Peter Agre, the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, opened the 2010 annual AAAS meeting with a poignant, memorable speech. Standing at the podium in front of a screen displaying this year’s theme, “Bridging Science and Society”, Agre took the audience through a personal narrative of his life as a scientist, beginning with his early inspiration from his father, a chemist, through his discovery of aquaporins which won him a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2003. Relating a story about drawing a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up during a class exercise (a chemist of course), he recalls looking over to his neighbor drawing a picture of himself as a burglar. Wryly Agre quipped, “I always wondered whether he grew up to be a lobbyist.”
He also encouraged the undergraduate and high school students in the audience to get involved in research opportunities. This, as well as some of his slides, seemed vaguely familiar as I flashed back to the other time I’ve heard Agre speak, my senior year of college at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting a year after he’d won his Nobel Prize. When he later showed a picture of his lab on the day that he got that once-in-a-lifetime phone call from Oslo (unless you’re John Bardeen, Linus Pauling, Marie Curie, or Fred Sanger), I realized that he didn’t look the same as that day six years ago when I sat in the audience, he’d had a quite impressive gray mustache that’s now been replaced by a slick, clean-shaven look, perhaps in keeping with his ever-growing international reputation.
Looks aside, I was impressed with the perspective he gave of his scientific journey. Unlike scientific journal articles, neatly wrapped and tied into logical, sane storylines that in no way reflects the insane, messy process actually taken when doing science, Agre makes a point to give the back story. He mentions a fortuitous insight gleaned from a conversation with a friend he happened to be staying with on a trip home from Disneyland with his kids, and he gives credit to numerous scientists who helped inspire him along the way. And, with personal anecdotes and retro candid photos, he turns these colleagues into real people. For example, he explains how the family of one gifted collaborator, Dr. Amiry-Moghaddam, fled the Islamic Revolution in Iran and who subsequently educated by the Norwegian social service.
He also describes the jubilation felt when making a truly marvelous discovery. He notes, and I can attest to the trueness of this statement, “You can really cheer when something works, because most of the time it doesn’t.”
Near the end of his talk, he shifted the focus to science internationally. He is encouraged by data such as polls showing that although many Arab countries don’t have a high opinion of the U.S. they do have a relatively high opinion of U.S. Science and Techonology. Agre has spent some time reaching out to nations that are not on good terms with the U.S. through science. He has visited scientists in both Cuba and North Korea. Although he admits that people may classify the state of science as in crisis, he left the audience to contemplate the Mandarin word for crisis, “wei ji”, comprised of two characters, the first meaning “danger” and the second, “opportunity”.
His final words of advice to young scientists of the world, “Is it worth it? Definitely yes.”