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From our labs to your dinner table: A monthly event series connecting fundamental science to everyday life

Back to Vestigo Issue 3

By Aaron Conley

Key image associated with the Lab-to-Table Conversations: an Erlenmeyer flask filled about 2/3 of the way with blue-green liquid and surrounded at the top by two intersecting halos (in a simliar manner to how atoms are represented).
The Lab-to-Table logo was designed by an intern on the Basic Sciences communications team, Stephanie Castillo. Castillo is currently completing a Ph.D. in science communication at Vanderbilt.

How does fundamental biomedical discovery and its applications connect with your day-to-day life? How does research impact and inform society? Through a new monthly event series called Lab-to-Table Conversations, the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Basic Sciences looks to explore these questions.

Basic science discoveries are the key building blocks for advancements in technology, human health, and our economy, but many people do not understand what curiosity-driven science is—or its importance. As one stark example, the National Institutes of Health’s Human Genome Project, which largely funded basic research, “has resulted in nearly $1 trillion of economic growth—a 178-fold return on investment,” according to the NIH. The HGP alone resulted in entire new industries and types of personalized medicine and targeted therapies that have transformed patient care and outcomes since its completion in 2003.

In 2020 the apparent disconnect between basic research and the community led the Basic Sciences communications team to create Lab-to-Table Conversations as a bridge between our research labs and our community. The events provide educational outreach and engagement for our local and national communities through captivating dialogue about basic research that brings unique personalities, stories and expertise together.

Although the event series was formally named “Lab-to-Table” in June 2021, the first event of the series took place the previous February. The inaugural event, “Inclusion and Equity in Biomedical Research,” was held in recognition of Black History Month and featured three faculty members and a university administrator who discussed their experiences in their careers as Black members of academe, historical impacts of prominent Black scientists, and key issues to tackle in the future.

Lab-to-Table Conversations consist of interviews and discussions between Vanderbilt researchers and well-known external experts who specialize in a relevant scientific area, bringing together fresh perspectives. The chosen topics represent areas of intersection between scientific research and current societal concerns or interests.

Events thus far have included discussions of addiction, sobriety, and art during the pandemic with Will Welch, the global editorial director of the magazine GQ; a highlight of memory and how it works with Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist and author of the New York Times bestseller Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting; a discussion with Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center cancer researchers about the latest research on colorectal cancer and what it means for patients; and more.

Organic dialogue

The format of our Lab-to-Table Conversations allows for wide-ranging conversations that take
off from an initial question and often veer into unexpected territory. The discussion with Welch,
Addiction, Sobriety and Art in the Time of COVID-19,” was led by the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research Director Danny Winder and VCAR member Erin Calipari and covered topics ranging from Welch’s editorial direction of GQ to changing stereotypical perceptions of masculinity, rapper DMX to actor Brad Pitt, addiction stigma to biomedical research, and Ernest Hemingway to jazz.

Welch shared how he was particularly touched by a tweet that was shared with him about DMX’s passing.

Tweet by Twitter user @shaTIRED that says: "Mourning DMX should mean acknowledging the ways we as a society have criminalized addiction. It means acknowledging how our language perpetuates stigmas towards people with substance use disorder. It means moving towards a more supportive world for people with addictions" from 12:13pm on April 9, 2021. At the time the image was acquired, the tweet had 30.4K retweets, 725 quote tweets, and 100.5K likes.

“It gives me goosebumps to read that,” Welch said. “A sentiment that was coughed up by the Internet, shared over 28,000 times because DMX on some level succumbed to a lifelong substance abuse struggle. And I thought, ‘Wow. That is pretty substantial discourse to
be encountering ambiently on Twitter … because a celebrity passed away.’”

“It also goes to show that people are ready to have this conversation,” Calipari followed, “and thinking about what addiction is and who it affects and how to help them, rather than sweeping it under the rug as has been done in the past. As it impacts celebrities and people we love and know, people feel: How do we fix this?” Calipari also is an assistant professor of pharmacology.

Larry Marnett, dean of basic sciences, also was a part of the conversation with Welch and emphasized the role of basic science research in finding solutions to this pressing societal issue: “The incredible advancement of neuroscience research technologies provides hope that basic science can make fundamental discoveries in the brain that will provide new strategies for treating addiction to change the arc of this disease.”

In “How the Brain Remembers,” Professor of Pharmacology Lisa Monteggia, also Barlow Family Director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute, spoke with Genova about her newest book, Remember. The discussion covered how memories are made and how we retrieve them; if forgotten memories are erased forever; why some memories are built to exist for only a few seconds while others can last a lifetime; the distinction between normal forgetting and forgetting due to Alzheimer’s disease; and how to create better expectations for, and relationships with, your memory.

These first events garnered substantial interest both within and outside the Vanderbilt community, leading to their rebranding and expansion as the Lab-to-Table series.

The first event of the newly branded series occurred on June 17: “Origins of Life: A Conversation Between a Biologist, a Theologian, an Astronomer, and a Philosopher.” Faculty with diverse expertise discussed questions such as: is the definition of life just based on chemistry or biology, or do nonmechanistic considerations such as purpose play into it? Do science and religion conflict in this space? How common is intelligent life in the universe? How do we think about synthetic or virtual life?

What’s in store for future Lab-to-Table Conversations? Our August event was “Watts, Metabolism, Data Analytics: Science’s Impact on Cycling Over 25 Years,” with former Tour de France competitors George Hincapie and Bobby Julich and EF Education-NIPPO Pro Cycling’s head of medicine Dr. Kevin Sprouse; future events include a discussion on medical marijuana with a panel that will include Dean Marnett, and a chat between VCAR and country music star Jason Isbell about addiction and sobriety.

Through these events, we hope you’ll learn something you can share at your own dinner table. What’s your next table topic?

You can sign up to receive alerts about upcoming events and view all of our past conversations in the series on the Lab-to-Table website: https://vanderbi.lt/L2TVU. We are always looking for new event ideas! If you have an idea that you would like to share, please send it to basicsciences@vanderbilt.edu.

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