Meredith Sigman, visiting graduate student, Kaushik Panda, postdoctoral associate, and Diego Cuerda-Gil, visiting graduate student, in the Slotkin lab were one of the three teams that presented at Big Ideas 2.0 on Thursday, March 7. In an interactive format, the audience chose them as the winning team. In this week’s post we hear from Meredith and Kaushik as guest bloggers, explaining the inspiration behind their big idea.

From left: Diego Cuerda-Gil, Meredith Sigman, Kaushik Panda

As scientists we strive for ideas and approaches to solve global problems but seldom are we provided an opportunity to debate these ideas and present them to a public audience. When we agreed to be a part of Big Ideas 2.0, we had little idea of the impact it would have on our lives or that we would win. Our team was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and support we received from the entire Danforth community and the audience. After the event, it seemed like everyone had a question for us. “What was our inspiration?” “Could this really work?” “How did we prepare?” “What motivated us to participate?”  We are honored to have the opportunity to share more about our big idea.

Here at the Danforth Center, and in other such state-of-the-art institutions, scientists are doing amazing research to solve challenges facing humankind. One of the problems is, many of these solutions do not reach the people who need it in time. Every day, science progresses by leaps and bounds; we can develop life-saving cures, explore the universe, split atoms... and yet real people in our own world are still perishing from preventable diseases, drinking unsafe water, and watching their children go hungry.

I (Meredith) grew up in one of the poorest counties in Ohio. I knew that when some of my classmates left school for the day, they likely wouldn’t eat again until they returned for breakfast the next morning. I decided then that I would try to bridge the gap between what human society is capable of and what it actually is. As a society, we can do better. We are so used to thinking of problems, like food shortage and malnutrition in terms of years and decades that we forget real people are suffering today. We need to create a solution now. Our big idea intends to challenge the status quo that it takes a decade for an idea in the lab to reach people who need it.

“The way to get good ideas is to get a lot of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”
- Linus Pauling

There are many reasons for the delay in delivering solutions to the world; public fear and government regulations often stand in the way of improved crops that would make an impact. Our idea can help bridge the time gap. We will change the very process of improving crops by mimicking what plants have been doing naturally since the dawn of time. Our idea will bypass time consuming hurdles and change the face and perception of crop science.

We were inspired by the expertise of our lab. We study the “junk DNA” of the genome. Did you know this “junk” makes up 50% of human genomes? This DNA is not all different things, it’s just a lot of copies of certain things. It copies itself via an enzyme called Transposase. We can capitalize on that and use transposase in a targeted copy and paste mechanism. Our big idea is a tool, TOC-TOC, a revolutionary technology that will copy a plant’s own genes, amplifying pre-existing traits to improve a crop. TOC-TOC will make improving crops easier, cheaper, and faster; bypassing most of the fear-inspired red tape that accompanies most genetically modified crops.

The research grant we received is seed money. We can use it to test some preliminary approaches. These first set of experiments will open new doors, new questions, and new answers that can help us win more grants to work on our big idea on a larger scale.

Humans have made huge advancements not because of our ability to solve big problems, but because we refuse to be satisfied with the status quo. We should all be conceiving ideas to push boundaries and elevate the human condition. In the words of Linus Pauling, “The way to get good ideas is to get a lot of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” The more ideas you throw away, the bigger your ideas can get. But an idea is worth nothing if not shared. Platforms like Big Ideas 2.0 allow us and other teams to not only develop an idea, but also refine it, and above all, share it. When was the last time you had a big idea?

Thank you to everyone who attended the event, our panel of judges and all of our event sponsors. Click here to watch the full taping of Big Ideas 2.0, via HEC TV.