The June briefing hosted by the Congressional Nanotech Caucus was on nanomedicine - specifically, the use of nanoparticles in cancer treatment. The guest list comprised mostly representatives of the Alliance for Nanohealth, a Houston-based collaboration of researchers that aims to find nanotechnology solutions to unresolved medical problems. If any group of researchers can find a way to beat cancer, it's this one.
The intros started and my attention began to wander. Three pm is a tough time for a briefing – especially on one of the hottest days in DC. I was fighting sleep until Mauro Ferrari, president of the Alliance, took the podium. After brief opening remarks, he showed an image on the screen of a young woman with three children: a boy and twin infant girls. He told the story of his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer at about the time of the photo and died two years later, before the field of nanomedicine had emerged. She underwent the standard cancer treatment of the time: untargeted and highly toxic to the entire body, not just the affected organs. Ferrari, with a PhD in mechanical engineering, began working on microdevices for medicine, and was directed on a path toward nanomedicine that has not ended.
I was struck by the personal tragedy he had presented, even after he ended his talk with a new family photo of a second wife and five children - three older siblings and a younger pair of twins. It was clear that his story had captured others' attention as well, and it stirred an interest that carried through the talks of his colleagues. His co-presenters elaborated on different methods of cancer treatment, providing examples of how nanoparticles target cancer in a variety of ways, such as seeking proteins or being directed by increased blood flow associated with tumors.
My take-home messages from these briefings are usually bits of information that I can relay to one of more of my colleagues and often have to do with technical details for exhibits or activities. Science educators are always walking a fine line - trying to deliver complex and cutting-edge content to different segments of the public in engaging and compelling ways. But this talk had demonstrated one of the most effective ways to grab an audience and inspire in them the urge to know more – the power of the personal narrative. By allowing an entree into his personal motivations, Ferrari awakens in a listener the same questions that drive the researcher. Why can't minute doses of specific drugs be targeted to only tumors and not healthy tissue? How can nanoparticles find cancerous tissue in organs deep in the body? Can materials with different cancer-fighting properties be engineered to work without toxic drugs?
These observations about a personal presentation are not new, of course. The need for dynamic presentations about complex content has long been recognized. And surveys of museum visitors have identified nanomedicine as a topic that particularly resonates with the pubic. But something about the immediate involvement of the person who tells a story makes the delivery especially effective. Later that day, I found myself Googling the speaker, just to fill in some of the details of the life and work history he had outlined. That kind of post-encounter curiosity and investigation is just what we should hope to stimulate in museum visitors for every topic – including nanotechnology.