Remarks at the 2018 Wisconsin Academy Fellows Induction

On 6 April 2018, I had the honor of being inducted into the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters as a Fellow. I was selected to be one of three new Fellows who would speak, in this case on behalf of the sciences.

Thank you for this honor. I’m pleased to remark upon the role of the sciences tonight. These musings are about purpose. Purpose comes from Old French, words meaning “to design” or “to intend”. What we as a society intend when we undertake a venture, and how we design it, matter deeply.

25 years ago, I was a pre-med undergraduate, looking for some way to be involved in science research. I have to admit that I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for — primarily, I was doing this in order to improve my chances of being admitted to medical school. I also will freely admit that my view of the sciences had changed quite a bit in just the preceding few years. I had had the privilege of attending New York City’s Bronx High School of Science, where I had been exposed to excellent teaching — teaching that valued, above all, understanding, enquiry, and curiosity.

This changed when I entered college. Higher education was, I’m sorry to say, a disappointment. I was exposed to some of the worst aspects of science education, a potent admixture of pre-med competitiveness with a seemingly callous lack of regard for individuals. Grades were curved to brutally low scores, ensuring most of us would not attain our dreams of attending medical school. There was immense rigor, mere exercises in memory, and manipulation of numbers, but very little of the context in which all this was done. What was the purpose of all this?

This was compounded by a rather lackadaisical summer research experience between my freshman and sophomore years in a genetics lab. While everyone was very kind and taught me bench lab techniques, it was ultimately unsatisfying. I counted some data and after some horse-trading about whose name would appear on what paper and in what order (which appeared to have little to do with the actual work done), we got two papers published in utterly minor journals, where their only contribution to the world was likely to allow me to say I had done published research. Surely all this wasn’t formed in the same crucible which forged the discoveries of Newton. Again, what was the purpose of all this?

Having heard all this, you might wonder why in the world they chose such a depressing speaker to allegedly represent the sciences. You can ask the Academy that, but now I’d like to turn to where things changed. I had the good fortune to accidentally connect with child development research that was being done on parent-child interaction. While the elements of scientific enquiry were still there, there was more; there was purpose behind it: the better understanding of how parents and children interact, but also in the building of better advice, better programs, and better policies to help families.

In one of those startling moments of serendipity that changed my life, down the hall from where I was part of this work at Boston City Hospital was a primary-care pediatric clinic. By this point in my educational path, I had become an English major, and literature had become what I considered my true area of study. I was still very much taking science classes, and still clung to some hope for medicine, but it was literature that nourished my soul most.

In a flash of near-perfect consilience, I learned about a program that was created at that clinic down the hall, where pediatricians were not only giving children’s books to their patients at their checkups, they were talking to parents about regularly reading together with their young children. Not because it was fun (although it is), or because it sounds good (but it does), but because it makes that family’s life better. Short-term, long-term, educationally, relationally, all of that. And there’s a multiple-study evidence base to back it up. It took literature, it took science, it took human interaction and it pulled it all together into something with purpose.

“A baby sitting with her father while looking at a kids book.” by Picsea on Unsplash

That program, known as Reach Out and Read, grew up with me professionally. It now is in all 50 states, in over 6000 clinics and is part of the standard of care in high-quality pediatric practice. This kind of thinking — of using science with rich and deliberate purpose — was responsible for my obtaining a master’s in public health, a master’s in library science (in children’s literature), and becoming a pediatrician. (Yes, I have a lot of student loan debt.) And it led me to collaboratively found Reach Out and Read Wisconsin, which has grown the presence of the program here in the Badger State from 30 programs when I moved here in 2006, to 210 today…with many more to come.

So, I have to admit to you: I’m really a lousy researcher. I don’t have the patience for it, and I can’t stand the publication game. I admire those who do it well. But what I do enjoy is taking the fantastic research work others do and translating it. Some talk about evidence-based medicine — I like to talk about reality-based medicine. How do we take the intellectual output of our laboratories and harness it in the service of populations of people? How do we meaningfully engage with patients and families at the point of care? How do we give this work human purpose?

As one of our great modern philosophers said: “I object to intellect without discipline; I object to power without constructive purpose.” (If you’re interested and find me later, I will tell you who that was.)

“An old, weathered book with "Tennyson" on the spine and cover sits on a wooden dresser” by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

This is not to say that science does not inform the arts — indeed, the best of the arts is that which also hews true to the state of science at the time of its creation. John Milton, in book I of Paradise Lost, name-checks Galileo’s accomplishments:

his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.

Or, in Book VIII, he takes aim at those who create elaborate systems to explain a geocentric model of the solar system and universe, recounting how God will laugh

…at their quaint opinions wide
Hereafter when they come to model heav’n
And calculate the stars, how they will wield
The mighty frame, how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appearances, how gird the sphere
With centric and eccentric scribbled o’er
Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb.

On another front, science is the foundational bedrock upon which the advocacy and messaging work I do rests. I only have credibility with policymakers and the public if I have solid, systematic enquiry into a question to support what I say. Still, it’s not science alone, as I tell the students in the presentation skills class I teach. One must learn how to take scientific knowledge and share it reliably, share it engagingly, and share it well to broad audiences in a manner that speaks to their souls. One wouldn’t think that the storytelling class I took in library school would pay off in my advocacy work…but it does. All the time.

“A MacBook lit up in rainbow colors on a wooden surface” by Michail Sapiton on Unsplash

One of the founders of Apple, Steve Jobs, told us that he wanted his company’s products to sit at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. I think, ultimately, he was telling us that in order to have the power and progress of the sciences serve us well, it was necessary to marry it to what the humanities have to offer. What is the purpose of science if not to improve the human condition? Is that not also the purpose of the arts? And the purpose of literature? These disciplines are not separate — they are not, ultimately, different — and they can and should move together.

A few thanks: thank you to our collective nominators, for seeing that people who sit between these worlds can do good work. To our colleagues, collaborators, and comrades, who make common cause with us — none of this work is done by ourselves or in isolation. As Tennyson said, “I am a part of all that I have met” — our supporters are as much Fellows of this Academy as we are. To our teachers, both those who showed us how to approach the universe in the right ways — and those who unwittingly warned us away from the wrong ways. And, finally, thank you to the Academy, for existing. For setting up a place where crossing borders and boundaries is not only respected, but celebrated.

In this time, where we see public institutions being openly encouraged to focus on training for trades and to disband their teaching of the liberal arts, I would suggest that to advocate for such a world reflects a profound misunderstanding of the state of knowledge in our civilization and of that very civilization’s deep needs. We do not study the arts, literature, and science in isolation from one another. We do not engage with them even together. They are, ultimately, us. When we seek to recognize the world, to understand it, to wrestle with it, we are searching for an understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. A place of purpose.

Thank you.