Challenging the central dogma
You may have caught Malcolm Gladwell’s The Obscure Virus Club on his Revisionist History podcast. I heard it this past year and thought of it again recently after listening to one of our internal short-course training sessions at AVROBIO on the Principles of Biology. A day later, I caught Short Wave’s podcast on Ignaz Semmelweis, who first realized how crucial it was for doctors to wash their hands at the operating table.
What do these two podcasts have in common, besides talking about viruses and germs? The courage to push new ways of thinking, sometimes under difficult circumstances, and the importance of critical reflection on what truly matters for a profession.
What’s interesting about these podcasts is how hard it can be to dissent from orthodoxy. These individuals would eventually drive hugely consequential change, but it wasn’t easy. Life for bold thinkers can quickly become gnarly: it’s hard to change people’s minds. It takes courage to step outside the standard.
It’s not so dissimilar to what we are trying to accomplish at AVROBIO. It’s somewhat easier for us because we have a lot of science behind us. But we still have minds and habits to change when we consider potential patients, their care providers, and their communities, and even inside our own company.
Here are some takeaways from these two well-told and insightful podcasts:
- Communities of thinkers or believers have a central dogma and assiduously adhere to it — In the field of genetics, the Central Dogma held that genetic information moved in one direction: DNA gave instructions to RNA.
- Sometimes the most complex problems have the simplest solutions — Some scientists of the time thought differently and challenged the Central Dogma. The geneticists were breaking the canonical way we think of the Central Dogma (DNA -> RNA -> Protein). Like the men in the Obscure Virus Club, Semmelweis doggedly investigated the unusually high rates of postpartum death of women in hospitals. When he finally discovered what caused puerperal fever and what would prevent it, he had a hard time persuading his fellow physicians to change their ways. They were insulted about his instructions to wash their hands.
- Beyond everything else, persistence is what makes change happen — Despite being shunned by the scientific community, these scientists persisted.
It takes passion, a pioneering mindset and a strong problem-solving bone to buck the conventional wisdom. Above all, it takes courage. And it is so much easier to drive a new idea forward when we work in collaboration, supporting each other along the way.