An Education Rooted in Inquiry Facilitates Science and Society
By Kole T. Roybal ’05
Liberal arts institutions are needed as much as ever in our country today. We need an electorate that is informed about the major challenges facing the world, all of which are multifaceted and require a collection of expertise. The onslaught of attacks on science in the public sphere and the undercurrent of contempt for intellectuals is troubling to say the least. Schools like Austin College are the antidote for these sentiments as solutions come from rigorous thinking and a concerted effort to understand others and other cultures. Austin College forces students to acquire a breadth of knowledge and the skills for taking problems apart and assessing them from multiple unique, but credible viewpoints. An education rooted in diversity of thought and rigorous inquiry can lay the foundation for success in a wide spectrum of careers when it is combined with the deep knowledge of a discipline.
My chosen field is biomedical research, and I now lead a lab at the University of California, San Francisco, working to develop next-generation cancer therapeutics. As I navigate my career, I periodically reflect on the experiences at Austin College that prepared me for my job, which requires management, mentorship, teaching, community outreach, and continual work at the edge of the unknown. The core tenants of a liberal arts education form the foundation of scientific thought and instill the collaboratory mentality needed to tackle the most pressing scientific questions of the day.
If we dissect what is required to take scientific research from the early stages of discovery to the treatment of patients, a liberal arts education provides many necessary skills. At the early stages of a project, it is important to identify critical areas of research that could lead to breakthrough therapies, and this is often facilitated through interaction with other scientists with a diverse set of expertise. Some of the most important advances in science and medicine come from research at the interface between different disciplines, and a liberal arts education prepares you for this by offering a broad curriculum that forces you out of your comfort zone.
We are in exciting times in cancer therapy with pioneering scientists working at the interface of cancer biology and immunology—the study of our immune system and how it combats disease. Scientists such as Jim Allison, who is now at MD Anderson, worked through initial pushback in the cancer field and have shown that our immune system is incredible at combating deadly cancers if it is effectively stimulated. This area of research, called cancer immunology, seeks to understand how our immune system interacts with tumors and how we can stimulate immunity to the disease, much like we think about eradicating a virus or bacteria from our body. We now have breakthrough immunotherapies that can drive a curative immune response to cancers, and we can even engineer our body’s own immune cells to better detect and get rid of the disease. These types of therapies will become standard of care over the next decade and will relieve the need for highly toxic therapies like chemotherapy and radiation.
Biomedical research goes well beyond the lab and experiments. The next stages require clear communication of your research to make sure the community understands the importance of new findings and how they can impact their lives. Many of the best scientists think deeply about how they can foster understanding of science in the community as we all rely to some degree on taxpayer-funded institutions for funding. The onus is on scientists to convince the public that what we do is important, and the process of explaining our work in simple terms can help to distill ideas. It doesn’t matter if you have made the most exciting discovery or therapeutic if you can’t convince the medical community and public that it is a viable approach to treat disease.
A liberal arts education can aid in the process of dissemination of important scientific breakthroughs as it incentivizes people to go out in the world and community and talk about ideas and build common ground. The desire to teach and inform through direct interactions with other scientists and society is essential to assuage the science skeptics. Many scientists could benefit from a liberal arts perspective. Scientists need to go out and change the perceptions in the community and truly understand where our message is lost. To tackle major societal concerns like cancer and global warming, we need an educated population that feels empowered by science rather than constrained.
Kole T. Roybal ’05, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of immunology and runs a lab that focuses on cancer immunotherapy at the University of California, San Francisco, one of the leading medical institutions in the world. He is an Investigator of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, and the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The content of this column expresses the perspectives of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, position, or policy of Austin College, its administrators, or its Board of Trustees.