SYR: Why I Became a Biologist

The Speaking of Your Research (SYR) series gives scientists a voice to discuss their own research. We welcome posts by animal researchers explaining the science and motives behind what they do. Contact us for more details.

I am a biologist. At heart, I have been a biologist ever since I can remember. Life, in its many forms, fascinates me and, even though my interests aren’t confined to biology (or sciences, for that matter), it was always very clear to me that I would pursue the task of trying to understand life a little bit better.

As a kid, my most vivid memories go back to those Saturday mornings when I use to wake up at 7 a.m. to turn on the TV. First, there were cartoons to watch, but – at around 10 a.m. – the “Wildlife” shows would start: documentaries from the BBC Wildlife or from the National Geographic Channel. David Attenborough’s or Jacques Cousteau’s voices were my companions, as I flew above mountains or dived into the depths of the oceans, watching the most bizarre animals or the most fascinating flowers. There was a whole diversity of life around me that I was relentlessly drawn to. In my mind, I had this naïve idea that I wanted to be the next David Attenborough. I felt like it must be great just to grab a camera and follow animals around just to catch that perfect moment! But life got in the way… Not because I didn’t have opportunities to follow my dreams, but because the dream itself changed.

When I was eleven, one of my cousins checked into the hospital, quite suddenly, with what would later be diagnosed with measles encephalitis. During the early stages, I wasn’t completely aware of what was happening. Indeed, not even the doctors knew what was happening. When he was finally diagnosed, it was already too late for the interferon treatment. After years struggling with the disease, he fell into a coma and eventually could no longer struggle. Looking back, my change of field of interest started there. Suddenly, I started thinking about diseases, about what causes them and how incredibly little we know about it all. I started looking at microorganisms in a whole different way: I started realising I wanted to know more about what makes them tick and how to stop that ticking. So, by the 7th grade, I already had my mind settled on Biology.

The path since there has been one of seizing opportunities: I finished college (Biology with a minor in Evolution and Development) and I went on to take my MSc in Applied Microbiology. By the beginning of the second semester, I saw an ad for a trainee position studying the neurological sequelae of cerebral malaria. For me, it couldn’t get more interesting than that!

When I joined the lab, the first thing I had to do was read. Among all those articles, the first thing that struck me (having little knowledge of this before) was the numbers: according to the World Health Organization’s World Malaria Report 2013, there are around 200 million new cases of malaria and around 700 000 deaths per year, the majority of which (around 500 000) are children under the age of 5 years. I was shocked by these figures and, most importantly, by the ones related to the funding of anti-malarial research and preventive measures. And even though these numbers are finally starting to rise, they are still very much below what would be desirable.

Mosquitos Malaria animal research

Anopheles stephensi is the most commonly used mosquito vector for Plasmodium (the malaria parasite) in research labs

And so it was that, at 21 years of age, I did my first in vivo experiment, using rodent models of malaria. The moral challenge wasn’t easy and the decision wasn’t taken lightly. But, while I regard all living things as worthy of respect, I cannot disregard the good that comes from the use of animal models. I had to look at the ugly effects of what malaria does to people and especially to children. And I had to look at them in mice; in the mice I was handling, observing and taking care of every day. I had to look at all that and still make a decision. It is emotionally hard, but I truly think that using animal models is the only way we have of really studying this disease (and so many others!). The ethical decision that I make every day has become less difficult to make when I see it as the best chance we have of saving the lives at stake here: the millions infected every year, by a disease Jeffrey Sachs described as a disease of “poverty”.

The lesson I was taught on my very first day was: “the first thing to keep in mind is the animal’s distress. If it is distressed, not only will it be bad for the animal but it will also be bad for you, because your experiment will be jeopardized”. Four years have gone by, and I have passed it on to the students I’ve trained as well, because I truly believe this should be the golden-rule for everyone doing this work!

From cerebral malaria I moved on to other fields of research, screening compound libraries for new anti-malarials, and integrating the search for an anti-malarial vaccine. Now, the goal is there all the time, in front of my eyes! But I can only do what I do, because others before me have studied the biological processes I want to tackle. And they have done so using animal models.

Inês S. Albuquerque, MSc

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11 responses to “SYR: Why I Became a Biologist

  1. Reblogged this on unlikelyactivist and commented:

    Behind almost every biomedical researcher is a deeply personal story and a passionate motivation to stop suffering and make the world better, one discovery at a time.

  2. While you may say that many of the drugs we have against malaria where developed through experimentation on animals, you have no idea how effective the counter-factual would be, i.e. we have never fully invested all our current resources used for the discovery of new medicines into non-animal experimentation. We therefore have no scientific basis on which to test the hypothesis that the development of any current drug required animal experimentation.

    So what should we do instead? As you said it is a disease of poverty, and with proper investment in poverty reduction it could be eradicated. Yet instead of this we choose to fund experiments on animals. Why? Its a lot easier to contemplate merely giving a few billion $ a year to cure malaria to some poor folks most people will never meet, than it is to fundamentally change the structure of the global economy which would entail rich countries losing our economic and political power. By focussing on the latter not only could we eradicate malaria but a host of other diseases associated with poverty. Animal research therefore has not only not been shown to be necessary, but it also makes it appear as if we doing our best to help poorer countries eradicate disease. In fact it obscures the fact that our current economic system introduces barriers to developing countries emerging from poverty.

    • You are right to point out that we cannot know if any given medical breakthrough would have happened without animal research. Nonetheless current developments did require animal research. As a comparison, the initial discovery of penicillin required a in vitro model – it is meaningless to suggest that without the petri dish we might have discovered it a different way.
      Perhaps we would, perhaps we wouldn’t – but how many people would have to die before we accomplished it. Remember, most biological research does not involve animals – it is done in petri dishes, computers, cell cultures, clinical studies – but some research has and does rely on animal research.

      Like it or not we live within an economic system. Developing treatments to diseases is economically viable – handing over large swathes of cash is not (and creates dependency – perpetuating poverty). We cannot simply regime change all of Africa – we can develop treatments to diseases which affect many people there (and elsewhere). The reason private money goes into research is because there is a return – but we do not have time to debate the efficacy and morality of modern economics.

  3. Yet because we have not done the experiment, putting all our resources into non-animal experimentation could in fact lead to fewer deaths not more. Imagine for example if we were all part of global epidemiological experiments, recording our lifestyles, sequencing our DNA, introducing interventions to see how it could affect the frequency of disease. It is therefore not meaningless to suggest that there are other ways of doing things.

    We do live in this economic situation, but all things can change if we campaign for it. I would certainly not advocate just handing over huge swathes of cash, but we could start with preventing large multinationals using the labour and natural resources of developing countries without investing in those countries infrastructure. We could stop selling weapons to all developing countries. We could stop subsidising our own farmers, which results in the grain markets of developing countries being flooded with our subsidised products, and undermines the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries. We could reduce our levels of consumption and production of greenhouse gases, which as the recent UN report highlighted global warming will devastate the economies of many developing nations.

    We cannot just separate out animal research from wider political, economic and environmental issues. The discourse researchers use will inevitably impact on how we respond to these issues. Imagine for instance if animal researchers were on mass to stand up and say, while yes they believe animal research is a good thing, they advocate all people should go vegan to reduce the harmful effects of modern animal farming on the environment and its impact on global warming. Something like that which creates an apparent sense of cognitive dissonance could move people to consider how all their actions affect the environment and the lives of people in developing countries.

    Instead all we have is researchers saying how animal research can save lives. It make people feel a bit better that we are doing something good, but if it obscures the fact that much of our economic power is based on using the labour and natural resources of developing countries to their detriment, then animal research is not a good thing.

    • There are plenty of scientists not using any animal research. Remember, we use these other methods all the time. We use it aside from animal research, and we use it alongside animal research. There are certain questions which require a whole biological system. Simply saying we will put more money into non-animal alternatives will not suddenly create alternatives for these questions – it will just push such research to other countries which allow it (and may have lower standards of animal welfare).

      Why on earth are animal researchers advocating vegan lifestyles?! Why not engineers or politicians? Most researchers are not vegan (most people are not vegan). They can do the research they do, helping alleviate human suffering, without addressing the issue of farming.

  4. I disagree, there is no evidence that there are questions that require a whole organism that could not be achieved either through non-invasive experiments on humans or other means.

    I think all people including engineers and politicians should advocate for lifestyles that reduce our consumption of natural resources. Veganism uses less resources than meat eating, and can therefore impact on our spiralling overconsumption. If we care for other and which to reduce suffering, then surely it is better to tackle the underlying causes of this suffering rather than just the immediate causes? Otherwise there will be no resilience to future shocks, which could be in the form of new/re-emergent diseases or climate change.

    The point about animal researchers specifically is that they are most frequently seen as those willing to cause animals suffering for what they see as the greater good. They are hugely respected in our society and they are perceived as saving lives. If they specifically say that killing animals for food is wrong both because of the harm it does to animals and the effects of farming on the environment, then this would have a huge impact on your average Joe’s acceptance that eating meat is OK. This could help to reduce global warming, and reduce the huge negative affect on developing countries which global warming will cause. This in turn will support those countries to become richer and prevent diseases such as malaria from taking hold.

    As it is animal researchers wall themselves off from these wider issues about how the messages they send out affect most peoples behaviour.

    • You cannot prove a negative. You cannot evidence that we require fuel to fly a plane, and that there isn’t another way – its meaningless optimism.

      This discussion thread is going widely off-topic. If you want to continue discussing veganism or what researchers should be saying separately, then use the contact form.

  5. Exactly, animal researchers claim that if we did not do animal research that we would not have the medicines we now have. It is a nonsensical claim for the reasons you highlight

    As for being off topic , surely the the three R’s mean that if there are alternatives to animal research then we are required to pursue them? In this case as reducing ill health could be achieved by reducing global warming, reducing poverty and going vegan, then should not animal researchers be promoting these rather than animal research?

    • James is right. Who knows… Maybe if we had devoted the resources to searching for alien civilizations we would have found one by now… and they could have shared their technology and medicine with us without a need to harm animals.

      As for political activism — any handful of academics probably are more active on the topics he mentions than the average animal rights activists that simply hates humans more than she love animals.

  6. There are plenty of existent non-invasive and in-vitro techniques that would be significantly more developed if we invested more resources into them than we currently do. Additionally, with a greater focus on public health it would hardly be necessary to try to appeal to some nonsensical idea that aliens could save us.

    Political activism by academics is a great thing, but the question remains in a world of constrained resources do we choose to spend money on animal experiments to reduce the burden of ill health in developing countries, or do we spend the money on poverty reduction/reducing climate change which could have potentially a much greater impact.

    Your average animal rights activist does not hate humans. What evidence do you have for this? There are some animal rights activists that will hate humans who harm animals, but there is no reason to believe they represent the average. Additionally, there are plenty of people who hate people who harm other humans (e.g. murders etc.), but one would hardly characterise those people as hating humans.

    Your statement reminds me of people who claim one must hate one’s country if you are not patriotic and support your country in going to war, if we don’t support our country in killing others for our benefit we must not love our country right? Similarly, just because I don’t support animals being killed for our own benefit, doesn’t mean I don’t love humans, indeed I feel empathy for both humans and animals. Only the Sith deal in absolutes. ;)

    • Prevention and clinical research are already at the top of the NIH portfolio in terms of funding. Your proposed “rebalancing” of the funding has no other goal but to do away with animal research. Moreover, if you plan to pose the question, you must include funding for everything else — does it make sense to you to fund things such as theoretical physics, the exploration of mars, or number theory? What about theater, literature, or sociology? As for hating humans, a number of prominent activists have likened humans to a cancer on Earth more than once.

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