Performing Science as Improvisation: Science Mag

What does it mean to see improvisation in science or to see scientific research as improvisation? In conversations with colleagues asking this same question, we have a couple of answers. One is that the research process itself is improvisational. You have to work with the constraints of what is already “known”,  and the constraints of what you can feasibly test. These shape the scientific stage. You can add information, data, ideas to the scene, yet, how this changes or adds to the science story is not known until others add their contributions.

Listening to the Science Magazine Science Policy June 21st, 2013 podcast with Janet Rowley, I was excited to hear a nice example of scientific improvisation.  Improvisation is the creation of an unscripted scene by an ensemble of actors. The actors do not know what the story will be at the end. They show up on stage ready to work with the contributions of their fellow actors. The training that improvisers put to use is to see everything that another actor does as something that can be added to. How each actor adds to what has already been done varies by their skill, focus and interests. The challenge is to use what has already happened, accept that it is in the scene and add to it. This is what builds the unfolding story.  

In science, our ensemble can be distributed across multiple disciplines, geography and even time. For this story, Rowley discovered that a chromosomal translocation was responsible for the development of the Philadelphia chromosome associated with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). The translocation involved the Ableson gene, known to cause leukemia in mice. Later the Ableson gene was identified as a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, and subsequently  a biochemist and physician scientist to work together to develop a therapy that works remarkably well.

This story is one we can imagine and hope for often in biological research. Yet the trajectory was not visible as the players did their work. It developed as they continued to make use of the information around them to develop the story. The paradox we find ourselves in is that we must use the knowledge we have to construct experiments that add the next piece of information to the story (the next sentence) and yet still be aware that the story will unfold and a version completed with the contributions of others.

In the interview, the first improvisation is of the different researchers finding elements of CML that has led to a therapy. The second and important feature of the interview is on what else needed to be understood for the findings (translocation as producer of Philadelphia chromosome, breakpoint in Abelson, etc) to be validated. An understanding of the relationship of viral oncogenes to cellular DNA and cancer made a change in Ableson at the point of translocation (Rowley’s work) become meaningful.

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