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Nov2k 2014 – On Science Fiction

From Science Fiction to Science Faction; an inspiring symposium to unravel the mysteries

by Jessica De Loma Olson

 

Human beings have a natural tendency to be creative, to explore their own imagination and to create universes that are far from reality. Superheroes with unimaginable powers, alternative universes where anything is possible and incredible robots that overcome humans, are only a few examples. Jules Verne is popularly known for somehow predicting the future. As a science fiction writer, he described futuristic machines and concepts, such as submarines and videoconferences, that seemed impossible in his time. Humans have the incredible capacity of being imaginative, speculating about the future and of being creative to invent new possibilities. But, are our scientific discoveries catching up to our imagination? This year’s Nov2k conference can help provide insight to this question.

Nov2k is an event organized by graduate students from Karolinska Institute and Stockholm University that year after year gathers some of the best scientists from different fields. During the 20th and 21st of November all students, professors and general public were able to enjoy fascinating lectures about, to mentions a few, regenerating the heart, creating Petri dish food and analyzing our upcoming future. For 15 years in a row, and with the help of the Center for Gender Medicine and other postgraduate programs, this event aims to create a comfortable intellectual environment where some of the most brilliant minds can share ideas – Nobel Prize winner Edvard Moser participated in last-year’s event – as well as create new possibilities and inspire future generations.

…where some of the most brilliant minds can share ideas – Nobel Prize winner Edvard Moser participated in last-year’s event…

 

Regenerating body parts, enhancing humans and creating a map of our neurons might seem like science fiction indeed. And that was this year´s theme for Nov2k: analyzing current discoveries that not so long ago seemed like complete science fiction, and understanding in what direction we are going with these. During this two-day event the public could enjoy a multitude of sci-fi lectures, workshops aiming to stimulate our imagination in solving future upcoming challenges and an incredibly creative poster battle.

Among the keynote speakers was Kenneth R. Chien, a professor at Karolinska Institute who delivered an inspirational lecture on his field of interest: cardiac regeneration. Science has always struggled against the fact that the heart is one of the organs incapable of regenerating itself. However, Professor Chien’s talk alluded to a promising future as the field is gradually advancing towards the possibility of regenerating cardiac tissue.  Choosing big challenges, recognizing when to take the right chance and having no fear at all, are the three main advices Chien gave his audience to conclude his inspiring lecture.

From regenerative medicine to transhuman design, a lecture given by Ronald Jones, faculty at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Humans are “fixed” all the time nowadays. From hearing aids to leg prosthesis, we can now not only preserve our lives but enhance our abilities. Jones then motivates us to question ourselves to think if we are really crossing moral boundaries. Will normal humans someday not be able to compete against these improved transhumans? If so, should we start putting limits to our own creativity? “Can we create transhumans? Yes, but the real question is if we should,” explains Jones.

…this contributes to what is known as “the active couch potato syndrome”

 

Relating to the need for analyzing our own abilities and their impact in the near future, Kathryn Myronuk, from Singularity University, showed the public around the exponential growth of technology. A paradigm shift in the use of robotics will affect the current job positions available to humans. However, rather than worrying about the possible non-desirable impacts, Myronuk emphasizes that society should focus instead on how to overcome these limitations and start adapting to this coming future.

Other keynote speakers that were invited to the event were Mark Post, responsible for creating a new viable meat source in the lab; Björn Högberg, who uses DNA as Lego bricks opening the doors to new possibilities for drug delivery in the future; Ruth Ley, analyzing how genes can modulate our microbiome and how this can affect our phenotype; and Jesper Ryge, whose aim is to understand the brain’s circuits by modeling its complex network.

But Nov2k is not only about hearing brilliant scientists speak. Several events are organized to showcase the best among of the new generation of scientists. This year it included exceptional student speakers like David Schmidt, who denounced how science is producing paper and not knowledge, reporting the “cherry picking” process when selecting data.

Other student speakers included Nina Kaukua, who gave an insight to her research focused on adult stem cells and the possible regeneration of teeth, and Matthias Lidin, with a speech titled “The Swedish lifestyle paradox”. Sweden is probably considered all around the globe as having a healthy and fit population. However, recent studies show a different perspective. Although only 9% of the Swedes say they never exercise, being one of the most active countries in Europe, 21% of the population admitted to sit more than 8,5 hours a day. Lidin explains that this means people in Sweden have a tendency to workout and exercise during concrete periods of time, but do not mind sitting the rest of the day, maybe due to their work environment; this contributes to what is known as “the active couch potato syndrome”.

Science is much more than that. It is passion.

 

In addition to these incredible lectures, participants also had the chance to get in contact with 3D printing. Daniel Ljungstig, from 3DVerkstan, talked about the different types of 3D printing that currently exist and all the possibilities and applications related to it. Have you ever imagined reconstructing a skull with what seems to be plastic puzzle pieces? Or having a hand like the superhero Iron Man? It might sound foolish, but it is now a reality. This “Iron Man” option is an affordable, practical and fast solution for children that need a prosthetic hand and that might require several of them throughout their growing period.

Live 3D printing during Nov2k. Photo by Stephanie Wiegner.

Live 3D printing during Nov2k. Photo by Stephanie Wiegner.

And last but not least, one of the best activities of the event: the poster slam. Seven young researchers had three minutes each to defend their research and make the public want even more. For this, they could pick any type of format to present it but they all had to have one thing in common, it had to end with a cliffhanger. This initiative showed that science is not all about being static in a lab and sharing knowledge in a plain and formal way. Science is much more than that. It is passion. Endless hours in a lab that in the end can be presented in some of the most original ways possible. Arts and crafts, superheroes and superb actors had their spotlight for a couple of minutes during that amusing morning.

This year’s Nov2k was a stunning experience with an irresistible theme. Who has never seen a superhero movie and thought about those alternative worlds where anything is possible? With this event the scientific community was reminded that almost everything is possible as long as we can imagine it. Our responsibility as scientists is to let go of old established concepts and to push the borders of reality through our own creativity. These inspiring two days had the aim to motivate science to blend conflicting concepts and to convert science fiction into science “factions”, one step at a time. Like every November, Nov2k will be back next year with even more astonishing experiences for you with the will to inspire the future of medicine and science. As Carl Sagan said: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere”.

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