Friday, May 8, 2009

On the Road

No, this isn't a book title blog that refers to Jack Kerouac's famous hippie cult book (seemed great at the time!). It's because it has been a slow news day, with no miraculous claims being made in the science pages, not even very much murder and mayhem in the world. So I [Ken] have been trying to put together a talk, as I'm about to go on the road to various places in the next couple of months, to speak to some audiences who will be forced to listen to me expostulating about the state of affairs in genetics today, and how things biological got to be the way they are.

The first talk, next week, will be in Calgary, in Alberta, Canada, where I've been invited to give the 2009 Bea Fowlow Lecture to the Dept of Medical Genetics. My talk will basically be to a medical audience, but I also have a friend and colleague there, who's a biological anthropologist, multifaceted life-science author and editor, and workaholic administrator (named Benedikt Halgrimsson). He struggles, as we do here, with the problem of understanding the dimensionality, and underlying genetic basis, of craniofacial morphology. So there are a lot of unanswered questions to talk about.

Giving this lecture is a real honor....but it's intimidating! Not because Canadians are likely to be hostile (though they are hockey players). It's because they might expect me to have the answers--about what to do next in genetics! Unfortunately for all concerned, there's gonna be a lot of disappointment! Because the landscape in genetics, as we try to discuss in this blog, is at once fascinating, and frustrating: sometimes it seems we have such incredible powers to find things from DNA sequence to developmental process and how they can go awry in disease. And just when we think we have the answers in hand....they slip complexly through our fingers.

Academics like to bring in speakers to talk. Going to a talk has the appearance of real work, but gets a person out of the office. And there are often free refreshments, too. Talks largely are a kind of vapor-ware, though, since the next day, almost no matter what the speaker says, it's back to work as usual. Even in genetics, where a lot of us are hungering for better ideas, it's hard to shift research momentum. So, unlike Kerouac's travels, which were a lark, a ride into freedom, this one feels more like a trap!

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