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Monday, February 18, 2013


Originally Published: February 18, 2013
By: Ankita Saxena
What does it mean to be innovative? Who best exemplifies an innovative person?
If you are like many people in the world, the term might make you think of large tech companies- Apple, Facebook, Google and consequently, their famous founders- Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. It’s not hard to see why- we all probably use their products at minimum, once a day.
However, while we focus on these (undoubtedly) incredible men, we forget some of the biggest innovators and thinkers of all human history- the scientists. For some reason or the other, scientists tend to get lumped into two general categories: the Frankenstein mad-scientist who is planning on unleashing insane robots on humanity or the stuffy academic archetype. Having worked with some of these incredible people and closely reviewing others’ work, I can safely say that nothing could be further from the truth.
The past greats: Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Albert Einstein, Watson and Crick, Frederick Griffith, Hershey and Chase made incredible strides for science and humanity at large by using relatively crude tools to design elegant experiments that proved critical concepts. Transformation- the genetic uptake of exogenous DNA, which is used by millions of people yearly was discovered when Griffith heat killed a dangerous strain of pneumococcal bacteria (Pneumonia III-S) and administered the compound with II-R strain to mice that later passed away. Now, normally, II-R was inert as it lacked a polysaccharide coating that inhibited it’s discovery from the immune system; however, in these conditions, it took up the DNA of III-S which happened to code for the protective coating that allowed it to survive and kill the mouse. Later, Griffith could isolate both strains of live bacteria from the dead mice.
Obviously, not every scientist can become a Griffith or Einstein. At the same time, it’s exactly this type of innovative thinking which continues to drive all fields of science forward. In 1994, Dr. Polly Matzinger published a paper that proposed a brand new model for the immune system. This new model, dubbed the “Danger hypothesis” proposes that antigen presenting cells respond to danger signals from cells undergoing injury, stress or a difficult cell death. While her theory is not completely accepted, many parts of it have become key to modern immunological theory. Interestingly, Matzinger gestated these ideas not from doing lab work, but by studying various topics, including chaos theory that she thought might be relevant.
More recently, and especially at my home institution (the University of Calgary), a few scientists have been making use of improved microscopic tools to live image physiological functions such as the innate immune response, which is responsible for various disorders including sepsis. Others have decided to go beyond the image itself and instead, closely examine the components of the image itself and its relationship with the specimen in question. For instance, could a change in the emission spectra of an object reflect increased presence of other compounds that are linked to disease progression?
Ultimately, innovation itself can be quite easily defined; by Webster’s definition it simply means “a new idea, method or product”. However, it is important for us not to restrict or too closely associate the word with a specific sector or field and ignore its role in academic research and other areas. While a white-coated scientist in a lab may not appeal to the heart as much as images of starving artists collaborating in a rundown garage, creativity and flexibility of thought are instrumental to success anywhere and indeed, exist everywhere. Just imagine trying to live life without the almighty GPS, X-Rays and even antibiotics- I doubt you will get very far!

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