Polar bears are one of many creatures in danger of extinction that have contributed to medical reearch. (Credit: Museum of Science)
SUSTAINING LIFE: A CONVERSATION
Museum of Science, Boston/Cahners Theater
Friday, October 3, at 7:00 p.m.
— by Joseph Caputo
In 1992, the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School began a massive, international effort under the direction of Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist and author Eric Chivian to catalog “what was known about how other species contribute to human health.” The result is “Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity,” a 568-page tomb of scientific research recounting the numerous medical advances acquired through our study of other species. This Friday at the Museum of Science, Chivian will have a public discussion about biodiversity and health with world-renowned research scientist Edward O. Wilson. Moderating the event will be Noel Michele “Missy” Holbrook, the Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry and Professor of Biology at Harvard University, who shared some of her thoughts on the book with Science Metropolis.
Q: WHAT QUESTIONS DO YOU WANT TO ADDRESS AS MODERATOR?
A: As moderator I will try to put voice to questions that the audience will have. One of the reasons I have adopted the book for my course is that it has so many examples of how the pursuit of knowledge can change the way we act in the world. I think that’s what both Drs. Wilson and Chivian have come to symbolize in their lifes’ work – helping people see these connections and then take the next steps. I’m going to try to provoke them to really elaborate on those themes in their own experiences with biological diversity and value.
Q: WHAT ACTIONS ARE THESE SCIENTISTS TAKING ON THIS ISSUE ASIDE FROM PUBLISHING BOOKS?
A: I think both Drs. Wilson and Chivianc do a large amount of going beyond the ivory tower, whether going to world leaders and decision makers at every level. Both have been very active in the last year reaching out to the religious right with a shared interest in biological diversity. Both are very involved in helping to recognize we have a common reason for preserving biodiversity.
Q: WHAT IS DR. CHIVIAN’S ROLE IN THIS RESEARCH?
A: He carries a great deal of respect in part becase he’s able to effectively communicate the value of biological diversity in ways that matter. We invite him to give a guest lecture to my intro course each year in part because he resonates with students. I think it’s partly that he’s a strong voice from within the medical community that he really stands out and does a great service for the general public.
Q. WHAT DO YOUR STUDENTS THINK OF THE BOOK?
A: They have not read it yet, so it is very hard fro me to comment on that. It is a handsome and affordable book with lovely illustrations and a very fine layout. The goal was to get it into the hands of a wide audience, including students. I think knowledge is empowering and I think this is a good question: What is the value of biological diversity? I like the title because we depend on the health of our planet, food system, and ourselves – all of these things are intertwined.
Q: YOU STUDY PLANT BIOLOGY. ARE THERE ANY EXAMPLES OF PLANTS AFFECTING HUMAN HEALTH?
A: There are quite a few examples. Plants are the great biochemists of our planet. The cure for malaria came from a tree. Aspirin was originally isolated from the bark of a willow tree. A lot of cancer drugs also come from plants.
Q: WHAT DO YOU WANT THE AUDIENCE TO TAKE AWAY FROM FRIDAY’S EVENT?
A: We’re at a very serious juncture at the history of Earth for a potential large amount of biological diversity to go extinct. Quite a serious topic, so I hope people come away thinking there is hope, they can work in partnership with academics, and that it’s a shared endeavour that matters to them.
How to Get Tickets: Tickets for this program may be purchased by phone at 617/723-2500 or online at www.mos.org/adults. Seating is limited. Advance purchase is strongly recommended.