Blast from the Past

RG-LogoA long time ago, I wanted to be a scientist. I had a fever for biology, which progressed to microbiology, then medicine, then medical microbiology and immunology — which I studied in the Ph.D. program at the Oregon Health Sciences University. Two years of bench work cured me. I learned that my personality was a bad match for the meticulous, repetitive — OK, to me, boring — work of real day-to-day research. I didn’t have the patience for it. So I left early with a master’s degree and went on my merry way to become a writer. This turned out to be a good move. My only regret, really, was that I never produced an article for a juried journal — a rite of passage for young scientists. Oh, well.

So imagine how pleased I was to discover after all these years that I did have an article in a juried journal, based on research I did at OHSU. I found out about it by accident, while signing up for an online service called ResearchGate, a sort of geeky love-child of Facebook and LinkedIn, built especially for scientists. When I signed up on the site, I was presented with a list of publications and asked if I was the author. Surprise #1 was how many researchers around the world are named Tom Hager or Thomas Hager or T. Hager, and none of them are me.  Surprise #2 was, lo and behold, my name on a paper published in Infection and Immunity back in October 1981. Primary author was Pam Sokol, a grad student in the lab next door to mine at OHSU, who used some cell lines I had developed to help with her own research. She was generous enough to name me among her coauthors. This makes me surprisingly happy.

Is Early Cancer Screening a Good Thing?

nejmp1409841-fig Maybe yes, maybe no. A very interesting post over at one of my favorite sites, Nate Silver’s, points out why.  The graph, from a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that South Korea has seen a sudden rise in the detection of thyroid cancer, thanks to the fact that the government made the screening free. A lot more people are getting screened and, as expected, they’re finding a lot more early-stage thyroid cancer. The next part, though, was unexpected: The number of people dying from thyroid cancer is unchanged. In fact, it’s going up. Standard thinking is that more early detection should lead to fewer deaths. But it’s not happening in South Korea. Instead, the main effect of the increased screening has been to boost the number of people getting their thyroids removed — standard practice when the disease is caught early-stage — then living the rest of their lives taking thyroid medication. That’s a lot more healthcare costs with no apparent benefits. More screening also means more false positives, people being told they might have cancer when they don’t. It all adds to a growing body of literature indicating that early cancer detection is not always a good thing (although cancer is not a single disease, but a group of more than 100 separate diseases, and early detection is good for some of them).

I’m a fan of fivethirtyeight and Nate Silver; have been ever since he was at the New York Times and blew other pollsters away with his predictions about the Obama elections. Now he’s independent, with this quirky site that crunches the numbers on everything from national politics to football predictions to burrito ratings. He’s not a pollster, just a guy who’s fascinated with statistics and how they are used and misused in our society. He makes sense of (and critiques) the numbers pollsters come up with. Numbers matter — and in Nate’s hands they even make sense.

The Man Who Blew Our Minds

LaboritThis dashing, if windblown, French gentleman (shown at the Cannes Film Festival in the 1980s), is Henri Laborit. If you haven’t heard of him, perhaps you should have, He was the father of a revolution in medicine that ranks in impact with Freud’s work, helped give birth to some of today’s biggest-selling drugs, and revolutionized the treatment of mental illness, and was nominated sixteen times for a Nobel Prize (although he never won one). Laborit is the reason there are so few mental hospitals around any more. He was a military doctor who, while looking for ways to prevent surgical shock, accidentally discovered the world’s first antipsychotic — a group of drugs that were the first in history to ease the symptoms of severe psychosis and are today selling in ginormous numbers for conditions that have little to do with severe mental disease. Antipsychotics — you might know them by modern brand names like Abilify, Zyprexa, and Seroquel — have had a significant impact on our society. Although they’re way overused today, these drugs when they first appeared in the 1950s were seen as miracles, making it possible for psychiatrists, for the first time ever, to communicate with patients who were seriously mad. They were also abused by caregivers who overprescribed them to zonk patients out — just think of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and remember that the US trade name of Laborit’s original drug is Thorazine. (p.s. The reason he’s at Cannes is that Laborit was an inspiration for [and appeared in] the Alain Resnais film “Mon Oncle d’Amerique.”)

Feeding a Hungry World

feeding coverJust released: A short history I wrote for the 40th anniversary of IFDC, one of the world’s leading soil fertility nonprofit organizations. I’m happy with the book, both in terms of information (I was given great access to people and documents at IFDC, and was able to track the organization’s evolution from a simple emphasis on fertilizer to sustainable-soil efforts) and design (the attractive layout was done in-house at IFDC, using a lot of historical photographs). I approached the history of the organization as if it were a biography, as if IFDC were a person, highlighting birth and growing pains, challenges to success, signature achievements, and so forth, with an eye toward drama and color. You can see the results here.

D.C. Inspiration

test-of-our-progressA quick trip to Washington, D.C. yielded all sorts of inspiration. First, there was the reason I was there  — the celebration of IFDC’s 40th anniversary. My friend Amit Roy invited me to the event (I wrote a history of IFDC, “Feeding a Hungry World“) and I gave a talk and moderated a panel discussion at the day-long gathering . What was inpiring? The stories told by people from all over the world describing ways they are making a positive difference. Everyone there was dedicated to sustainably growing more food for our mushrooming global population. There were so many heartening moments, so many success stories — and there is so much more to do. I love being around people who are intelligent, full of hope, highly motivated, deeply skilled, and doing good work in the world.

The second source of inspiration was a walk around the Tidal Basin, where I mostly skipped the tourist-magnet memorials (I’ve done Lincoln, Washington, etc., many times) and focused on two I hadn’t seen before: memorials to Martin Luther King and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These are just slightly off the beaten track. The quotes on the walls are simple, beautiful, and often uplifting — so very unlike the coarse, aggressive, hate-filled, PR-tainted public discourse we hear and read today in the media. There are many small-minded people, and a few who are true leaders. The quote above, shot at the FDR memorial, was repeated to me in a dinner conversation by a Kenyan businessman, He found the words as inspiring as I do.


This giant fork in the lake is outside of the Alimentarium, a Vevey museum devoted to food.

This giant fork in the lake is outside of the Alimentarium, a Vevey museum devoted to food.

Nestle makes and sells tens of thousands of food products around the world. Its American brands include Lean Cuisine, Gerbers, Carnation, Haagen-Dazs, Stouffers, Lean Cuisine — the list goes on and on. Measured by total revenue, it is the world’s largest food company. Looking down the road, the company’s success depends on lots of people eating lots of food, which depends on an uninterrupted supply of hundreds of crops, which depends on productive farms. So Nestle is understandably concerned about a sustainable future, especially for agriculture. The company’s efforts in this arena are organized through an office called Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Nestle — SAIN — headed by an energetic, dedicated, and very knowledgeable long-time agricultural expert, Hans Joehr. Thanks to an invitation from Mr. Joehr, I spoke to the SAIN group last month about the “Alchemy of Air” material, the historical importance of synthetic fertilizer, and how it can help ensure agricultural sustainability. It was a great visit. Vevey, the Swiss home of Nestle, is one of the world’s most beautiful small cities, sitting on the shore of Lake Geneva and looking over toward France. I had a good set of talks with people at Nestle, plus tours of the local Cailler chocolate and Gruyere cheese factories. Special thanks to Hans J. for a delightful visit (especially our dinner!) and Dionys Forster, my guide to the area.

Paris on Film

IFA-Paris-2013Or at least on video. A talk I gave in Paris on the Haber-Bosch discovery has been posted here on YouTube. I delivered the speech at a meeting of the IFA (International Fertilizer Association) last December in one if the ornate meeting rooms of a mansion built by a nephew of Napoleon — an elegant grand home now remade into a five-star hotel called, somewhat incongruously, the Shangri-La. Ah, Paris!

The Big Picture at IFDC


Visiting with friends at IFDC, an international soil fertility research and policy think tank in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and thinking — as the analysts here think — about the big picture of providing food for the world’s hungriest people. It’s not just about improving crop yields (although that’s a vital step) with all of the associated issues of soil health, water availability, seed choices, fertilizer, pest control, weed control, mechanization, etc. etc. It’s also about the entire economic ecosystem that surrounds the farm, from setting prices to communicating market information to putting in good roads and building better storage facilities, everything from education and government policy to infrastructure and sales systems. It’s a complicated, critical human endeavor, and the IFDC folks are working on every front to make sure that it’s working for the people who need it most. 

The picture above illustrates one of IFDC’s signature achievements — a program to boost rice yields while at the same time cutting pollution through the use of deep placement urea fertilizer in fields in Bangladesh. It’s been proven to increase incomes and improve the lives of smallholder farmers while at the same time cutting nitrogen pollution in local waterways. This is just the kind of work needed to help humanity meet the food needs of the coming century.

On Beyond Chocolate

Nestle_Hauptsitz_03I’ll be visiting Switzerland to deliver a talk to Nestle food and agricultural scientists and staff this spring. That’s their headquarters in the photo — at Vevey on Lake Geneva. A tour of the chocolate factory is on offer! But Nestle’s about a lot more than candy — it was started back in the 1860s by a pharmacist/inventor who came up with ideas for making food less perishable and more nutritious — so, everything from powdered coffee (Nescafe) and tea (Nestea) to instant hot chocolate (Nesquik) and baby formula. Henri Nestle even dabbled in fertilizer development. Today the company is one of the world’s leading multinationals with operations in almost 200 countries and more than 300,000 employees. I’m amazed that I didn’t know just how wide-ranging their operations are — USA-familiar brands they own include Carnation, Dreyers, Gerbers, Purina,  Lean Cuisine, . . the list goes on — and they put an emphasis on R&D.

Time to Move Beyond GDP?

An interesting piece in Nature argues that it’s time to move beyond GDP as the be-all and end-all measure of prosperity. As the authors rightly point out, Gross Domestic Product is a crude economic yardstick, developed during the post-WWII years, that takes into account only a fraction of the factors that create strong economies and prosperous societies. I agree that it’s time we take other things into consideration, like long-term environmental effects and people’s general satisfaction with their lives. GDP measures the value of transactions — not the quality of life.