from Ivy League and top medical school deans on what is expected in medical school, and learned about cutting-edge advances in medicine. Granted with the opportunity to interact and meet so many unique and exquisite bodies every interaction made was pleasant, but it was one speaker who truly stood out to me, Nobel Laureate Sir Richard Roberts.

I had the rare opportunity to partake in an enriching conversation with Roberts after his astounding speech about GMO's and Medicine for the Developing Countries. Through our personal conversation, and his presentation Roberts left a profound impact of inspiration and insight with me. Sharing knowledge and advice with me that would be criminal if confined to my benefit only. Roberts and I stayed in contact after the conference and he allowed me to pick his brain even further for the sake of this article. Through he will always be remembered for his 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Phillip Allen Sharp, for the discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing, it will be his genuine nature to mentor and help younger aspiring scientist such as myself that will continue to propel the future of science forever.

Vanessa Kuhlor: For the general person seeking to read about science for the most part it is limited to journalistic media. Even as a student involved in research it is difficult to bypass the fees required to access many journals and studies. What advice do you have for students who want to obtain this kind of information?

Sir Richard Roberts: The problem is the publishers make it very difficult for you to get this material unless you are at a university and so one of the other things I've been doing over the years is to push very heavily for open access, which means that as soon as something is published it should be available on the internet to anybody who wants to read it. I personally only publish in open access journals now, I won't publish in journals that don't have open access options. However, what you have to do if you are interested in reading scientific articles is to find a college or university nearby that has access to the journals. Ideally this would be a university, because they have a much larger selection and then you can go and find someone to talk to at the university and see if you can convince them of your interest and persuade them to allow you access to their library over the internet.

VK: As a reporter myself I know first-hand that the media always likes a "story", how do you filter the "just a story" articles with actual information?

SRR: I think for me it's a lot easier because I have many friends who are scientist so if I hear something that doesn't sound quite right to me I will call up a friend who actually may know about that particular area. For the general public I think it is much more difficult, because the real problem is that the media likes to sensationalize everything. I think the only resource you really have is to go googling around on the internet and see if you can find some scholarly publications dealing with the particular issue that is being discussed by the media to make sure that it is correct. I can tell you personally that I don't mind if people email and ask me for an opinion about stuff if it is an area I feel I know a lot about and I think you'll find that most scientist are pretty good about doing the same thing -- especially when kids write to them. I think that every scientist I know has a soft spot for kids. So if you write to them and say "I'm a kid in high school and I read this, or I saw this and I want to know more about this" in general they will be very open to communicating with you and answering your emails. There's an old saying "people who don't ask don't want" and I think an awful lot of what goes on in this world is governed by people just not asking when they want to know information or not complaining when they are dissatisfied with something's that happened. People often say if you don't complain then you must be satisfied and companies especially take this view, so I'm a big believer in complaining if things aren't working properly.

VK: How has the media impacted any of your work, if ever in both the positive and negative aspects?

SRR: I don't think that there's been any particular negatives, other than just one I can think of. I got a letter from the Unabomber. This was a guy who had been an associate professor at MIT in mathematics and he was off his rocker. The guy was just nuts and he started sending letters with bombs in them to people, and he was sending some letters and some bombs and quite a lot of people got injured as a result of this. I got a letter from him. Fortunately, I didn't get a bomb. He sent out 5 letters of which one was a bomb and the others were just letters. That actually led to the FBI contacting me because they knew I received a letter. We tried to keep it quiet but the local press here in Beverly close to where I work found out about it and we got mobbed by reporters. They came to our house, and my kids were pretty young at the time and they were quite scared because we had 30-40 reporters hanging around at our house. They were on the driveway and they came up to the house. I mean one of them showed up at midnight after we had gone to bed and was ringing the bell and knocking on the door wanting to know if we would do an interview and so eventually we had to get the local police to come and clear them away. However, for the most part I have not have a big problem with the media. I try to be reasonably careful about things that I say and interactions that I have with the media and particularly if they are writing about anything technical I make sure I see a copy about whatever it is that they are going to write before I say that looks okay. I think it is important to take a look and make sure that they are not misinterpreting stuff that was said.

VK: I understand you are a member of Patient Innovation, a nonprofit international free venue for patients and caregivers of any disease to share their innovations. How did you get involved with that?

SRR: I first heard of Patient Innovation as a result of my meeting a Portuguese man Pedro Oliveira, who is a very impressive guy. He introduced me to a local journalist in Lisbon and a few of their friends including a doctor and some others including academics from the Sloane Institute at MIT. They had noticed that there were quite a few non-medical people who were doing really innovative stuff in healthcare to make lives easier for people with handicaps, or with serious medical conditions. Many of these things were so different from anything a doctor would have ever said that they thought that it would be good if they could put together some kind of network where people who came up with these kind of ideas could advertise them and could share them with other patients who might benefit. I thought that was just a great idea, especially since I love this sort of maverick approach to medicine or science or anything else, In fact you know quite a lot of doctors I'm sure would agree that this is a really good thing but it is not something that they would ever advise patients about in their normal visits to the doctor, I thought it was such a wonderful idea and when they asked me to join them I couldn't say no.

VK: Is technology, especially social media, changing the way society portrays science?

SRR: I don't see it as an alternative, but I do see it as an adjunct for these kinds of meetings. I will give you one example of how it is effecting science. I was in Japan earlier this year and was asked to give a talk to some students at an Institute in Novosobirsk, Russia. Although I was on my way to Moscow I didn't have time to stop at the Institute. So they actually set up a Skype call for me so that could speak, via Skype, to the lecture hall and deliver my lecture from my hotel room in Japan to this audience in Russia. The reason I mention it is because one of the people in the audience came up with a scientific question after my talk that was the most interesting question I've had probably in 10 years. It was just a really interesting point that I had never thought about before. Maybe it's not real but it was sufficiently intriguing that it raised some possibilities that were worth investigating. Thus, because Skype was possible and these kind of social interactions can take place an interaction occurred that otherwise would never have happened.

VK: What advice do you have for aspiring scientist?

SRR: I think the most important thing is to really find something that you are passionate about. Something that you absolutely love to do and make a career of it. If that area is research then find a topic that really fascinates you and pursue it, but don't think you have to stick with it for the rest of your life. Just think that it is a good way to get started and do what you want to do. I always tell students that the people who are happiest in life are those who get up on a Monday morning and they are full of joy because they have to go to work and when Friday evening comes around there a little bit of disappointment because they don't know what they are going to do over the weekend until Monday comes around again. Those are the people who are really the happiest in this world.