Blog Post - Technology and Policy

Why Study the Life Sciences?

| June 26, 2015

Today is a special day, not only because you are graduating, but also because you are entering the community of life scientists. Why pursue the life sciences? The pursuit of any scientific endeavor is noble, but the life sciences are particularly special. There are obvious practical reasons that the life sciences are valuable. The study of the life sciences lends important insights into disease processes, and allows the development of novel therapeutics and innovative medical devices, thereby directly improving human health. The life sciences also enable an understanding of the environment and the other living species with whom we share the earth; this knowledge guides conservation efforts and literally helps us to save our shared planet.

Yet there are deeper reasons for studying the life sciences. The life sciences empower us to answer fundamental questions about ourselves – Where did we come from? What are we made of? What is the basis for the miracle of our existence? What is our place in the natural world, in the tree of life? Walking in the Maine woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?” Thoreau was a great naturalist, and he realized that the life sciences reveal the truth of our existence; the life sciences shine a light on our real identities, so that we discover our true reality.

Through the life sciences, we have learned that we all part of the human family, sharing the same basic genetic material. Indeed, we are not just the stuff that dreams are made on, we are the stuff that DNA is made on. We share the same molecular building blocks, derived from the same star dust. Moreover, the living species that surround us are not only our companions on earth, but also our ancestors. If science is the search for truth, then there are no greater truths than these. In fact, the life sciences provide the most powerful arguments we have, for the most important issues of our society, issues such as social justice, environmental preservation, animal protection, world peace, and fundamental human rights.

It is precisely for these reasons that the life sciences draws in knowledge-seekers and truth-seekers from diverse backgrounds. Because the life sciences reveal such central truths, the best scientific and engineering minds in history, regardless of discipline, eventually turn their attention to the biological sciences. For instance, the prodigious engineer, architect, and painter Leonardo da Vinci, gained formal training in the anatomy of the human body, studying the muscles and tendons, and laying the foundations for modern biomechanics. The brilliant chemist Linus Pauling, once he had elucidated the nature of the chemical bond and introduced the concept of orbital hybridization and founded quantum chemistry, subsequently sought to determine the nature of biological molecules such as proteins; he wanted to know the structure of hemoglobin, the molecule coursing through our blood vessels. His findings laid the groundwork for molecular biology and molecular genetics. Even the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger, after making ground-breaking discoveries in quantum theory and formulating the wave equation and winning a Nobel Prize for Physics, ultimately pursued the life sciences, looking at biological phenomena from the point of view of physics. In his book entitled, “What is Life?” Schrodinger asked, “How can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?” Indeed, all roads lead to the biological sciences.

Throughout my own education, I have felt the pull of the life sciences. In fact, the renowned chemical engineer and National Academy of Engineering member John M. Prausnitz has noted, “If engineering is the application of science for human benefit, then the engineer must be a student not only of the application of science, but of human benefit as well.” Now that I teach biomedical engineering undergraduates at Harvard, I rely on my life sciences background to train students in quantitative physiology, tissue engineering, and drug delivery. At every step of my career, my knowledge of life sciences has opened up a new world, giving me a unique way of solving problems.

So graduates, you should always be proud of your decision to study the life sciences; it is an honorable and relevant pursuit; the world needs you now, more than ever. Never forget the inspiration that drove you to study the life sciences in the first place. Your own life will be filled with challenges, ones that you cannot even anticipate now. But if you always remember that childlike sense of wonder that inspired your love of biology, you will never be lost. Instead of running a road race with others, look out into the forest, look out into the field, take in the entire landscape, look inside at yourself, and then beat your own path through the grass and leaves and trees; then you’re only racing against yourself. Project your sense of service and your love of biological science outward to others, but let your sense of achievement and success be guided by your own internal compass. Finally, wherever you go and whatever you do, never forget that you have the power to bring about positive change in the world. Congratulations.

This post is drawn from Sujata Bhatia’s commencement speech at the University of Delaware Department of Biological Sciences.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bhatia, Sujata.Why Study the Life Sciences?.” Technology and Policy, June 26, 2015, http://www.belfercenter.org/publication/why-study-life-sciences.

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