Around the last turn and into the home stretch of his final semester at the University of Arizona, Flinn Scholar Lars Peterson (’01) took a break from revising his honors thesis to talk about science communication, MTV, and the Queen of England. By phone in the employee lounge of the Multimedia Learning Lab at the University of Arizona, with the microwave squawking intermittently to announce the completion of his colleagues’ Hot Pockets and reheated coffee, Lars spoke of why he feels at home in hospitals and of his unnatural affinity for airports. Here is what he had to say.
You have said there is a tendency for university structures to pigeonhole individuals into clear and distinct categories, so the onus is on the student to create their own niche. How did you feel pigeonholed at UA, and how did you fly the coop?
I think I came into the university at a bad time for taking cross-disciplinary courses; I felt that there wasn’t a lot of room for that sort of exploration. So for instance, even though I got hired by the Multimedia Learning Lab and get paid to help UA photography students manipulate their images, I wasn’t allowed to take a photography class at the university because the courses were closed to non-majors. So I just had to get more creative with how I merged my interests.
Speaking of interests, do you collect anything?
I’m a huge movie fan. Lots of DVDs.
So what movie do you have the lines memorized to that you would not normally admit?
“Brassed Off.” It’s the British film about a brass band associated with some coal mine during the Thatcher administration. The gist of it is, the band wins the championship, but the competition turns into more of a Thatcher protest. It’s not so popular with my crowd in Tucson. I also watch MTV more than I’d care to admit, as background white noise.
Some of your community involvement includes working with the First United Methodist church on campus and at a hospice center. How were these experiences informed by your faith?
I really enjoyed the progressive community at the First Methodist church on campus, but I’m not religious in the sense of believing in a traditional godhead–there are too many horrible things that happen on this earth for me to reconcile that idea.
As for the hospice work, I guess as I’ve watched my grandma decline in health and see how fortunate she has been to be surrounded by family, I realized that there are many elderly people in Tucson without those deep familial connections. I think hospice is a way of making up for that.
I do think there’s some higher power working out there; I just don’t believe it has a hand in the course of human events. I guess that’s why both the church and the hospice are so important to meÛÓbecause I believe it’s up to us to look out for each other, and those are places where I see that is happening.
You recently spent two summers conducting biomedical research at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Do you consider yourself an Anglophile?
Absolutely—I’m a full-out Anglophile! First of all, I’m a rabid English football fan, even though I was the bane of my soccer team’s existence as a kid. I played for three years and scored once that entire time–and that was when the goalie tripped. My room is bedecked in Liverpool paraphernalia. And it was my family’s tradition to listen to the daily BBC radio broadcast on National Public Radio, so I followed Liverpool pretty closely.
On NPR, I heard about this American guy who convinced himself he was English for three years, and he would just randomly lean out the car window and scream, “Long live the Queen!” I’m not that guy. But I do find myself longing to go back to England. For some reason, I felt more at home there than I do here.
Was there anything you missed about Arizona while you were “across the pond?”
Dry air—in England I felt like my lungs were eternally moist and that I was in constant danger of contracting a fatal respiratory disease. Occasionally I missed really awful pizza, too, like Domino’s. They have Domino’s there, but it’s not the same.
You have referred often to travel as having addictive properties—and that you have become hooked. Is this a chronic condition? Do you think at some point, it could be pathological?
Yes, it’s chronic, and it can be pathological. In fact, I may have arrived at that point: I love airports. I mean, I really love airports. Except for the part where they make you take off your shoes, airports are my thing. Beyond that, traveling is such a wonderful motivation to explore–when you are in a new city or a foreign country, laziness is not an option.
Having worked with two top researchers in the field of health and aging—with Dr. Marwan Sabbagh at Sun Health Research Institute and then with Professor Raj Kalaria at Newcastle—did you perceive differences in the attitudes toward ageing within the scientific community in the U.K. compared with those of U.S. researchers?
I don’t think that the research communities differ that much, other than more formality in the U.K. Where I saw the difference was in their general health care philosophy: The way their long-term care is set up acknowledges that we’re here to help each other out in a way that the American system does not.
You have talked about the public’s “deep desire to learn about themselves and their world.” As a science writer, are you at all worried that those of us who want to be the translators and distributors of such knowledge end up projecting what we want the public to feel or care about? Do you have evidence that they actually want to know more about science?
Well, yes, it’s somewhat of a paradox. On one hand, we live in a society where people throw around the phrase “it’s in the genes” casually and forensic shows like CSI are widely popular; but at the same time, scientific literacy is declining. I mean, I agree–some don’t have any desire to know more about science. And then there are a whole lot of other people who have opinions on science, but don’t know much about the actual science.
But we don’t need to underestimate the public and dumb down the literature either, which is what I think we do now. I think scientists, especially those using federal grant dollars to do their research, need to operate on the default mode that people do want to know what they are up to. They have an obligation to do so.
I think it’s an issue of language, as well. A very stylized and specialized language has grown up around science, one that is not very accessible to the public. And for the most part, I think scientists are comfortable working with one another in that language. So I believe scientists need to relinquish the keys to the kingdom and adopt a new language of analogy and metaphor to open up the discussion again, and allow people to approach science and medicine on their own terms.
You will be attending medical school at the University of Rochester next fall. Did you want to be a doctor when you grew up? Do you ever remember wanting to be anything else?
I remember wanting to be something else last year. I had all sorts of majors during college: Spanish, journalism, religious studies. But I gravitated toward pre-med because my work at Sun Health Research Institute during my junior year of high school really sparked my desire to become a clinician.
As part of my job, I got to observe autopsies done by the brain donation team. And consequently, when I got back to the lab bench I was always aware of the fact that there was a human being behind that slice of brain tissue.
But it was the day-to-day interaction with people that sealed the deal for me—times when I’d hold a patient’s hand and keep them calm and still during a spinal tap, those were really powerful. The clinician I worked for, Dr. Sabbagh, once told me: “You can’t pick your career by what you want to be doing at two in the afternoon, you have to pick your career by what you’re willing to do at two in the morning.” And every time I’m in a hospital, things are just locked in, like I belong there. Hopefully vertical, of course.
But aside from medicine, if money and stability were no object, what profession would you want to pursue?
A music journalist; I’d probably make a better music photojournalist rather than a music critic, because I tend to be really accepting of bad music. I love photographing live concerts–the combination of stage lighting and motion make for really interesting compositions.
So whom should we watch for coming out of the music scene in Tucson?
Calexico is great, and so are the Deludes. Also, this band called the Mathematicians came to town recently. As far as I can tell, they are just bunch of grad students who dropped out, and they’re great. Their hit single is called “Binary Girl.” It’s about trying to apply binary logic to relationships. Obviously, it doesn’t work.
If there were one scientific achievement or theory you wish everyone knew more about, what would it be?
I get kind of excited by Endosymbiosis—it’s such a mysterious and random theory. Cellular biologists in the Endosymbiosis camp think that a eukaryotic cell must have absorbed a bacterium somewhere way back in the evolutionary past, and voila! The bacterium became a mitochondrion. Mitochondria are now absolutely essential to eukaryotic cell function, but they still retain their own genome separate from their cells’ DNA! That’s killer.
If more people knew that we’re still here because of a bacterial genome, I think that would just rock a lot of people’s worlds.