Families and Histories: The Heart of Science

(Hartford Family Winery)

In a speech titled "Bridging Science and Society," AAAS President Peter Agre naturally discussed examples such as how scientists assist in diplomacy with hostile nations, and how medicine improves rural livelihoods. But one subtle theme in his talk may surprise you -- the significance of the personal story.

Agre spoke to nearly a thousand attendees on Thursday evening to official open the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting. The 2003 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry said he wanted to share his personal "Facebook of science" -- which at first seemed like a throwaway punchline.  But interspersed amongst jargoned explanations of the aquaporin protein which he is famous for were poignant and smiling portraits of the families and stories of the people who touched his career.

Like the story of Harvey Itano, a Japanese-American chemist who faced hardships in WWII internment camps in California. Itano later unraveled the mysteries of sickle-cell anemia with Linus Pauling.

Or the story of Giovanni Alfredo Puca, who researched the secrets of estrogen, but was also an actor and downhill skier.

Or of a colleague whose family fled the Iranian Revolution to the United States.

Or of his own father, Court Agre, a chemist himself who was a contemporary of Pauling. A man whose passion of research inspired his son to pursue science, attaining achievements from an Eagle Scout chemistry badge to the Nobel Prize.  With both awards, the younger Agre accepted them in the presence of his own family.

Agre mentioned that the public view of scientists was one of "nerds in lab coats." But scientists are people, too.  They have families and hobbies and tragedies and triumphs.  They innovate and apply the Scientific Method, but such innovations and inspirations were shaped by those relationships and life stories. Just as science influences society, so too do social networks, histories, and loved ones influence the women and men behind science.