The War on Pain

Let me tell you a story. It’s about pain—my pain, your pain, every American’s pain. It’s about my grandmother’s pain as she suffered through treatment-induced dementia while dying from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. It’s about my cousin’s pain as she went through surgery after surgery in an effort to give her some semblance of an enjoyable life. Medical technology improved both their lives, but the solutions weren’t perfect.

It’s about other pain, too. Daily pain. Broken bones don’t heal quite right. Scar tissue stays. If my dad forgets to take his medicine for a day, his joints creak and his vision devolves. My grandfather has one functioning eye, and my other grandfather has Parkinson’s and sometimes can’t control his movements.  He receives deep brain stimulation, an advanced medical technique, and it helps. It’s about people who skip insulin injections to avoid the fear and pain.

I owe my humble respect to the suffering of my loved ones, and to everyone who suffers. I’m writing about this today because of a single phrase Milan Yager, the director of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, said to me today over lunch.

“All of us know we’re going to have pain in our lives.”

Look at that sentence. It’s a simple, obvious sentence, but it carries a lot of information about the human condition. It reminded me that helping people with pain is why I chose biomedical engineering. It’s why people care about my work. Heck, if I make something new and useful with my research, it may save me from some pain later in life. That would really bring my research full-circle. Somehow, I had dug a trench so deep in the grunt work of biomedical engineering that I lost track of the end-goal: less pain.

If I can’t remember why I’m doing what I’m doing, how can I expect anyone else to know or remember? So let me come clean about my (our) work. In the broadest interpretation of the profession, biomedical engineers are here to solve your pain. Doctors and other medical professionals are tasked with the monumental task of treating and managing your pain (and yes, often doctors contribute to the work of solving pain), but biomedical engineering arose relatively recently with the lofty ambitions of developing lasting solutions. Today, we’re one of the key cogs in the medicine machine. Fortunately, some of our efforts have really, really worked.

Now, a natural caveat for all of us currently in the trenches is that these projects take time. Real solutions take real time, and often it may not seem clear how our work solves your pain. That’s on both us and you. The gap is often considered a leap of faith by the nonscientific observer, but I urge you to ask the questions. As your publicly funded biomedical engineer and scientist, I am obligated to do my best to develop and explain that connection to you. But you have to take the time to understand and then believe that explanation and keep some trust that through years of research and development, I and other biomedical engineers are creating tools to solve your pain.

Please, if you are confused about some technology or technique in medicine, ask us. We want to connect these solutions to your problems—it’s why we do it. It also helps to keep us focused. We may not have all the answers, but we are trained to help find them, and it is our duty to help explain them.

Finally, if you like what medical technology has done for your pain or you are concerned that the medical technology isn’t good enough, consider making that a priority in your political decisions. Yes, privately owned charities are making big steps in private funding for medical research, but that’s not an excuse to scale down government support. Yes, people in the US think we should be supporting medical research when asked in a poll, but because our political interests are more immediately invested elsewhere, those ideas don’t get implemented into policies. Every single person wants less pain. Talk about it. Learn about it. Vote on it.

Ask me about it.

(Source for featured image)


The Good Science Podcast

(Header credit to

I love a good science podcast. They give the context of scientific progress in ways often obscured through more conventional forms. Popular science tells us how scientific results are applicable to our lives; textbooks teach us the lessons learned from science; research articles give us the latest results and their context and justification in the briefest form possible. A good science podcast peers into the process of scientific learning and design from a personal perspective. It’s an excellent source of general mentoring for a young researcher.

This is all to say that Julia Galef’s Rationally Speaking podcast shines an exceptionally revealing light on the individual thought processes that fuel the greater scientific process. Her lively interviews with world-class scientists consistently feature 1) fundamental connections between seemingly disparate fields of research and 2) bits of insight that help to contextualize broad, enduring research efforts. While other science podcasts touch on these aspects, Rationally Speaking’s sustained blend of cutting edge research updates and widely applicable “meta” perspectives in science is difficult to beat.

In Rationally Speaking’s 212th episode “How to invent game-changing technologies”, Dr. Boyden describes his journey in developing optogenetics and expansion microscopy, which are exceptional tools in neuroscience. If that sounds interesting to you, go ahead and follow this link [click here] to listen to it. The rest of this post is in the form of a response to some of the ideas that come up in the episode (but you don’t need to listen to the podcast to understand the rest of this post).

I have to admit that I’ve drawn an artificial partition in my mind separating biomedical engineering into imaging sciences and everything else, with a secondary partition between biomaterials and cell work. I don’t even know where neuroscience fits in there. Anyway, I think these partitions, in one form or another, are pretty common. Most BME departments have “tracks” or subdisciplines mostly influenced by the representation from adjacent departments, be it chemical engineers and their materials, mechanical engineers and their physical testing, physics and their optical techniques, or any combination of biology and chemistry you can imagine. More often than not, these different disciplines create friction and metaphysical barriers when they converge. However, Dr. Boyden and other especially innovative scientists tend to bring these paper walls crashing to the ground.

You could almost say some of the hard problems in science are considered hard because people don’t often look outside their field. A classic example is Einstein reinventing some tensor math to create his gravitational constant when mathematicians allegedly hanging out in the same coffee shops had already developed some of the tools he needed. I believe I’m paraphrasing this idea from Amir Aczel’s God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe. This case isn’t universal, and often better science requires greater attention to the fundamentals of the field, but with the diversity of research in the world today and their increasing potential for overlapping applications, it’s worthwhile to keep an eye out for new approaches to old problems.

Anyway, to develop expansion microscopy for observing small components of neurons, Boyden used polymer and hydrogel systems developed in the same early 1970s polymer research boom at MIT that produced my PhD advisor. In effect, Boyden combined neuroscience, imaging, biomaterials, and cell biology to produce a landmark tool. That may sound like a bunch of classic biomedical engineering to you, but for me, a lowly PhD student in the trenches of learning a 40-year old polymer analysis technique, it’s closer to a wall-toppling earthquake. I can’t help but wonder what it’s going to take to get there (inventing powerful interdisciplinary tools) from here (fixing research devices that still have a floppy disk drive).

Boyden pushed one other idea that caught my ear. He started by naming two regimes of biomedical engineering research but quickly expanded it to four:

  1. See what’s happening in the body
  2. Control what’s happening in the body
  3. Simulate what’s happening in the body
  4. Build what’s happening in the body

Now, for Boyden this list was a brief passing description, but it highlights how much wiggle room tissue engineering has as a field. With the assumption that each regime here builds on the results of the previous regime and the understanding that all four regimes are currently developing simultaneously, it becomes apparent that tissue engineering, which is arguably the field most aligned with the fourth regime, relies massively on the previous three regimes and will often take the form of “trickle-down” projects and results that may fill relevant gaps in the preceding three regimes. Just like all new scientific fields, tissue engineering has some deep, deep rabbit holes.

I like to believe that my current project is one of those vital stopgaps for tissue engineering and that I won’t be working on polymerization characterization forever. Until then, a little bit of context helps.

Hot Take: Is Basic Research Dead?

France Cordova, the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), took today to practice pitch her new idea for government-funded scientific Convergence Accelerators at UT Austin. If Convergence Accelerator sounds like a start tagline to you, well, that’s exactly the point. (Actually, the first time I heard it I hoped it was a Back to the Future-type device.) Cordova specifically mentioned that she was hiring an experienced entrepreneur to help spearhead this government initiative for pushing preliminary scientific research toward deliverables. We’re looking at the birth of Startup-Style Science in the U.S.

I’ll go ahead and list some of the key components of the seminar including significant audience questions. The seminar was recorded, so there should be public record soon of the event, but here’s the firsthand scoop:

  • The Convergence Accelerators will start with a pilot group in the fiscal year 2019. with 60 million in funding for the first year.
  • Convergence Accelerators will be cohorts of about 20 people working together to solve problems that fit in the NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, especially focused on Harnessing the Data Revolution and the role of AIs in human work and security since, according to Cordova, they’re the most likely areas to produce applicable results in the short term.
  • The Convergence Accelerators will provide funding from 6 months up to possibly several years (verbal statements by Cordova).
  • Deliverables are not necessarily companies or products. It could be a demo or proof of scientific concept (also verbal statements).
  • The “phase zero” of the aims to seed team members for a project through solicitations and workshops.
  • The competitive nature of the program and multiple phases of review suggest that groups may not receive long-term funding if their “pitch” does not meet unspecified requirements. Notably, after the first review, the project is judged more on a pitch basis than a formal written research proposal. I’m surprised this didn’t cause more of a stir at the event.
  • Overall, the crowd seemed disgruntled that the proposal for this program wasn’t more thought-out yet.

Honestly, I like the idea, and I’m not just saying that because my next three years are funded by the NSF. I think science is essentially a rigorous method and means for improving human life, and Cordova wants to help that along by bringing together people with good ideas and advanced skills to push the bleeding edges of scientific knowledge toward useful applications. That translation is both a massive effort and incredibly important for human well-being. Every research proposal is built around a critical core premise: this will help people (eventually, somehow, but definitely!) Why not build a bridge across the treacherous chasm from exploratory research to practical application? And while we’re at it, we might as well give the strong, useful ideas priority access. We can do that because we’re the NSF. That’s what we do. In the abstract, it’s a beautiful idea.

Of course, the audience–scientists whose income depends on the whims of the NSF–had plenty of perspectives and criticisms to offer. Some of them are gently summarized above. I have to assume that’s what Cordova wanted–she called it a round-table discussion on the event invitation. A round table discussion about a raw idea with a bunch of researchers is a dangerous proposition, even for the director of the NSF.

At the start of the presentation, my colleague wondered aloud why she chose UT of all places to pitch this conversation. As far as I’m aware, we’re one of the first places Convergence Accelerators have been specifically discussed outside the NSF itself. From a research perspective we’re great but not exceptional. But I learned last week we’re arguably the best startup city in the country [1] [2] [3]. So when you put our research and startup activity together with our position as a prominent public university, we’re the perfect place to pitch a startup-style initiative in publicly funded research–what an exciting place to be!

I can’t wait until private accelerator companies [(there are tons just in Austin) [1] (and even companies to help you understand how many accelerator companies there are in Austin)] hear about this. It’s a bit confusing honestly. If THE NSF is imitating the booming accelerator market, is that just the best way to achieve anything these days? Is this just another absurd market bubble? What does that mean for science? What does it mean for the individual entrepreneur, the lone inventor, the maverick scientist? (Are these characters just figures of the past?) Are results and translation all that matter?

To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.

The weird thing is that the NSF has been the bastion for basic research in the US. The gold standard, in fact. Any biomedical engineering will tell you to send your proposals for NSF for basic research and NIH for translational application.But the NSF mission statement doesn’t specify basic research–it explicitly describes ways in which science will be used to benefit mankind and the United States. So maybe this pilot program doesn’t represent such a big shift after all, but that perspective raises another question: if the NSF is fundamentally designed to support translational research, what is basic research and does it even matter?

P.S. Hey, this is a clickbait-y opinion article on a scientific topic most people may have no interest in! Either way, I find it fascinating, and I’m very excited to be writing about something big that’s happening right now. I have more ideas and anecdotes about the role of research, both translational and basic, so I’ll write about those and other research-related topics when I can. Thanks for reading.

P.P.S. If you’ve read this blog before you may notice the name change. I think this blog name will serve well as I work through my ideas on graduate school, research, and just about everything I care about. We’ll see.

The End of the Beginning

Previous Post: Lend, Donate, Sell?

This blog series has been an exciting journey and possibly the best use of a summer I’ve achieved. However, all things must end, often so better things can begin. So with the end of summer and the start of my first year in graduate school, I am ending the Personal Library Series.

That does NOT mean I’m abandoning Bookchain. In fact, my enthusiasm for this project is at a record high. Just yesterday, I attended a startup advising event and learned that Austin is one of the best cities in the U.S. for startups. There’s nowhere to go but up.

Blogging has helped me develop the ideal of personal libraries into a unique solution for improving reading communities. It was a great start. Now that we’ve talked about Bookchain for a while, it’s time to take that solution underground for some heavy research and development. But first, let me reiterate as efficiently as I can the lessons I’ve learned from all this blogging and preliminary research.

I’ve obviously learned a lot, but there’s so much more to learn and apply, especially in terms of implementation. I have never started a company or made an app before, and this isn’t exactly an easy project for a first-timer. I’m borrowing so many ideas from cutting edge technologies and large established systems, it’s difficult to know where to start. There’s a long journey ahead, and this is barely the tip of the iceberg.

Thanks for reading through this summer blog series! When we make notable progress in the future, you can check again here for updates from the source. 



The Personal Library Series

Lend, Donate, Sell?

The Personal Library Series

Previous Post: Bookchain for Niche Interests

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pathway to app implementation and discussing with my teammates the semantics of Bookchain and the impression we hope to make. At some point, I need to focus my thoughts into an elevator pitch. As much as I would like everyone to read each of my blog posts in series, it’s not going to happen–and the people with the most money to invest tend to have the least time. There are a few related thoughts I want to write about at length, but I’ll touch on them only briefly here to get on to today’s topic, inspired by a question from Julia.

Bookchain should be the cheapest possible app to use with zero direct associated cost. That much seems obvious. But the app itself will take money to develop and maintain. I’m considering angel investors, grants, donors, app competitions, and maybe crowdsourcing and in-app ads. But I don’t want to agree to anything that sacrifices social good for corporate interests. It sounds naive, but I’m serious. Anyway, I’ll write more about this later. Right now, it’s additional context for my response to Julia’s question.

“If I didn’t want some of my books anymore, could I sell or donate them through Bookchain?”

My immediate, instinctive answer was “Yes!” but without proper consideration that idea opens up a whole can of worms. I want Bookchain to promote interconnectivity through books in the community, so it makes sense to facilitate peer-to-peer sales and even peer-to-peer gifts and peer-to-community donations. But how do you facilitate that while emphasizing that Bookchain is about sharing and community first? Sharing is delicate and often has to be taught–commerce is not. If you don’t give sharing a head start, sales could easily choke it out, killing the app in spirit. Even with a big head start, the risk remains. I have a few thoughts on how Bookchain might prioritize sharing.

First, remember that Bookchain is not a library itself but a facilitator of interlibrary cooperation, both public and personal. This means Bookchain assumes no liability for books or people–each exchange through it is simply facilitated peer-to-peer. This means even the integrity score is only an influence and a heuristic–the lender is still responsible for the decision to lend a book and Bookchain cannot be held liable if it is not returned. This means selling and donating books will also be facilitated peer-to-peer, Bookchain non-liable. Bookchain cannot and will not store or hold physical books ever for any reason. Bookchain is not a library. Bookchain is not a bookstore. How you use its services is your responsibility, but we recommend sharing!

Second, remember how I started this post talking about the path to app development? Well, most developers recommend starting with a bare, core product. Bookchain’s core is sharing, not commerce. So that core product will facilitate sharing, incorporating public libraries as soon as it can. Facilitating sales and donations will come later, and we reserve the right to put off sales functionality as long as we see fit. It’s not like we’ll be making any money from it, anyway. And you don’t need Bookchain to donate your books, but we’ll help with it anyway as soon as we can.

We’ll get to selling and donating books eventually–after we develop a community of sharing. I know it’s still early, and we may come across necessary detours down the road, but I hope this post gives our fellow bibliophiles and library lovers a good sense of our priorities.

Next Post: The End of the Beginning

Bookchain for Niche Interests

The Personal Library Series

Previous Post: Personalizing the Public Library

This is a short post addressing a niche frustration I have that could be helped by the Bookchain system. The anecdotal argument can be extended to other niches, but should be done with caution, as some arguments may exceed the capabilities of Bookchain in its current proposed form.

Websites and apps (thanks, Duolingo!) have made excellent progress in making early language-learning incredibly accessible to smart phone-enabled audiences. Not long ago, Duolingo added Korean to its language options–to my delight as a half-Korean American. I have been dutifully studying Korean via Duolingo for twenty minutes a day every day.

However, the daily interaction has only increased my appetite for Korean language experiences. Sure, I could start watching K-drama or listening to K-pop, but my main interests in Korean language boil down to comic books and scientific communications–both are written. So I jumped to the conclusion that I should be reading children’s books in Korean–it would add a healthy, interesting, and intellectually accessible supplement to my direct Duolingo learning.

I started looking for baby Korean books online and found I was not alone. In fact, some language and learning experts seem to think this is an ideal way to learn language [1] [2] [3]. I’ll just claim that it feels ideal for my self-taught approach to learning and personal goals with Korean.

I was caught off-guard by how difficult it was to find free children’s reading material in Korean online. Maybe I was being naive. Duolingo does not support this approach. Forum searches pointed me to websites entirely in Korean–too complex for me to navigate at my current level–or to surprisingly expensive children’s books on Amazon.

The Amazon pages made me stop and think; this too could be addressed through Bookchain. I could spend money on each of these books, quickly “consume” them, then have then go more or less to waste, OR I could reach out through my Bookchain network and see if anybody has a pile of books for beginner Korean literacy, including textbooks and children’s picture books. This would be an ideal situation for a book playlist, maybe even a series of playlists from a Korean language-phile to help you transition through levels of complexity in reading the Korean language. And of course, if NOBODY in the Bookchain network had such a group of books, including the public library, I could purchase them and start my own playlist on the subject to share with others.

I have to explain why public or school libraries alone do not fulfill this need. As a personal example, many universities (looking at you, University of Oklahoma) do not offer Korean courses, and they may overlook your language of interest as well, which means their library may be no help. As for the public library, they simply cannot afford exhaustive coverage of both explicit teaching and enjoyable practice books in every language. But your local Korean church minister may have a collection of Korean children’s books he’s willing to share if he knew you were looking. Why not facilitate that connection through the dedicated Bookchain system? With appropriate framework and enough trust, anybody could be the librarian you need.

P.S. I’m a terrible researcher. Right after reading this I found Beelinguapp, which largely addresses the language-reading concerns. If it were entirely free, like Duolingo, it would be perfect. Bookchain needs to be as free as possible.

P.P.S. The Duolingo website has “labs” that help generate a similar effect in terms of language engagement. However, they’re still only provisional and currently limited to three of the available languages.

Next Post: Lend, Donate, Sell?

Personalizing the Public Library

The Personal Library Series

Previous Post: Why Just Books?

I’ve been skirting around public libraries for a while here, but I think we’ve defined the personal library system with Bookchain robustly enough by now to survive direct comparison. Bookchain is not meant to replace the public library system. Instead, it serves to complement and expand the existing book sharing system and possible improve its overall accountability and efficiency. (Note: After looking a bit further at what Overdrive and Libby do with the public library, some of the ideas here are pretty redundant. However, if we can introduce the additional “Personal Library” layer around the services they provide, the core ideas here are still worth implementing.)

Let’s start with some key differences between public and personal libraries. Much of them stem from ownership; public libraries are owned by the government and personal libraries are owned by individuals. This difference inherits implications from competing theories of free and government-controlled markets, but let’s try to keep things practical. Public libraries are public spaces which means most all law-abiding citizens are allowed there, while personal libraries are usually held on private property, making them far less accessible. The use of an app as an intentionally public space helps remedy this. However, personal libraries will always have the potential drawback that a lender can simply refuse to share a book without explicit justification, unlike public libraries. Another big difference that could be a definitive value-added point for personal libraries is the selection of books available. Whatever their system for buying books, public libraries trend toward popular interests and high circulation books. While the same could be said about the general populace of book-buyers, personal libraries offer much more leeway for deep dives into niche interests, topical collections, and esoterica. The further your book search deviates from the bell curve, the greater the likelihood you’d find your book in a personal library instead of a public library. This theory needs to be validated in practice, but it highlights the personal library’s role as an exceptional supplement to public libraries for accessible reading options. Of course, personal libraries including popular books can also buffer the demand placed on public libraries to buy additional copies of books in fad seasons.

Another key factor separating the two systems is geographic location. This affects what selections are available nearby, travel time, and even cost when considering long-distance transfers. For both personal and public libraries, proximity can be overlooked in especially niche interests. For example, if a personal library halfway around the world has a unique book of your interest, the fact that it’s available through Bookchain may outweigh the issue of distance and cost. However, on the other end of the spectrum, if you really want a relatively common book and your neighbor has it, that can be preferable to a public library request. But if the nearest personal library with that book requires a commute or delivery, the cost and weaker social tie/trust may make waiting on the public library copy the better option. Another theory to be validated, but I expect the majority of Bookchain activity will be highly localized, regardless of how widely the app is adopted. Moreover, personal libraries could be literary lifesavers in diffuse areas with poor public library access.

There is also the question of differential community engagement with and through public and personal library systems. However, the novelty of that comparison may mean nobody is quite prepared to accurately theorize on that subject.

Perhaps the most relevant difference between public and personal libraries is their punishment for overdue books. Public libraries, as a government institution, have grounds to charge borrowers with enforceable fees for overdue books. Personal libraries, as peer-to-peer interactions, enforce overdue books most effectively by something akin to ostracization. This effect compounds with tight-knit communities, and a large regulated community through Bookchain, which incorporates validated integrity data, could massively update that trust-based system, making it widely viable in the modern era.

Let me address the hypothetical convergence of the public and personal library systems through an amendment to my earlier description of the Bookchain app. What if you gave Bookchain validated (as in, the library would have to agree to this, too), access to your public library data? And what if the public library’s data updated in real time on Bookchain? I know there may be massive technical and regulatory obstacles here (If Libby/Overdrive can do it, maybe we can too! Or simply piggyback with them in a noncompetitive way?), but consider the benefits. When you search Bookchain for a book you’re interested in, you should be able to see public library availability in addition to nearby and friendly personal library availability. Knowledge is power, and Bookchain isn’t going to come between you and your public library when it could be facilitating that interaction.

Also, remember how I suggested new borrowers should only be able to borrow one or a few books at a time to establish a reliable integrity score? If Bookchain knows your public library history, it can immediately prepare a partially-justified integrity score, and both your personal and public library borrowing habits can factor into your score and data. Note: The integrity score probably won’t ever influence your public library access, so if you screw up big time in the personal library system, you can always default to public and rebuild your score. Everybody deserves a second chance.

In summary, (check out that header graphic) Bookchain wants to work together with public libraries to share more books with more people. More accessible books, more sharing, more community, and more interaction. This is the vision of the expanded, multifaceted, broad-access library. It’s a bibliophile’s utopia. Let’s make it happen.

As always, thanks for reading, and I eagerly welcome all criticism and commentary on the ideas presented.

Next Post: Bookchain for Niche Interests