When I was in middle school, a
poisonous spider bit my right hand. I ran to my mom for help ó but
instead of taking me to a doctor, my mom set my hand on fire.
After wrapping my hand with several
layers of cotton, then soaking it in wine, she put a chopstick into my
mouth, and ignited the cotton. Heat quickly penetrated the cotton and
began to roast my hand. The searing pain made me want to scream, but the
chopstick prevented it. All I could do was watch my hand burn - one
minute, then two minutes Ėuntil mom put out the fire.
You see, the part of China I grew up
in was a rural village, and at that time pre-industrial. When I was
born, my village had no cars, no telephones, no electricity, not even
running water. And we certainly didnít have access to modern medical
resources. There was no doctor my mother could bring me to see about my
For those who study biology, you may
have grasped the science behind my momís cure: heat deactivates
proteins, and a spiderís venom is simply a form of protein. Itís cool
how that folk remedy actually incorporates basic biochemistry, isnít it?
But I am a PhD student in biochemistry at Harvard, I now know that
better, less painful and less risky treatments existed. So I canít help
but ask myself, why I didnít receive one at the time?
Fifteen years have passed since that
incident. I am happy to report that my hand is fine. But this question
lingers, and I continue to be troubled by the unequal distribution of
scientific knowledge throughout the world. We have learned to edit the
human genome and unlock many secrets of how cancer progresses. We can
manipulate neuronal activity literally with the switch of a light. Each
year brings more advances in biomedical research-exciting,
transformative accomplishments. Yet, despite the knowledge we have
amassed, we havenít been so successful in deploying it to where itís
needed most. According to the World Bank, twelve percent of the worldís
population lives on less than $2 a day. Malnutrition kills more than 3
million children annually. Three hundred million people are afflicted by
malaria globally. All over the world, we constantly see these problems
of poverty, illness, and lack of resources impeding the flow of
scientific information. Lifesaving knowledge we take for granted in the
modern world is often unavailable in these underdeveloped regions. And
in far too many places, people are still essentially trying to cure a
spider bite with fire.
While studying at Harvard, I saw how
scientific knowledge can help others in simple, yet profound ways. The
bird flu pandemic in the 2000s looked to my village like a spell cast by
demons. Our folk medicine didnít even have half-measures to offer.
Whatís more, farmers didnít know the difference between common cold and
flu; they didnít understand that the flu was much more lethal than the
common cold. Most people were also unaware that the virus could transmit
across different species.
So when I realized that simple
hygiene practices like separating different animal species could contain
the spread of the disease, and that I could help make this knowledge
available to my village, that was my first ďAhaĒ moment as a budding
scientist. But it was more than that: it was also a vital inflection
point in my own ethical development, my own self-understanding as a
member of the global community.
Harvard dares us to dream big, to
aspire to change the world. Here on this Commencement Day, we are
probably thinking of grand destinations and big adventures that await
us. As for me, I am also thinking of the farmers in my village. My
experience here reminds me how important it is for researchers to
communicate our knowledge to those who need it. Because by using the
science we already have, we could probably bring my village and
thousands like it into the world you and I take for granted every day.
And thatís an impact every one of us can make!
But the question is, will we make the
effort or not?
More than ever before, our society
emphasizes science and innovation. But an equally important emphasis
should be on distributing the knowledge we have to where itís needed.
Changing the world doesnít mean that everyone has to find the next big
thing. It can be as simple as becoming better communicators, and finding
more creative ways to pass on the knowledge we have to people like my
mom and the farmers in their local community. Our society also needs to
recognize that the equal distribution of knowledge is a pivotal step of
human development, and work to bring this into reality.
And if we do that, then perhaps a
teenager in rural China who is bitten by a spider will not have to burn
his hand, but will know to seek a doctor instead.