The Scientific Activist

Each week, Seed magazine poses a question to all of its ScienceBloggers. This week’s question, from reader Jake Bryan, is:

Assuming that time and money were not obstacles, what area of scientific research, outside of your own discipline, would you most like to explore? Why?

My current work is in protein structure, but there are plenty of other scientific areas that I’d like to explore. Based solely on scientific interest, I would have to go with behavioral genetics. The field of genetics really came into its own in the second half of the 20th Century and captured the imaginations of people across the globe through the Human Genome Project. However, a molecular understanding of the brain and behavior still remains elusive and will probably be the final frontier of genetics. How we think and how we behave serve as the foundations of to the human experience, and I find the idea of understanding these aspects of humanity at the most fundamental scientific level absolutely fascinating.

Within the broader field of behavioral genetics, I’m particularly interested in two different areas. One is the genetic basis of communal behavior (there’s a great book on the subject by Matt Ridley, entitled The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation). Since the idea of organisms working together complicates the simple view of evolution as driven purely by self-interest, a more thorough understanding of this area is important to the advance of evolutionary biology and even sociology. Also, I think what we will learn in this area will give more credibility to many of the basic progressive liberal ideals about how societies are much stronger when we all work together.

The other subfield of behavioral genetics that I’m interested in has more to do with physiological psychology and the drive to understand how we think. Although a full mechanical understanding of the molecular mechanisms behind human thought could seem slightly dehumanizing, I don’t think we should shy away from it. In fact, I think it would give us a much more enlightened perspective on how we fit into the broad scheme of things.

However, my choice might be different if I was choosing an alternative career based on, say, how fun it would be. My first choice there would be an astronaut. Honestly, it wouldn’t even matter what specific area of space or planetary science I would be studying. I mean, come on! Who doesn’t want to go into space?!

There are probably some good compromise fields out there as well. For example, I think one of my organic chemistry TAs had it figured out pretty well. Although her research was in basic chemistry, she also occasionally got to go scuba diving to collect various biochemicals from marine life. That doesn’t sound too bad….