Bowdoin science writer tackles tough biology
Giving one of the few science-related Common Hour talks
in recent years, Marcia Barinaga '77 spoke September 7 on the numerous
ethical issues concerning the sciences today.
Barinaga centered her Common Hour talk not on the profession
of science journalism, but rather on the evolution of science both in
the public eye and behind the bench.
As an undergraduate at Bowdoin interested in the sciences
in the mid '70s, it was apparent to Barinaga that many of her classmates
did not share her curiosity on the subject.
"I learned a lot about expressionist art and the political
philosophy of Hobbes and Rousseau around the dinner table, but the exchange
was not reciprocal," Barinaga said.
A Bowdoin graduate with a double major in biochemistry and
environmental studies, Barinaga went on to graduate school at the University
of California-San Diego where she received a Ph.D. in biology. Shelater
completed work at Stanford as a post doctorate, in the area of molecular
Barinaga adopted an interest in science journalism and underwent
training at the University of California Santa Cruz. Since then, she has
been working as a correspondent for a number of science magazines, including
Nature, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning
News, and her current focus, Science.
As a science journalist who also has experience in research,
Barinaga has deep insight into the communication and interactions between
scientists and non-scientists; she emphasized the importance of being
informed on scientific issues affecting society and encouraged rational
discussion between the two multitudes.
"Science and, in particular, biology is in the public
spotlight today more than ever and one reason is because the research
is going so well. It's producing results and products that have an impact
on society," Barinaga said.
On the subject of gene therapy, Barinaga brought up the
case of 18-year-old Jessie Gelsinger, who was suffering from a milder
version of a genetic disease that impaired his body's ability to remove
ammonia from blood. In September 1999, Gelsinger volunteered for a new
gene therapy treatment aimed at patients with a much more severe case
of the disease. He died from a massive immune attack, a complication that
had been noted in early animal testing of the drug.
"This incident and others like it gave the public reason
to doubt and mistrust their word and that slowed down a line of research
that I think does have great potential for society," Barinaga said.
Genetically engineered food, another hot topic, is generating
concerns such as the potential for these crops to develop a resistance
to herbicides, as well as the possibility of interbreeding with surrounding
Barinaga pointed out many positive arguments for the genetic
modification of crops including the removal of allergens from particular
foods, such as peanuts, and the incorporation of immunizations in foods
such as potatoes.
According to Barinaga, as of March 2000, one-third of the
US corn crop and one-half of the US cotton and soybean crops are already
genetically modified. Yet people, especially those affected economically
by the decision, are still very anxious about the introduction of more
of these types of crops.
"This kind of emotionality associated with it really
does a lot to block the potential for any rational debate," Barinaga
The final issue Barinaga raised in her talk is perhaps the
most controversial and publicly debated one to date: stem cell research.
As Barinaga explained, stem cells are pluripotent cells, that is, they
can grow to differentiate into any cell in the body. It appears that these
cells can only be derived from embryos, which would curtail much of the
debate relating to the use of adult stem cells instead of embryonic cells.
With these three issues in the forefront of scientific debates,
Barinaga reminded all that society has been in a position of doubt before
regarding scientific advancements and technology.
"Some people are repelled today by the idea of foreign
genes in their food or of using embryos for research in human cloning.
But the generation before rejected putting animal genes in bacteria and
before that, society was very leary of in vitro fertilization. Today in
vitro fertilization is welcomed as a life-giving technology for infertile
couples, and diabetics are injecting recombinant insulin
She took note of the differences in both circumstance and
purpose involved in each specific technology, but also admitted that the
public may accept all these advances just as they have in the past.
"We shouldn't get to that point by default. We should
get there by intelligent discussion," Barinaga said.
"Scientists need to be willing to discuss issues rationally
with non-scientists and to refrain from donning that cloak of superiority
paternalistic attitude. But it's also really important for everyone to
have a basic level of scientific literacy if society is going to respond
intelligently to new technologies."