One of the most pressing tasks for scientists of any era is the reconciliation of research with the public good. This call must be answered both socially, by an understandable dialogue between academia and society, and cautiously, with a careful eye on the relevance of our work.
Socially, science speaks its own language. Today’s scientific papers are filled with blocks of esoteric acronyms as arcane as ancient runes. Even when scientists do emerge from their labs, it is to attend conferences where ideas are bounced back and forth in a hurricane of complexity. My proposal is that science needs a storyteller. A picture just distills the thousand words; instead we should dress the words up and send it out with a pretty little bow. Due to my research, several of my friends have taken to calling me ‘the corn guy’. At first, the name bothered me, but I’ve learned that the jokiness of the moniker actually offers an opportunity to speak candidly about my science.
At the center of my research is a mutant line of corn named tassel-less4. Growing among rows of towering maize stalks, the gnarled leaves and twisted flowers stand out. Against the reddish soil, they are a jarring stroke of green by a dubious brush. A question naturally arises. ‘How could this runt of a plant possibly benefit society?’ Some nights, I do worry. After a night of staring at leaves under a microscope, a breath of doubt floats into my head. However, these thoughts reliably prompt my own reading and investigation.
Three grasses: corn, wheat, and rice provide one half of all human calorie consumption. This is an oft-repeated fact that, by now, draws consistent eye-rolls from the community. It is a fact nonetheless. Trying to understand how to better grow corn is then an obvious endeavor in the quest to eliminate hunger. The idea behind forward genetics (our research approach and the cause of all these mutants) is that the best way to figure out how something works is by breaking it. Each mutant breaks a different part of the plant – a missing leaf, an unexpected flower. Each puzzle piece is an ugly, indiscernible abstraction, but together they form a whole and familiar picture.