Science Question Time on Convergence and Singularity a Triumph / by Tina Woods

An incredible Science Question Time event, “Breaking Down the Walls in Scientific Thinking- Convergence in Science and Engineering Opens up New Ideas for the Future”,  was held at Kings College Wimbledon on 19th November.  Over 200 tickets were sold to an enthusiastic audience of students, parents and the wider community, going far beyond expectations,  both in terms of interest to attend and the great engagement we had as evidenced by the number of questions we had in the end.

Dr Anjana Ahuja, award winning science journalist, did a magnificent job in chairing the event, bringing energy, knowledge and humour to keep up the tempo and engage the audience. 

First, Anj read out the message of support from Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Director of the Francis Crick Institute, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2001: ‘I am sorry I cannot be at this event but I am very pleased to see that its focus is on exploring the connections between the different scientific disciplines to spur new thinking in many important areas of our lives. For many of you about to pursue science GCSEs, A levels and IB, you may see science as a lot of facts you need to learn to do well in your exams, but scientific discovery is a creative pursuit that starts with asking many questions. The innovations we see every day come from the intense, creative collaboration between scientists across many specialties, blurring the lines between biology, physics and chemistry.   This is driving developments in areas as diverse as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and computational sciences that are revolutionising our understanding of disease and changing the face of healthcare.’

Dr Simon Schultz, Director at the Centre for Neurotechnology, Imperial College left the audience in wonder at how fluorescence borrowed from nature can be harnessed to understand neural activity and mechanisms of disease such as in Alzheimer’s.   This is a field known as optogenetics which holds much promise to unravel the complexities behind disorders in the brain and to develop new treatments.

Dr Chris Forman, Nanobiophysicist at Cambridge University, took the audience through a journey of natural nanotechnology with panache, first explaining the “central dogma”, describing how DNA provides the biological manufacturing platform to drive applications in all sorts of areas at the cellular level right through to the macro level.  He left the audience pondering how this fundamental appreciation of biological manufacturing may help to solve innumerable challenges like how best to recycle, prevent food from running out and develop renewable energy.

Dr Lena Ciric, a microbiologist at the Faculty of Engineering Science, UCL, explored the fascinating world of bacteria and engaged the audience on her professional journey which started with using microbes to help with oil clean-ups and develop antibacterial mouthwash; in her quest to do more on the global worries over antimicrobial resistance she is now focussed on applying engineering technologies to design healthy buildings.

Dr Sabine Hauert, Lecturer in Robotics at Bristol University, enthralled the audience with her incredible work applying swam behaviour (found in nature with bees and birds for example) to nanoparticles and using the power of the crowd to design applications as diverse as killing cancerous cells to cleaning up oil spills.  She works with, a non-profit online communication platform that brings together experts in robotics research, start-ups, business, and education from across the globe, and demoed their NanoDoc game which allows bioengineers and the general public to imagine and crowdsource new nanoparticle strategies towards the treatment of cancer.

And, finally, Professor Paul Freemont,  co-director of the EPSRC Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovations and the National UK Innovation and Knowledge Centre for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College London, opened our minds to a number of ‘what if’ scenarios: for example, what if we could design cities with naturally bioluminescent treesto reduce the need to light our cities?   He then went on to describe how cells can be viewed as programmable “factories” picking up on the central dogma theory from Chris’ talk to expand on the power of the ‘living operating system’  to design limitless synthetic biology applications to solve major global challenges.

The questions form the audience were diverse and inspired, starting first with which scientists had watched the film ‘Ex Machina’  a sci fi exploration of the concept of singularity, delving into humankind's experiments with artificial intelligence-   followed by the question, what would happen when manmade machines started getting smarter than humans?  Simon responded first, saying that while it would be possible to scan the human brain and upload the information on a computer, this will take time to figure out due to the complexity of information storage in the brain.

Next, a question on how can we make sure that a scientific divide does not grow between the “haves” (the scientific elite) and the “have nots” (the less well educated, or less empowered citizens).  Lena admitted this was an ongoing challenge which she tries to address in her head of outreach at UCL and Chris stepped in with his concept of the “virtuous policy circle”, harnessing people power to create pressure on governments to change policy.

Simon interjected his views on the importance of education to reach communities and communicate how science and technology together are changing the world and impacting our lives in many areas, including our jobs. Paul concluded that we need to make technology accessible, and with the power of citizen science can create a movement where technology can be shared- this is starting to happen with “hackspaces” and “DIY Labs” for example.

The next question asked whether armed with the knowledge of DNA that we have today- can we not use shortcuts to go straight to biology rather than nanobiology to design applications.  This set the scene for Anj, the Chair, to ask the panellists- where do you predict will be the most exciting developments ahead?

Chris answered that you can use shortcuts and cited the example of start-ups that use bacteria to create silk- for example, Spiber have created silk using synthesised genes which coax bacteria to produce fibroin, a structural protein found in spider silk- this spider silk is at least five times stronger than steel, more flexible than nylon and three times stronger than body armour.  Simon then cited the potential of using synthetic silk as a "flexible, biocompatible waveguide" to pipe light into the body (for optogenetics).

Lena said that developments in renewable energy with biofuels was where she would put her money, whereas Sabine felt that leaps in understanding of the biology of tumours was driving significant developments in personalised medicine. Paul said that if he had any money to invest, it would be in companies specialising in DNA synthesis and computational design, designing biological systems and devising new materials, biosensors and drugs.

Chris added that he felt the biggest impact ahead would come from machine learning and pattern recognition.  Simon added that keeping people alive for longer by tackling neurodegenerative diseases was also a very exciting area, but that more money was needed for research.  This spurred the next question on the issue of funding scientific research- this time on the global challenge of superbugs resistant to all antibiotics.  Lena explained the challenges of incentivising pharmaceutical companies to invest in this type of research (drugs required for chronic diseases tend to get the lion’s share of investment) and Paul added that the Wellcome Trust and other groups were funding this research in recognition of the severity of the global problem.  Anj cited a recent report by an economist that looked at the scale of the problem from a macro economic perspective.  Finally Chris volunteered some ‘disruptive’ ideas, using nanotechology and physical approaches to interfere with viral cycles.

Questions on robotics and fracking followed (the general consensus amongst scientists was to look for alternatives to fossil fuels) and ending finally on the penultimate question- will we ever be able to design a new species to which Paul answered enthusiastically with a resounding YES!

Throughout, Anj asked personal questions of the scientists on their personal journeys of discovery – Simon’s interest in science started from building circuits, Chris’ fascination began with the constellations of the night sky and his first viewing of ORION in his telescope, Lena’s low point in her scientific career was completing her PhD, Sabine’s advice to other would-be scientists is to follow your passion, and Paul said if he weren’t a scientist the only other option would have been to become a mountaineer (relishing the solitude and reflection you can have in the mountains).

Overall, a key theme running through everything was one of constant questioning and being prepared to fail- science is an art in persistence.