Model Systems and the Need for Curiosity-Driven Science


In a time of hunger games-style scientific funding, one researcher speaks out.

University of Texas professor Julie Pfeiffer, PhD, is a big believer in curiosity and the application of model systems. Despite the inherent role of curiosity in science, there has been a shift in recent years to perform research geared more towards what will receive more grants or attention. Dr. Pfeiffer has been working with poliovirus for over 16 years and frequently has to answer questions about why work on an eradicated virus is so vital, despite not bringing in “the big bucks.”

Poliovirus is great to use to create model systems because not only does it grow easily, but it is also relatively safe due to vaccination for lab workers, not to mention that we have a pretty solid understanding of the virus based off a century of working with it.

“We know a lot about poliovirus and we have great tools in our toolbox. If you’re going to tackle a tough problem, it helps to have a great toolbox. For other fields, the ideal toolbox may be fruit flies, worms, or yeast. Collectively, these model systems have illuminated biology and have led to major advancements in human health.” stated Dr. Pfeiffer in her recent PLOS Pathogens article on the importance of model systems.

Using a polio model system has aided in work with norovirus and other gut viruses. In her article, Dr. Pfeiffer highlights this practice to not only draw attention to the relevance and efficacy of model systems, but also the importance of curiosity-driven basic science. It’s easy to get wrapped up in translational relevance and disease burden; however, it is vital that we don’t lose our pursuit of work that does not always translate to big dollars or prize-winning science.

Dr. Pfeiffer was kind enough to answer some of my questions recently, and two of her answers drove home just how vital such work is. Firstly, I asked if she thought there were other eradicated or “almost” eradicated diseases that could make decent models. She replied, “No. We use poliovirus as a model system because of its great tractability, safety, and ease of use (not because it’s nearly eradicated). [Other eradicated diseases such as] smallpox and rinderpest would not be good model systems because they have been completely eradicated from circulation, making biosafety and tractability major issues. [That being said,] if the poliovirus eradication campaign is successful, the idea is to stop vaccination. If this happens, poliovirus will likely become a BSL3/4 agent and I will no longer work with it.”

Lastly, I was curious as to how she felt we could better support curiosity-driven science, especially during the current political climate. Dr. Pfeiffer responded that “Scientists need to do a better job of conveying the benefits of basic research to politicians and the public. Many people are simply unaware of how discoveries happen. Once they are informed, most people (regardless of political affiliation) support basic science research. This leaves two issues: Who should be engaging the public and how should it be done? Personally, I think that the most effective way to engage the public is for all scientists to speak to their families, friends, and others who would like to listen (eg, when the person seated next to them on an airplane asks “What do you do?”, tell them!). As for how to talk about science, I’m a big fan of simple examples (eg, the most exciting recent revolution in genetics and gene therapy, CRISPR, came from people studying yogurt bacteria) or personal stories (eg, my lab used poliovirus to discover that intestinal bacteria aid viral infection in the gut).”

After reading more of her work and getting to pick her brain, it became increasingly obvious that modeling is not only highly necessary, but it truly aids in those pursuing projects out of curiosity and pure scientific wonder, which is something we should work diligently to protect.

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