Science vs. Science Fiction
Editor's Note: We culled your questions from this blog, Facebook, and Tumblr for this week's questions. See Cosima's responses below and be sure to submit your own! From "cosima-geekmonkey-niehaus": Are there any science topics or avenues that have yet to be explored on the show that you would want the team to incorporate into the story? What has been the most challenging aspect of the science as far as combining reality with science fiction? What has been the most rewarding aspect of being OB’s science consultant? I love how much of a role model you and the fictional Cosima are to us women in science. What does that mean to you? Cosima: There are so many avenues that we could explore! But only so many minutes in an episode! The writers who I have the great good fortune to work with have done a marvelous job weaving an incredible amount of information into the scripts in weird and wonderfully provocative ways that I’m not really wishing for "more." I didn’t grow up in a television-watching household, and, in fact, only intermittently throughout my childhood was there even a TV in my home to be watched! Moreover, I’ve never actually owned a television in my entire adult life. So until very recently my personal relationship with television viewing had been extremely limited (I’ve since consumed an extraordinary amount of television over the last four years just trying to catch up!). As a result one of the most challenging things for me as a consultant was to overcome a naïveté about how television narratives are constructed, and what kind of information is conducive to being translated into (hopefully, exciting and interesting) television fiction. My scholarly training is in the history and philosophy of science and technology, so in consulting I try to bring into focus how science is socially and politically situated throughout time. A lot of our conversations in the writers' room revolve around trying to make sense of these issues. Much of what I bring to the writers' room involves presenting and discussing contemporary scientific research and discoveries, but also offering philosophical discussions about the sociopolitical consequences, and possibilities, of scientific research and discovery. However, it’s an extremely tricky process to translate complex ideas, scientific facts, and processes into, for example, a minute long dialogue between two or more characters. Naturally much nuance and, in some cases, scientific and historical accuracy is necessarily sacrificed in order to facilitate a smooth story. But one of the benefits of science fiction is that we can make some of the facts much more plastic than reality would permit! What I’ve found most challenging, however, is learning how to present technical and otherwise complex information in such a way that it can be creatively inspiring, not simply understandable and useable to the writers. It’s a very different kind of thinking and teaching than I’ve become used to after so many years in academia. So, having to develop a different framework for curating and communicating facts and ideas to be used as creative fodder has demanded that I unlearn a lot of conventional pedagogy. This has also been one of the most rewarding aspects. Witnessing the ideas and issues I’m most passionate about being woven into a television narrative and communicated to such a broad spectrum of interested people has been amazing! I get to learn from and participate in conversations with so many people all over the world as a result. It’s a wonderful, mind-blowing experience to be involved with and to be inspired by so many creative and critically thinking people. From"sunsetsovercitylights": Favorite science fact? Cosima: Evolution. It’s a fact. From "cossima": What exactly happened with Cosima in the timespan between [episodes] 212 and 301 that gave her so much energy? She’s practically cured… Cosima: That’s the million-dollar question isn’t it?! You’ll have to keep watching to find out! From “geekspiralling": What is a typical work day like in the life of a badass, brilliant, and inspiring OB science consultant like yourself? Walk us through the process. Has this unique role made you interested in pursuing more roles like this. Perhaps on other shows/movies? Cosima: Not nearly as glamorous as you might think! It mostly involves an enormous amount of reading and researching, corresponding with other scholars and thinkers, keeping strange hours, and loads of agonizing over how to articulate ideas. Basically, when I’m working a lot I become a complete shut-in who ought to shower more often, and could really benefit from a decent haircut and a social life. I also eat a lot of gummy bear-type candy throughout the day. From “cosimasratio”: The character of Cosima Niehaus inspired me so much to really appreciate and cultivate my love for science, and now I’m seriously considering studying some sort of science when I go to college in two years. How does it feel to know that you’ve made such an impact, and what would be your advice for a young girl wanting to enter the field of science? Cosima: This is an incredibly humbling and meaningful thing to to hear. I certainly didn’t set out to have that kind of impact. What I most hoped for was just to be involved in a kind of great big "conversation" about ideas and issues that I feel strongly about in very personal and political ways. What you may not realize is that I am constantly and continually inspired by how interested so many people are in the kinds of issues we’ve tried to present and be provocative with. The Conversation goes both ways! It’s astonishing how generous you’ve all been not simply as fans but as thinkers, artists, and courageous individuals who have offered so much of yourselves! My words really can’t do justice with how irrevocably I’ve been impacted by you. I’m deeply passionate about both science and the arts. I truly believe that to be a critical and creative thinker one must consider how both fields mutually influence and impact each other, and allow oneself to experience a diverse way of thinking about the world and one’s place within it. I don’t revere the scientific disciplines more than I do any of the so-called liberal arts—poetry, history, music, theater, film, philosophy, etc. If I were to offer any advice I’d encourage you to be curious about everything, to throw your net wide at first, experience as much as you can, and explore many different kinds of subjects until you encounter something that really turns you on! Often people will enter college with what seems like a very clear idea of what they want to study, but then will most certainly be exposed to so many new subjects and ideas that they couldn’t have even imagined! For me, there were a lot of twists and turns in the road, and it took many, many years to figure out what I feel most passionate about. I started out my undergraduate years as an aspiring math student, but then I discovered philosophy and the history of science—neither of which I really expected I’d find myself in love with! But I’m a romantic in a certain kind of way in that I’ve never given up the belief that pursuing what one loves and finds intellectually enriching will pay off in the end. Wanna Know More? Cosima: One field of research I am most fascinated with these days has to do with genetic engineering—more specifically gene editing, and in particular, recent discoveries and developments in the “revolutionary” and ethically controversial CRISPR/Cas genome-editing system. Maybe you’ve heard the reports in the last week that scientists in China have recently figured out a way to modify the genomes of human embryos in such a way that those modifications themselves can be inherited. This has been achieved by applying discoveries about CRISPRs (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). To understand better what these are, and what is involved, here are some very good, easily accessible articles and videos to help you explore the science and politics involved: HERE is an excellent explanation and discussion by one of my favorite science journalists regarding the what the CRISPR system is, and it’s discovery, uses, and potential issues involved. For a more technical explanation, HERE's a short video narrated by the scientist whose lab has spearheaded the discoveries, Jennifer A. Doudna, Ph.D., Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. CRISPR technologies have allowed scientists some of the most efficient and effective genome editing possibilities in history, and with that comes an increasing responsibility to keep front and center the potential dangers and ethical consequences. An excellent and brief summary HERE. Very much like the scientists who were involved in recombinant DNA research in the 1970s who worried about the consequences of their research, scientists today have also called for a moratorium on CRISPR research until we can better understand what potential dangers it may pose. Here are two articles that explain why: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/20/science/biologists-call-for-halt-to-gene-editing-technique-in-humans.html?_r=0 http://www.nature.com/news/don-t-edit-the-human-germ-line-1.17111 And finally, read about the reported success of genetically modifying the human germ line HERE.