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INTRODUCTION

First, I would like to thank Professors Coelho and Nosikova for the beautiful introductory. Next, it is imperative to thank President Coleman and the selection committee for this very particular and great honor. While it is a particular honor, it is not, of course, singular, and I hope over the course of this presentation to identify many of the people whose collaboration and collegiality have enabled me to be in the position of delivering this talk to all of you today. As you know, the title is "Genes and Environment, Science and Society," and what I hope to outline for you is both the scientific basis for the work that we do and our accomplishments so far, as well as the broader implications for society of not just our work but of studies of genes and environment in general.

The mandate for these talks was outlined by President Freedman in 1983:

To present significant aspects of his or her scholarly work to the entire university community and thereby stimulate intellectual communication among the many disciplines that comprise the university.

At the first presidential lecture in 1984, Sherman Paul captured the essence of the mission in two brief questions:

What am I thus privileged to say? What have you come here to hear?

While it is impossible for me to know what you have come to hear, I hope that many of you will have an interest in science and, in particular, in the powerful new approaches of the Human Genome Project to providing an understanding of the role that genes and environment play in human disease. The implications of this genetic research then, for not only our own society here at the University, in Iowa City, in the State of Iowa and in the United States, but more importantly for the world as a whole, are broad, and often unanticipated. I hope to provide you with a bit of a personal view as to what some of these implications might be.

My motive in speaking to you today is best captured by Jacob Bronowski in his 1956 book, Science and Human Values. Dr. Bronowski characterized the work of a scientist as follows: "What a scientist does is compounded of two interests: the interest of his time, and his own interest." This does, indeed, well capture what I will outline today.

As a final introductory comment, let me state for those of you in the audience, and I hope there are some, at the beginning of your careers, whether in high school, college, graduate school, or even early in your professional careers, I hope that if nothing else, you can realize from what I outline here that for me, as well as for you, it is a great privilege to live in this country and in this time. With hard work, intelligence and some luck, it is possible to not only work on what interests you, the kinds of things that drive you to stay up late into the evening, reading and thinking about problems, about questions, to establish close personal friendships with individuals who share a similar passion, but also to have that work be something of value to science as a whole. While few of us can work on the most important questions of the time and while most certainly my own work is unexceptional in comparison to the important problems facing us as a human society today, it does provide for the opportunity to make incremental improvements in the lives of people everywhere. No matter what your chosen field, if you can both enjoy your work and feel satisfaction that lives of people somewhere have been bettered by the work that you’ve done, whether through the work itself or even through your personal contact with your fellows, you can consider your life work to be a success.

I will outline three scientific opportunities that have resulted from our work. First, I will describe our work on the Human Genome Project, an extensive collaborative effort that involved many individuals here at the University, as well as around the world.

Next, I will talk about how we have applied some of these developments to our own specific interests in diseases that cause birth defects. I will describe our successful identification of a particular gene that causes inherited eye and tooth abnormalities, our ongoing work to better understand how cleft lip and palate, a common birth defect, results from a combination of gene and environmental influences, and finally, how we have been able to extend these studies from outside of Iowa to international populations where the work itself has both greater urgency and opportunity.

Lastly, I will try to synthesize how these particular projects and the broader ones they represent raise issues of morals, ethics and values for all of us.

 

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