Editors note: This is part of a series of interviews produced in cooperation with the World Economic Forum with members of its program on Young Scientists, who will be appearing at the Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions
This Q&A features Mande Holford is Assistant Professor, Chemical Biology at City University of New York’s Hunter College. She does research into how the venom of conoidean snails can be used to help fight cancer.
How can killer snails help improve the state of the world?
Most people wouldn’t think of snails as venomous creatures, but just like snakes, scorpions and spiders they have an extraordinary potential to contribute to medical science.
Venom is potent, fast-acting and extremely efficient. In short, it has all the makings of a successful drug. The venom of conoidean snails—or killer snails, as I lovingly refer to them—allows these slow-moving predators to feed on an agile prey by shutting down the prey’s normal functions, preventing them from escaping. Venom peptides from killer snails can be levers to turn off debilitating cell signals. We can use venom peptides to switch off signals pertaining to chronic neuronal pain and to stop cancerous cells from multiplying and forming malignant tumors. Also, the shells of killer snails are gorgeous, so whether it’s their venom or their shells, these snails are making our lives better all around.
What other secrets of nature have you uncovered during your time as a scientist?
I’ve discovered that nature has many secrets and we’ve just begun to understand them. The venom of conoidean snails is similar to that of snakes and scorpions. These creatures are not from a common ancestor, but the compounds found in their venom are similar. Nature found a formula that worked and has repeated it again and again. How that occurs is a complete mystery and a fascinating challenge to figure out.
What other areas of science are exciting you most right now?
Pluto! How can anyone not be fascinated with it after the New Horizon’s flyby? There are mountains in the form of brass knuckles, an atmosphere we didn’t think was there, surface haze due to wind erosion—all kinds of fascinating findings. Also, the areas of synthetic biology and stem-cell regeneration are really exciting. We’re creating life-like entities, whether organs or whole organisms in the form of bacteria. We’re also doing it three-dimensionally. 3D printing, both for mechanical gadgets and biological tissue, is really revolutionary. From the stars to the seas, we’re doing future science and it’s a great time to be scientist.
You recently wrote about the need for young scientists to become involved in diplomacy. Why?
From Einstein to Moniz, scientists have had a long history of participating in international affairs. Early career scientists should embrace this tradition and advocate for a seat at the diplomatic negotiating table. Two recent events—the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, and America’s nuclear arms deal with Iran—highlight the role scientists have to play in establishing sustainable cooperation among nations. Early career scientists will be needed to work alongside diplomats to solve global challenges. They are particularly suited to this role, not only because they have inherited the challenge of developing vaccines, conducting ecological and seismological surveys, and designing new technologies for societal benefit—but also because, as a creative, highly mobile and energetic workforce, they are most at home with the forces of globalization and innovation that are increasingly defining scientific enterprise.
This will be your second Summer Davos: what was the main take-away from last year?
The drivers of the current knowledge-based society are talented individuals at the intersection of research, education and business. This is referred to as the “knowledge triangle”, and I believe the Annual Meeting of the New Champions is a great forum for showcasing models that enhance this. It is incredibly important at a time when early career scientists are being asked to think about their research in terms of commercial and global impacts. In my own efforts, for example, I’ve used my research into killer snails to co-found a learning games company to address the issue of how to effectively engage STEM learners. Our mission is to create science-learning games that achieve knowledge proficiency while having broad commercial appeal. I like to think this entrepreneurship is aligned with the meeting’s goals of highlighting creativity and innovation to address global issues.
Given the negative news at the moment concerning the gender gap in science, what have been your personal experiences of being a young, successful woman scientist?
The lack of gender parity in science is troubling, if only for the reason that 50 percent of the population can be excluded from making society better. I have not consciously experienced the same problems as other women in the fields of science and technology, but sexism in science is real. Whether it’s deliberate or an unconscious bias practiced by both sexes, being a woman in the field can be challenging. What’s empowering at the moment is that this “sexism” is no longer hidden or silent; it gets exposed very quickly via social media. Women are more able to take control of the issue, as we saw recently with the outrage over scientist Tim Hunt’s ill-fated comments. His words may not have been malicious in intent, but when many women are being denied access to a career in science it is important to denounce disparaging behavior.