Science touches every corner of the world and every aspect of our lives. It impacts the air we breathe and the food we eat. It informs policy and fuels our economy. It is at the heart of ideas and inventions that save lives and make the world a better place.
In a world where ideas, beliefs, and opinions find a global audience with the click of a button, evidence-based science has never been so important. Yet many Americans don’t know a single scientist, and don’t understand just how important it is to nurture a culture of scientific inquiry.
A recent Story Collider event at the Oberon in Cambridge, hosted by Blueprint Medicines, put a human face on scientific innovation. During the event, five brave men and women shared personal narratives — stories of celebration, of loss, of hope, and of inspiration. By highlighting their unique contributions to science, and the role that science has had on their lives, each of these storytellers demonstrated that science is everywhere, and that it touches all of us.
“Science is 99-percent failure,” says Megan Hatlen, the evening’s first storyteller. “Which is slightly horrifying – especially if you’re a scientist.” And six years into her PhD program, Megan was staring failure in the face.
Her quest to find a specific mutation that cooperates with a fusion protein to create cancer cells was going nowhere, which meant she wasn’t even close to graduating. And her wife, Jess, had put her own career on hold waiting. “I couldn’t ignore the fact that our life together hinged on me making a discovery in a field that has a 99% failure rate,” she says.
But for Megan, success would require more than good science. Winning the battle would mean fighting self-doubt and believing in herself, even in the face of terrible odds.
Megan finally found that magic mutation, at 2:00 am in an abandoned lab. Staring at her monitor, watching cells divide after six long years of trying, she realized that she would, at long last, graduate. “I’ve always believed in you,” Jess told her when she arrived home that night to share the news. And finally, Megan could say that she believed in herself, too.
Hear Megan’s story:
Klaus Hoeflich’s tale begins with a hand-written letter from a 21-year-old girl battling melanoma. It was 2009, and Klaus worked for Genentech, where he was researching an early treatment for the disease. “She wrote about what her disease had taken away from her,” Klaus says. “And then (said) that by taking our medicine, some of those things had been returned to her. Very rarely does a patient reach out to scientists who are not forward facing. We were elated.”
But that elation was tempered by harsh reality: the research team was seeing signs of resistance to their new drug. “We first study efficacy, and then we turn that whole thing around and study resistance,” Klaus says. “We suspected that (for this drug) resistance might occur quickly.”
Sadly, there’s no fairy tale ending to Klaus’s story: the girl never wrote again, and Klaus will never know if she survived. But what he does know is that her simple words changed his life. “She taught (me) that our work is not just important, but also urgent,” he says. “I’ve come to learn that science can be a noble profession.”
Hear Klaus’ story:
“I met my mom at the Baltimore train station,” says Mike Huckman at the start of his story. “Not my ‘mom mom,’ but the woman who gave birth to me.” That reunion, when Mike was 18, marked the beginning of a journey to discover the intersection of biology and destiny.
As Mike got to know his mother, who everyone called Bobbi, he learned that she had dedicated her life to advocating for open adoption, and made a career out of reuniting adoptees with their biological parents. It was a vocation and a passion close to her heart, but one that eventually landed her in hot water.
“One of the key methods Bobbi would use to gain crucial information… is she’d pretend to be somebody she wasn’t,” Mike says. “One biological family… alerted the Feds.” Bobbi served three months in a halfway house, but she also found herself on national television making a case for open adoption.
But for Mike, the most amazing part of his story is a coincidence that made him a true believer in fate and destiny. On April 10, 1980, Mike’s adoptive grandmother died of cancer in California. He learned from Bobbi that on the exact same day, his biological grandfather, 3,000 miles away, lost his battle with the same disease. “They died within hours of each other,” Mike says. “On the same day. If I had been with my biological family in Baltimore, or my adoptive family in Los Angeles, I would have lost a grandparent.”
“There is a lot in our genes,” Mike says. “But I think we have to think about what is written in the stars.”
Hear Mike’s story:
How do you respond when not one, but two of your young children are diagnosed with a devastating, terminal disease? Pat Furlong was faced with that terrible choice, when in 1984 she learned that her sons Christopher and Patrick, ages six and four, had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
“I thought to myself, ‘I have to cure this’,” Pat says. “I just have to fix it.” Since then, she’s dedicated her life to fighting a disease few were interested in studying — or funding. It’s a journey that involved — among other things – a $100,000 bank loan, impersonating a medical student to get in front of researchers, and countless doors slammed in her face.
But finally, Pat’s perseverance paid off: gene therapy pioneers French Anderson and Michael Blaese heard her story, and galvanized the research community. Today, hundreds of millions of dollars have been committed to studying Duchenne, and people with the disease are living longer than ever before.
“No family will go to their friendly doctor and hear there’s no hope or no help,” Pat says when reflecting on three decades of tireless work. “They will hear … there is a life you will lead and it will be a good one. You will be here for a long time and reach your dreams.”
Hear Pat’s story:
Steve Wenglowsky will never forget the day his mother told him she’d been diagnosed with cancer. “It’s a pretty ordinary thing to hear,” he says, “(but) it’s awful, because it’s your mom.” And her doctors were recommending she wait a year before pursing treatment, which made things even worse.
But her particular diagnosis, gastrointestinal stromal tumors, or GIST, came with two hopeful twists: Steve happened to work as a cancer drug researcher, and his company was led by one of the world’s foremost authorities on GIST. “All of a sudden, I knew there was something I could actually do for her.” With the support of his colleague, Steve introduced his mother to another GIST expert, who became her doctor. A short time later, the tumor was successfully removed, and before long Steve’s mother was back in her yard mowing the lawn.
It was the kind of happy ending that everyone hopes for, but just the beginning of a longer journey for Steve. “It’s easy to reduce (cancer) to a puzzle or a problem to solve,” he says. “But on the day when you realize that you might be working on a drug that your own mother might need, it changes the way you think about the job.”
Steve’s realization — that for every big, life-changing discovery, science also brings small, quiet insights that shape our lives — is a conviction that all of our storytellers share. Their stories demonstrate the great power and potential of science to impact individuals, society, and the world.
Hear Steve’s story: