Wanted: patrons of science

By Kristina Meek
November 19, 2012

Science and art have a lot in common. That was the clear conclusion drawn by a panel of experts at the world-renowned La Jolla Playhouse on November 11, at an event titled The Art in Science/The Science in Art. Collaboration, the willingness to take risks, and the making of what one panelist called “intuitive leaps” all rose to the fore as shared traits. Although perhaps the most significant thing the two disciplines have in common, they realized, is the ongoing need for funding.

“You hear a lot about patrons of the arts,” remarked Sanford-Burnham adjunct faculty member Dr. Pamela Itkin-Ansari. “I think we also need more patrons of science.” Based on their enthusiastic applause, the audience agreed.

Dr. Itkin-Ansari, a leading type 1 diabetes researcher, was joined on the panel by Christopher Ashley, artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse, Dr. Thomas D. Albright, professor and director of the Vision Center Laboratory at the Salk Institute, Dr. Santiago Horgan, professor of surgery at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and Dr. Gerald F. Joyce, professor and investigator of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at The Scripps Research Institute. Dr. Daniel Einhorn, clinical professor of medicine at UC San Diego, moderated.

Because La Jolla—in particular, the Torrey Pines Mesa area, where Sanford-Burnham has its headquarters—is a hotbed of both science and the arts, this meeting of the minds seemed long overdue. (Organizers hope to turn it into an ongoing series of events.) The impetus for this gathering was the mounting of a new stage musical at the Playhouse, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The show, in the making for more than 10 years, is being heralded as a spectacular marriage of theatre and technology.

“We’ve always had a relationship with science and technology in the theatre,” said Des McAnuff, Tony Award-winning director of Yoshimi, opening the evening’s discussion. He then had to excuse himself to go meet with songwriter Wayne Coyne about the matinee preview performance that had just concluded, to iron out any problems or possible changes to the show. Like a science experiment, a new play evolves under the collaborative hands of experts from various disciplines.

Collaboration, in fact, became a theme of the discussion. Some panelists credit the beauty found in architecture or in the natural environment as a strong positive influence on their work. The Torrey Pines Mesa, Dr. Itkin-Ansari observed, places a dense pool of talented individuals in a naturally beautiful setting conducive to creative interaction. She jokes, “I almost didn’t become a scientist because I was afraid I’d be working alone in a basement.”

What the audience heard was that inspiration is alive and well in La Jolla. Dr. Itkin-Ansari is developing an implantable device that can shield insulin-producing beta cells from the immune system, as a means to treat type 1 (juvenile) diabetes. Dr. Horgan was the first surgeon to remove a person’s appendix with no incision—through the patient’s mouth. These are just some of the examples of the startling possibilities science holds, if we can keep it funded.

An audience member pointed out that, while supporting science is often compared to investing, it’s actually about making many small bets rather than one large, sensational one. Dr. Itkin-Ansari agreed, saying, “It’s taken hundreds of scientists 40 years of studying the pancreas to get us to the translational stage of diabetes research.”

It was agreed that significant findings take long-range thinking and long-range support. Like any bet, a bet on science has risks. “We need to be able to fail,” asserted Dr. Joyce. In other words, not all bets pay off, but in order to get to the successes, one must have the courage to try new things.

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Kristina Meek

Kristina was an SBP Communications staff member.


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