As a physician and a scientist, Dr. Abigail Cline can sometimes become frustrated with the limited and often shallow treatment of scientific breakthroughs in public discourse. So why not take a page from blockbuster movies such as “Jurassic Park” and let entertainment do it by better educating the writers, she suggested.
Cline, an intern at the Medical College of Georgia this year as she seeks a residency in dermatology, recently won first place and $10,000 in an essay contest sponsored by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation on the role of biomedical science in society and how better to communicate that broadly.
Her winning essay points out that movies such as “Jurassic Park” in 1993 “really did expose a lot of people to basic scientific concepts like cloning,” she said. Or the 1997 movie “Gattaca,” in which genetic manipulation is used to create a superior class that discriminates against the genetically inferior.
“I feel that Gattaca is still very much a flagship movie that people cite when they are talking about genetic manipulation of embryos,” Cline said. “People say, ‘Oh, we’re going to have designer babies.’ Nothing demonstrated the public fear of genetic manipulation in humans like ‘Gattaca’ did.”
That subject is very much back in the news after the gene-editing technology CRISPR was successfully used to remove a harmful gene mutation in human embryos but in a limited manner.
Movies and books can also spark the imagination and even lead to scientific careers, Cline said. She cited how “The Scully Effect,” named for special agent Dana Scully on the television show “The X-Files” encouraged girls to pursue science careers. Scully certainly inspired her.
“Of course she did,” Cline said, laughing. “I actually used to be a redhead as well. I watched ‘X-Files’ growing up. It was just very interesting to see a strong female lead who was very entrenched in science and came from a very methodical logical background.”
She earned her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Georgia before going to medical school, and as a scientist often found it difficult to explain her work to those outside her field, such as her parents.
“I think at a certain point you have to break it down into manageable pieces of information but you also have to put it in such a medium that people will be interested in what you have to say,” Cline said. No matter how good you think your presentation is “if your audience falls asleep they are going to miss the point,” she said.
Her idea is to create writing fellowships within science institutes like the National Institutes of Health where writers can be educated directly and learn more in-depth about the leading ideas, with perhaps a work created by the end of the fellowship.
“They would get inspiration more from the actual science than trying to bring science into a work that is already made,” Cline said.
Getting the public interested in and talking about science is important not only for greater understanding but also for the future of science, she said.
“You want the public to pay attention to it because that’s how we get research funding,” Cline said. “With public interest comes attention comes research funding. Right now, there is such a lack of funding within basic science research that it makes it very difficult to get the public interested in future research.”
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