I recently gave a presentation on two “Grand Challenges” in Biology. That event involved over 40 incoming freshman, and there were four of us who presented a total of 7 STEM Grand Challenges. I thought it worked really well (as I mentioned in my post last week), so I’m considering adapting it for a different recruitment event (also for incoming freshman) that I’m organizing. There isn’t time to cover all of the interesting, unsolved questions in biology, though, which has me wondering: what are the top 5 grand challenges in biology today?
The two challenges I presented at the earlier event come from this list. The two challenges I presented were: 1) linking genotype to phenotype, and understanding how the environment influences that link and 2) understanding biological diversity (its evolution, its maintenance, and the consequences of its loss). I think the students were really engaged*, especially in the second one. We started out talking about large scale biodiversity, but then I raised the topic of microbial diversity and what we’ve started to learn about links between the microbiome and human health and disease. Inevitably, this got us to fecal transplants, and, really, what better way to get a room’s attention than with those? 🙂
A biochemist colleague presented a challenge that links biology and chemistry, on understanding the origins of life. This reminded me of learning about the classic Miller-Urey experiments as a freshman in college. As a freshman, it completely blew my mind to hear about the science behind this question, and especially to hear that people were doing experiments to study it. (Ed Yong has a really interesting write up on these experiments.) So, understanding the origin of life would definitely be one of my grand challenges.
A clear fourth challenge relates to understanding the brain – clearly this is a huge, very active area of research, and it’s also something that students will find really engaging. (It’s also one of the challenges on the list I linked to earlier.)
That leaves just one challenge. At the event I did recently, the students were really interested in questions related to sustainable agriculture, and you could argue for a grand challenge related to how to feed the planet sustainably. But that links with the biodiversity challenge above, so perhaps something else would be better as the fifth. The other key thing I’ve come up with relates to synthetic biology, though, again, I think that relates very closely to one of the earlier ones.
For the event that I’m planning, if I go with the Grand Challenges approach, I think I will go with:
- Linking phenotype to genotype
- Understanding biodiversity
- Origins of life
- Understanding the brain
- Sustainable agriculture
Part of my reason for going with sustainable ag for the fifth would be because there’s a strong group of people here working on topics related to sustainable food systems and because my experience with the earlier group suggests that they will find the topic really engaging. Part of the goal of this event is to link students to Biology on campus, so taking advantage of a strong group makes sense.
Thinking about this has been interesting for me, even if the 5 challenges that I settled on are very similar to the ones laid out here. And I’m curious: what do you think are the 5 grand challenges in biology that would be worth introducing to incoming college students? It also makes me wonder what would be on my list of 5 grand challenges in ecology. Clearly some of the above relate, but others don’t. But that topic will have to wait for another day…
* As further evidence of their engagement, last Thursday I did a follow up dinner with about 100 students, including the students who’d been there for the Grand Challenges presentation. Some of them were still asking me questions about it (in part because they were working on a follow-up 3 minute video on one of the challenges).