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Nobel laureate: If you want to get kids interested in science, legalize fireworks

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 31, 2010 05:02 PM

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Lots of fun lunching today with Nobel laureates Philip Sharp and Sir Richard Roberts, and conducting an on-stage interview with the two immediately afterward at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council's annual meeting. The two were awarded Nobel Prizes in 1993, for work they did independently on RNA splicing.

When I asked Sir Richard at lunch what we could do to spark more interest in science among young people, I was surprised by his answer: make it easier for them get their hands on fireworks. That, apparently, is what initially got Sir Richard jazzed about chemistry. "When I talk to my Nobel colleagues," he said during the on-stage portion of our conversation, "more than half of them got interested in science via fireworks." Blowing stuff up, apparently, generates excitement about chemistry in a way that staring at the periodic table of the elements just doesn't.

I also asked Sir Richard and Sharp where they feel the biggest opportunities are today. 

Sir Richard, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs, mentioned stem cells ("this has to be the future of medicine," he said) and the study of bacteria.The human meta-genome all of the bacteria and other organisms that live with us is more interesting than the genome, Sir Richard said, suggesting that the National Institutes of Health ought to spend more money researching bacteria, some of which are known to cause cancer. 

Sharp cited genomics, and the declining cost of sequencing your genome. Better understanding of the genome will provide more information about the best way to attack diseases, and create all sorts of opportunities for pharmaceutical development, he said. (Sharp has been at MIT since 1974, and now runs a research lab within the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.)

Of designing treatments for individuals based on their particular genetic make-up, Sharp said, "it's coming, but [personalized medicine] will be accused of overhype for the next ten years."

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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