All the way to the bank

Dave Wilson went back to University last week to study why specialisation at an early age might not be a bad thing.

<b>Remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses. – Marcus Aurelius</b>

Last week, I accompanied my seventeen year old daughter on a jolly little trip with a few of her friends to discover more about the sorts of science courses held at one of our more prestigious Universities.

After all, it’s vitally important to discover all you can about the establishment that you might be spending the next four years of your life at after graduating from high school. And I was only too pleased to help.

When we got there, we all split up and I found myself wandering around the Science Department on my own. There, I noted with interest that while the University offered many fine degree courses in Chemistry, Biology and Physics, there appeared to be no general Natural Sciences course.

A Senior Lecturer shed some light on the reason. He told me that the call from industry was for highly specialised graduates who had knowledge of one individual field, rather than for generalists. And the University in question was simply responding to the needs of the market.

That, in itself, seems like a pity. Especially considering that many seventeen year-olds may not feel confident enough to choose one specific subject or know what they want to pursue as a career after they are awarded their degree.

More importantly, however, it fails to take into account that many areas of post-degree research in both industry and academia are cross-disciplinary. Increasingly too, there’s not just an overlap between areas of science but between science and the arts too. And there’s a lot of money to be had by individuals who can exploit those areas.

Georg Tremmel is a living example of a fella that has seen the light at the end of the cross-disciplinary tunnel. He’s the chap, you may recall, that has recently been awarded a grant of no less than £35,000 by NESTA (National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts) to establish a new company called Biopresence that aims to ‘implant trees with human DNA’.

The project itself started, naturally enough, not in a University science department, but at the Royal College of Art, where both Tremmel and co-founder Shiho Fukuhara were on a post-graduate course in ‘Interaction Design’. Keen to provoke debate, they came up with a method that allows the encryption of human DNA within a tree’s DNA, but without affecting the amino acids and genes of the resulting tree.

The result of the exercise could result in the erection of ‘living memorials’ that, according to NESTA, ‘could offer an alternative to traditional graves and headstones’, especially in overcrowded inner city cemeteries.

“Having studied art, it is very hard, and at the same time quite funny, for me to explain to my friends back home that I am about to set up a biotech business,” said Austrian-born Tremmel.

But I’m not laughing. This is serious stuff. With exemplary examples of cross disciplinary entrepreneurship like this being funded by esteemed bodies like NESTA, isn’t it about time that some of our universities reconsidered the narrow minded approach that they are taking towards the teaching of sciences to our young?

After all, using figures such as Tremmel as role models, how could the Universities possibly fail to educate a new generation of high-school leavers that would lead the world in scientific innovation?

On the web