There’s a lot of darkness in the world right now. There seems to be an endless supply of conspiracy theories, fringe ideas become centered, urgent issues being ignored, and evidence and reason that is denounced and derided. What is the response to this? Cynicism? “The world is doomed so who cares anyways.” Blind optimism and the hope that things will just work out? Ostriching? That is, sticking your head in the sand and pretending the problem will go away? No to all of these.
The answer is the same as for any challenge: hard work and steady, incremental change. When you’re stuck in a hole do you bury yourself? No, you climb out! And the only way to counter bad ideas is with good ideas. Good ideas is our way out of the hole we’re in.
That’s what I want to do here. Share a couple of my favorite “good ideas.” Or least what I see as good idea. Maybe you’ll agree, maybe you won’t, but that’s the fun of free thought. In the end, I want try to make the world a better place for more people, even if it’s just a tiny bit.
Ok, first some background.
My name is Dr. Derek Simon. The “Dr.” is from my Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology, which I earned from the University of Michigan in 2013. I have always loved science and nature, and I always knew I wanted to be a scientist one day. Hence the title of this blog, “Dr. Simon Says Science (And More).” Get the bad joke? Simon Says… read my blog 🙂
I was the type of kid that would spend his summers turning over rocks looking for creepy crawlies underneath, or catching fireflies and frogs and putting them in jars so he could watch and study them. My parents had a video of me when I was seven years old asking me, “Derek, what do you want for Christmas?” I responded with, “A bug kit. And That’s all.” Even back then, we all knew…
As a youngster I dabbled in nearly all the sciences: geology (trips to rock quarries and an accumulation of 3 huge boxes of rocks that to this day are still in the basement of my parent’s house), chemistry (I started a fire on my kitchen table by mixing two random chemicals together1), entomology (the aforementioned backyard expeditions for bugs), microbiology (culturing bacteria from doorknobs and my dog’s saliva on homemade agar petri dishes), physics (I made a homemade tennis ball launcher in physics club that used lighter fluid as fuel), and more.
I eventually refined my passion to “curing disease” and discovered cellular and molecular biology, or how life works at the molecular level. I was amazed by the incredible complexity of the cell, and how the vast diversity of biological life, behaviors and structures are all ultimately derived from the same collection of molecules, participating in an insanely complicated molecular dance that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years.
My first lab experience was as freshman in college. Since then, I had been in labs nearly continually up through my post-doctoral work in my early 30s. At various points in my career I studied the endocrinology of aging and prostate cancer, the development and cancer of the adrenal gland, cellular signaling pathways in cancer, and most recently the neuroscience of drug addiction at the Rockefeller University. = But truth be told, I don’t do this type of science anymore.
A few years ago I hit the wall in academia. As a kid, I thought “curing disease” was just finding that one magic pill through mixing stuff together at random until…“Eureka!” Oh, how wrong I was. As a real scientist, I learned how much work (just to be clear, oftentimes incredibly repetitive and tedious work) it takes to even figure out something tiny. As a grad student, I would make the joke that “if A is the discovery of something new, like a novel molecule or gene, and M was the drug given to a patient to treat their disease, your entire thesis project might take you from C to D, maybe to E if you were lucky…”
As you can imagine, after over 10 years “at the bench” as we say, I got burned out by doing the type of research I was doing and no longer felt the passion for the work. To me, moving from C to D didn’t feel like accomplishing anything or helping anyone. Though I still believe strongly in basic research in general. There are so many dedicated, hard-working scientists that make unseen contributions to our world everyday, but for me, I didn’t want that life anymore.
So I looked for a different path.
The one I found was a fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences (AAAS; they also publish the journal Science, by the way) and somehow wound up at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). I could not be farther from my field but I loved the work anyway.
Five years later I am still working as a contractor for USAID (honestly, I’m ready for another change) but through my diversity of experiences on this new path, my passions have spanned in so many different and unexpected directions. I am thankful I made that unplanned transition because I have been exposed now to a whole constellation of amazing ideas that never would have occurred to me on a more traditional scientific path.
Some of those ideas could very well help save the world one day.
That’s what this blog is about: ideas on cool and interesting things that I think may help to make the world a better place.2 My goal for this blog is to simply share a few of my favorite ideas that are not necessarily in the mainstream right now but I think could have a real potential to help the world in the future. And most importantly, I want to discuss the data and research behind them: why do I think these are good ideas and what is the evidence for that?
I have so many interests in so many areas but I will mostly stay within my past and present fields: the biomedical sciences and international development. I will try to be focused on topics within these very deep buckets while at the same time remaining flexible to write about anything cool I happen to stumble across (tech, psychology, philosophy, so much knowledge out there…). I also don’t plan to claim these ideas as my own, but when it comes to good ideas, the more people talking about them the better!
But before I share a few of the things I may write about, I think I should share some of my values and assumptions. After all, if I’m writing a blog about good ideas to make a better world, how exactly do I define that “better world”?
At the core of my beliefs is that I think all people are equally important and have equal value, regardless of who they are or identify as, where they live, and under what circumstances they were born. I believe all people should have the same right to pursue a life of their choosing and be given the same opportunities and chances for happiness and fulfillment as everyone else. I will make no attempt to prove these values scientifically but this is simply the foundation for the topics I will pursue in this blog. Sadly, I do not think many people in the world explicitly share these values and even worse, some people actively believe in the opposite or promote a world-view that either intentionally or not, is moving us farther from these values. But I don’t care about those people. I’m not going to try to convince anyone about my values. They are are simply my working assumptions for the things I want to talk about: how can we make the world better for everyone? How can we make life on earth (not just for humans either, mind you) more equitable, safe, healthy, peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable?
Ok, so now that’s out of the way: what are some of my ideas?
One of my favorites that I’ll focus on for the first few posts is related to climate change and food security: entomophagy or the eating of insects as food. (ento = insects, phagy = to eat). My passion for bugs continues 30 years later since that Christmas “bug kit” video and my summer bug catching adventures…
Now, I’m not the first to argue that eating insects is a great idea. Actually, Medium itself has already curated a bunch of edible insects articles published here. And eating insects itself is hardly a new idea. It’s been practiced by cultures all over the world and throughout human history. What’s “new” about it is making it mainstream. I’ll argue that we should rotate in more insects into our diet, and cut back on environmentally-destructive cattle and pigs.
But that’s just a taste (pun definitely intended) of things to come. I also want to talk about a whole range of issues, many that I’ve worked on directly or indirectly in my career. These include: drug addiction and why it should be treated as a medical ailment and not a criminal disorder (the focus of my old blog posts and some of post-doctoral research), the virtue of the social business model over the standard profit-driven model, the strengths and flaws of international development and how to make it better, and plenty more.
Thanks very much for reaching the end of this and I hope to keep you engaged and learning! After all, anyone who’s alive is still learning; we’re all just figuring it out as we go. I hope you join me on this learning journey as Dr. Simon Says Science (and so much more).
And now, let’s start digging out of that hole we’re in 🙂
© Derek Simon 2022
- I know now that the reaction was potassium permanganate and glycerine, a very intense redox reaction. Actually, I found this video on youtube of it. Isn’t the internet great?
- Truth be told, I actually started blogging way back in 2015 or so but gave it up a few years ago. A lot of my old posts were on neuroscience, drug addiction, and other topics. You can still find them in my “archive” (i.e. the drop down on the right).