The true champions of biomedical research

By Sean Kearney

Historically, Thanksgiving has been one of my least favorite holidays. I love to eat, but I’m vegan and it can be really unpleasant to be around carnivorous family members constantly remarking on my dietary restrictions, saying, “Life would be so much easier if you just ate butter.” I often feel like a maverick, the Lorax, if you will, proclaiming, “I am the Sean and I speak for the animals!”

In reality, I don’t speak for the animals, and I don’t think there are many people who do. Despite our technological advancement, we’re still so barbaric and, in a sense, backwards that we forcibly impregnate animals, steal their babies, and use them for whatever purposes we see fit. It’s especially poignant in scientific settings, where we not only forcibly impregnate animals, but also then use them to test the effects of drugs or to see how we can reverse cancer or fend off infections that we gave them in the first place. We may have come a long way in being more conscientious in our care and use of animals, but in many ways the scale and scope of animal experiments only makes it more likely that we’ll inadvertently or, in some cases, intentionally harm or misuse animals just to please an intractable reviewer.

We’re often at a distance from the animals in our lives – it’s easy to view the hamburger you’re eating as never having been an animal who lived, breathed, experienced pain, joy, frustration, and ultimately death. With lab animals, we remove this distance. We interact with them and sometimes get to know them. But with large experiments, the interactions become more transient, and I think it’s easy to become complacent, to view the animals as objects of a research goal rather than the enablers and, really, champions of science they are.

I’ve wondered if we could honor experimental animals by recognizing them more explicitly in papers; in addition to mentioning (n=5) the animals used in successful experiments, also recognize the others that died only to produce inconclusive results. If nothing else, it may encourage authors to reconsider whether they need 100 mice for an experiment that only calls for 10. When we acknowledge the contributions of animals in our work, we stop perpetuating the notion of animal as object and encourage stewardship and respect for the lives of others.

I’ve worked with experimental animals – as much as I hate to admit it, certain scientific questions are today (and maybe for a long time) impossible to answer without the use of animals. I love animals, and I’ve never felt more uncomfortable or conflicted than when working with lab animals. I still haven’t found a way to justify using them in this way, and I don’t think I ever will. But I’d rather the people doing these experiments today are the ones who really care about animals and care that the work they’re doing will make it so that we don’t do these things to animals in the future.

As biomedical scientists, we’ve committed ourselves to bettering the lives of others. We should keep this commitment in mind and treat animals as the living, feeling beings they are.

References:

Lappe, Frances Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. 1971. Ballantine Books.

Safran Foer, Jonathan. Eating Animals. 2009. Little, Brown, and Company.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1906. Doubleday, Jabber, and Company.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. 2009. HarperCollins.

Image credit: 23 and me

Destroying the world, pipette tip by pipette tip

By: Sean Kearney

My face morphs into a painful grimace as I toss a stalk of excessively wilted, two-week-old celery into my compost bin. Wasting food is hard for me. I think about the billions of people who scrape by every day without the luxury to dispose of food. It’s unfair, I think, that I can choose to trash a moldy peach or unceremoniously pour out a soured gallon of soy milk. All I would need to do is to plan more strategically, to predict my culinary digressions and I could save 90% or more of the food I end up tossing.

But then, working in the lab, I think it’s nothing to dispose a liter of contaminated cell culture media after forgetting in a dark place for some weeks or months. Surely, the media is orders of magnitude more expensive than a stalk of celery–yet, emotionally it feels so much easier to part with. Somehow, I’ve become desensitized to the tremendous amount of waste that I produce every day as a lab-bound scientist, and I wonder what’s contributed to this negligence.

Each day I toss out hundreds (sometimes thousands) of used pipette tips, destined straight for the biohazard burn box. Add these disposables to the plastic wrappings covering each new package, the cardboard boxes carrying new supplies, the styrofoam containers carrying ice (or dry ice) for temperature sensitive reagents, and the tremendous amount of reagents leftover after any given protocol, and I start to feel overwhelmed. If an alien walked into my lab, it’d be more likely to think that my job is to fill trash receptacles than to actually do science.

Lost in this sea of waste, I start to have an existential crisis. Is my work worth the many landfills of material I’m producing? What’s the cost-benefit analysis here? Why are people funding me to destroy the planet pipette tip by pipette tip? It can be easy to forget that for every batch of happy enterocytes, I’ve probably inadvertently released enough carcinogenic hydrocarbons into the atmosphere to cause a worrisome spike in the number of gastric cancers thirty years in the future.

Of course, I can’t really afford to think this way. We as humans are really good at making messes; we may only be slightly better at cleaning them up. But as long as the pace at which we clean up our messes just exceeds the pace of our making them, it’s a promising future. So the next time I toss a bottle of media, I’ll try to think about the new niche I’ve created for a swarm of happy microbes; the next time I have to part with a moldy peach, I’ll think of the yeast returning the fruit to the soil and air from which it was born.

Image credit: Mettler-Toledo, Rainin Pipettes