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Agre Presidential Address: A "Pep Talk" on Behalf of the People of Science

SAN DIEGO—Forget the image of a data-driven, lab-coat-wearing nerd: In reality, scientists are “passionate humans” with a chance to serve society like few other professionals, AAAS President Peter C. Agre said at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting.

In a deeply personal speech reflecting on his career, Agre celebrated the “people of science”—students, teachers, heroes, mentors, colleagues, and the public—who connect scientists with a larger world throughout their lives.

These relationships inspire and sustain researchers, he said, making science "a rewarding career like no other."


Peter Agre delivers the President's Address at the Annual Meeting in San Diego

The AAAS Presidential Address is the traditional opening event of the Annual Meeting, and this year welcomed attendees from more than 40 countries. Agre, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, was introduced by Marye Anne Fox, chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, and local co-chair for the meeting, and by former AAAS President James J. McCarthy.

Agre's address came at the end of a busy year as AAAS president, including unprecedented visits to Cuba and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea as part of the association's science diplomacy efforts.

His own journey from young experimenter to Nobel laureate is the story of modern science in miniature: full of unexpected discoveries, international partnerships, and a powerful sense that science should be useful.

Agre's childhood was colored by brilliant potassium flares and other experiments concocted by his father, a chemist and professor. The "great fortune of seeing science firsthand" pushed him toward his career at an early age, he said, while serious disabilities suffered by two of his siblings made him aware of science's obligation to help people.

Watch the video of Agre's address, with introduction by McCarthy.

The next lessons came from his heroes like Linus Pauling, whose famous chance meeting with Harvard hematologist William Castle and subsequent work with Harvey Itano solved the puzzle of sickle cell anemia.  "A brilliant scientist still needed the help of others," he recalled, "and needed those personal contacts."

Entering the laboratory at last, Agre was convinced that he had found his life's work. "Reading about science and going to lectures is wonderful, but putting your hands on the scientific equipments and generating data," he said, "is unmistakably irresistable."

Agre received the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of aquaporins, the channels that control water molecule transport through cell membranes in a process essential to all living organisms. He shared the prize with Roderick MacKinnon of Rockefeller University.

Agre recounted the aquaporin story and the subsequent research tracing the impact of the protein and its cousins in tissues from kidneys to plant roots. But unlike most scientific slideshows, the graphs and molecular maps shared space with snapshots of happy lab meetings, family vacations, and science colleagues from all over the world.

The retired teacher who volunteered for a study on aquaporin and kidney function. The neuroscientist who fled Iran to become a human rights advocate and research partner in Norway. The children clustered around a malaria research hit in Zambia. For Agre, they are inddispensible pieces of his life and work.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Agre made a "conscious decision" to move beyond the laboratory. In addition to his duties as the director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, he is the chair emeritus of the National Academy of Science Committee on Human Rights. He encouraged scientists to work with programs like the committee and the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition early in their careers.

Agre also urged young researchers to seek opportunities for science diplomacy, saying scientists "have special capacities to cross borders and boundaries." Polls show that American science and technology is admired and respected even in places that take a dim view of the U.S. overall, he said. "This is an opportunity for us as do things that other groups like elected officials can't do."

With AAAS's Center for Science Diplomacy, Agre led two historic scientific delegations to Cuba and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, countries with a strong research tradition despite years of isolation from their colleages. Both nations lack the resources enjoyed by U.S. researchers, he noted, "but science goes on."

At the end of the 2010 meeting, Agre will turn over duties to AAAS president-elect Alice S. Huang and begin a one-year term as chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors. Huang is a senior faculty associate in biology at the California Institute of Technology. She was previously a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School, and dean for science at New York University.