Sustaining scientific discovery requires consistent investment

Amanda Van Swearingen, center, a research scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill, leads demonstrators in the March for Science April 22 in downtown Raleigh.
Amanda Van Swearingen, center, a research scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill, leads demonstrators in the March for Science April 22 in downtown Raleigh. newsobserver.com

On an unusually warm Saturday in April, thousands took to the sidewalks and parks of downtown Raleigh to fight for science in conjunction with the March for Science – a global event taking place on six continents.

For many of us, including myself, it was our first time participating in such a demonstration. The energy was palpable, yet peaceful, and despite the diversity of individuals from their age to their race to the specific ideas they were supporting, the crowd clearly came with a broad, singular message: Truth through scientific discovery benefits us all.

It’s tough to recall how I first encountered my fascination with scientific inquiry, but it was probably developed by playing in my grandmother’s yard with an old magnifying glass (which later amplified into a desire to become a paleontologist, the movie “Jurassic Park” being partly to blame). It was fortunate that the public schools in Lutz, Fla., a rural area north of Tampa, fostered further interest through science fairs, textbooks, laboratory work and field trips to local museums and parks.

I never really set out to be a cancer doctor and researcher. Botched stitches and a sinus surgery growing up made me distrust the medical profession somewhat. Going into college, I was much more enthralled with work in a lab. My goal was vague but the I was leaning toward a profession that made discoveries benefiting others.

Despite persistently looking for mentors and opportunities with disappointments along the way, it took until my junior year to land somewhere that resonated with me – a cancer immunology lab that used vaccines to train immune cells to kill tumors. At the same time, I reluctantly shadowed an oncologist, then abruptly made a career change toward medicine after seeing innovative technology and medicine dramatically improving patients’ lives.

Scientific discovery can seem directionless at times and certainly frustrating, often lacking “eureka” moments. It requires long-term, consistent investments from individuals, governments and organizations.

It’s why, in medicine, we often say that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Previous generations of American scientists, engineers, educators and physicians bestowed us the ability to prescribe pills for conditions previously treated with bone marrow transplants, ensured that we drink water and breath air without harmful pollutants by studying our environment and enacting legislation, created entire industries that set standards for the world, ensured the educations of later generations would include scientific methods and built frameworks to communicate information and data rapidly to large numbers of people.

When we marched in Raleigh, it was to communicate that broad message to the public. The collective, sustained investment in science and education generates experts that can contribute meaningfully to policy, industry, education and society as a whole.

At a science fair in Moore Square following the march, I answered questions about cancer and the immune system and thought about all the supporters of science throughout my life that gave me the opportunity to do this. And to continue my research career, I still will need grant support and mentorship from more experienced colleagues.

I marched to keep the shoulders of American science broad by investing in future generations regardless of where they are from, how they look or how much money they have. I marched so that the appetite for unbiased truth is never satiated. I marched to ensure that expert findings are communicated to the public and to policymakers so they translate into meaningful changes.

I marched for those who constructed a system where the kid looking at leaves and ants under a magnifying glass could become a physician-scientist just because he was curious.

Dr. Nicholas DeVito lives in the Triangle area.