Come Together, Right Now, Over Science

No one can solve the big problems alone. In biology and medicine, humanity's path forward will come from global collaborations.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

“Biology and medicine are really, really tough problems. If you could solve these by being smart and working hard by yourself, we would have solved them already. It’s hard to think of a single biological discovery or a single medical cure that was done only by one person working alone.”

Neurobiological engineer Edward Boyden, associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at the MIT McGovern Institute, collaborates with around 100 research groups around the world. These multi-disciplinary partnerships help him solve big problems in human health.

Getting the right people together is a big part of building success, and assembling the ideal team takes work and preparation.

“Biology and medicine require serendipity,” says Boyden. “You have to be willing to go out and look for luck. And so one of the things I teach my students is how to, if you will, engineer your luck. Can you be deliberately lucky?”

Boyden calls this strategy ‘architecting’, and it relies on putting together a chain of people who each tackle different aspects of a problem.

“The ability to look at a problem from many perspectives is key,” adds Boyden. “If somebody is an expert at a problem, but they don’t know how to solve it, and another person is an engineer who can solve problems but they don’t know what the big problems are, they naturally want to work together, because that’s how you have more impact.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by his fellow Gairdner Award laureates Christopher Murray, professor of public health at the University of Washington, and Alan Lopez, professor of population and global health at the University of Melbourne.

Murray and Lopez are co-founders of the Global Burden of Disease metric, and they also have many international collaborations that enable standardized measurements of human health so they can be compared by location and across time.

Murray believes that the global nature of his collaborations are not just key to gathering and understanding information, but also to getting local people to actually adopt new behaviours.

“The most important step of that process is for people in each country to understand the data, the methods, and the results, and to really own them — to be a co-owner of them,” says Murray.

“Two or three weeks ago, our collaborative team in India published I think six analyses around the Burden of Disease by state, and it was the front page of every major Indian newspaper. You had the government saying, this is really important and we’re going to act on this. That model of co-ownership is, I think, the right model, and we’re going to keep investing and building that collaboration.”

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