The Scientist as World Citizen
Mary-Claire King is
president of the
American Society of
Human Genetics and
a professor in the
Department of Genome
Sciences and the
Medicine at the
CREDI TS: ( TOP) UNIVERSI T Y OF WASHING TON; (RIGH T) DAVID CODER/IS TOCKPHO TO.COM
IN EARLY 2011, LISTENING ON U.S. PUBLIC RADIO TO REPORTS FROM TAHRIR SQUARE, I LOOKED
forward particularly to those from Mona Seif, a young citizen journalist from Cairo. Her
reports were rich in detail, and even when difficult to hear over gunfire, they were clear and
informative to a listener on the other side of the world.
In a profile a few months later, Seif was asked about her work when not in Tahrir Square.
She was a graduate student, she responded, working in cancer biology. “My work in particu-
lar is on the BRCA1 gene,” she said, “which is one of the genes connected with breast cancer
incidence, and I'm investigating the mutation pattern in Egyptian patients. . . . Both [science
and activism] are very consuming, time and energy—and emotions. And I'm only starting
to get the handle of doing both at the same time and juggling between my activism and my
work.”* Hearing this interview on a quiet evening in my lab, I had three thoughts: “Fantas-
tic!” and, “You must be getting way behind on DNA sequencing,”
Mona Seif’s story illustrates for me the essence of the scientist
as a citizen of the world. Scientists insist on believable data both in
work and in public life. Bright young scientists do not accept non-
sense from those in power, and they will not be eternally patient with
those responsible for it. The response of the scientist to nonsense is
both conceptual and practical: to recognize it, expose it, and try to
fix it. And because scientists are connected through worldwide net-
works, we can stimulate each other to do the same. This power was
demonstrated by young computer-savvy scientists in Beijing when
they informed the world about the Tiananmen Square protests in June
1989, and more recently by youthful bloggers of the Arab Spring
such as Mona Seif.
This week, the American Society of Human Genetics holds its
annual meeting in San Francisco. As human geneticists, we are particularly privileged world
citizens. Our field is inherently global in both content and talent. All people share the same
biology. A gene responsible for a human trait in any family, anywhere, is part of the biol-
ogy underlying that trait in everyone, everywhere. The discovery and characterization of
genes responsible for serious human conditions are therefore best undertaken by studying
the families most informative about those conditions, wherever they live. The scientists best
qualified to work with such families, understanding cultural context, historical demography,
and environment/gene interactions, are those from the same places as the families they are
studying. The extraordinary success of contemporary human genetics is due both to the rev-
olution in genomic technology and to advanced training of scientists from across the globe.
Collaborations formed using the very best talent for each project lead to both productive
science and an understanding of people and places outside of one’s home turf. The job of the
citizen scientist is to put this understanding to use.
One rarely knows in advance when opportunities will arise. Solving complex problems,
whether scientific, social, or political, requires honest and critical appraisal of data. Truth
ultimately matters more than consolidating power, securing funding, or furthering agendas.
In my experience, the most important questions come from people on the front lines, and no
question is too big to ask.
– Mary-Claire King