January 07, 2007

A Hot and Cold Running Genius:
Glenn McGee on MacArthur Fellow Eva Harris

From this month's issue of The Scientist:
Eva Harris won the MacArthur "genius grant" in 1997 for plenty of reasons. As a Pew Scholar in 2001, her bench work on the molecular virology and pathogenesis of dengue virus - specifically, the determinants for viral transmission - was tied purposefully to developing the epidemiological capacity of scientists in developing countries. Harris has helped many aspiring scientists in the developing world. They learn from her to create and sustain programs of bench science "on the cheap." And sometimes, it bears fruit in vaccines and even the promise of translating what might look like rudimentary science into the promise of a cure for the predominant arthropod-borne disease in the world.

Harris' genius, though, is in bioethics, although I find no record that she has ever used the term in her work. That's perhaps not surprising, given how much time bioethics seems to spend on "bad" scientists. I'm ready to tar Harris with the label "ethicist" because of her compulsive goodness. She can't seem to avoid fixating on "the cash value" of her work, and by that I do not mean the literal value she might have extracted from her most noteworthy accomplishment to date - the development of A Low Cost Approach to PCR: Appropriate Transfer of Biomedical Techniques - which brought DNA amplification to labs that could never have used it otherwise. No, for William James, who coined the term as part of the truly American philosophy of pragmatism, cash value was the cornerstone of ethical science: Science is good, he and John Dewey opined, when it works. Activism on behalf of vulnerable scientists and endangered people is just the sort of translation that scientists in training can point to as ethical genius.

Today Harris runs the Sustainable Sciences Institute in San Francisco, a nonprofit she began with the money awarded through her McArthur prize. The Institute teaches scientists what she calls "knowledge-based" technology transfer. So for DNA amplification, instead of $100 for silica particles, she teaches scientists in the developing world to begin with "a 20-pound bag of ceramic dust for $5 at the hobby store," and thermocycling based on ice, Bunsen burners, and somebody holding a thermometer. A device that costs $10,000 in even its most rudimentary form in the developed world is suddenly within reach of scientists whose entire programs would otherwise be impossible...

[Read the Rest of the Article]

Labels: , , , , ,

View blog reactions

| More