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Innovation 101
Why I’d love to be a college student again
Thanks to U.S. government R&D, universities like Caltech are working on amazing research to make the world a better place.
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We all want to be young again, but I’ve rarely been as envious of young people as I was during my recent visit to Caltech.

Touring the campus, I was struck by what an amazing time it is to be a student at an institution like Caltech. In every field—from engineering and biology to chemistry and computer science—I learned about phenomenal research underway to improve our health, find new energy sources, and make the world a better place.

What’s exciting about this research is that if you’re a U.S. citizen you can thank yourself for many of the incredible projects on campus. That’s because much of the work is made possible by U.S. government investments. It’s your tax dollars at work and they can reap huge returns.

People often think that the U.S. spends a huge amount of money—perhaps too much—on R&D. In fact, all U.S. R&D spending accounts for less than 1 percent of national income.

I’ve written before about the importance of government investment to jumpstart innovation. Government-backed research in universities and labs leads to new ideas and technology that build new businesses, create jobs, and strengthen our overall economy.

But those big, life-changing discoveries and innovations—from the cancer cures to moonshots to solar cells– often get their start as an experiment in a university lab, an equation sketched on a professor’s blackboard, or a student asking, “What if?”

A new idea is a fragile thing. It needs allies to nurture it. Government R&D investments provide that important support. Without it, we would have fewer scientific breakthroughs.

Let me give a couple examples of why this is so important.

Some of the most exciting research I learned about during my visit was from Caltech scientists working on identifying possible treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. All of the researchers received government R&D funding.

Today, about 5.2 million Americans aged 65 have Alzheimer’s, but the number is expected to grow dramatically in the decades ahead. According to some estimates, by 2050, there will be a million new cases every year and the economic burden to the nation to care for those with Alzheimer’s will likely quadruple to $735 billion.

These are projections based on what we know about the disease today. Currently, there is no cure or effective treatment available.

But two of the researchers I met at Caltech are experimenting with innovative approaches to fight Alzheimer’s.

Bruce Hay, a professor of biology, shared his research on how he hopes to turn back the aging clock, delaying the impact of Alzheimer’s. 

Bruce’s research focuses on the role of mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA in the aging process. Mitochondria are the cell’s powerhouses, converting the chemical energy from the food we eat into a form our cells can use called adenosine triphosphate or ATP.

As we get older the mitochondrial DNA mutate, leading to cell dysfunction, and eventually cell death. Bruce’s goal is to prevent the process by cleaning out the mutated mitochondrial DNA, allowing us to feel younger.

Our bodies have a natural quality control process for removing mutated mitochondrial DNA, but it’s very inefficient. Bruce is researching ways to stimulate the removal of mutated mitochondrial DNA. He envisions a day when people would go to a spa for a mitochondrial cleanse to rid their bodies of the mutated mitochondria, helping to keep them feeling younger. I think all of us would want to sign up for a treatment like this.

I also met with Viviana Gradinaru, an assistant professor of biology and biological engineering. Viviana is working on developing new tools and methods for understanding how the brain works and how that knowledge could be used to treat people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases.

Much brain research, she told me, focuses on cellular and molecular pathways of neurodegenerative diseases. This is important research but it ignores the role of electrical signals in brain function.

Viviana has dedicated her career to exploring this area. She’s currently investigating deep brain stimulation, which is the use of electrical stimulation to treat the most debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. While it’s effective, there is not a lot of understanding about exactly how it works or how it might be applied to treat other diseases such as Alzheimer’s. She’s also exploring the use of light to stimulate the brain, a field called optogenetics.

Maybe the most amazing research is her work to create see-through tissue to visualize neural circuits. This innovative technique will help with our understanding of the brain and how various diseases might impact it.

Finally, I had a great conversation with Dianne Newman, a microbiologist who is working on a better understanding of cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that impacts the lungs. Dianne has a unique background in environmental engineering, Earth science, and geobiology. She’s using her diverse interests to carve out a unique area of research into the Earth’s ancient bacteria and how it might help our knowledge of bacterial communities living in low-oxygen environments. These studies are helping us understand multidrug resistant pathogens that infect cystic fibrosis patients. Our foundation is interested in exploring whether any of her research might also apply to our understanding of tuberculosis.

I ended my visit to Caltech with a Q&A session with students. You can watch the video here. One student, a computer science and chemistry major, asked me which areas in science and technology are going to impact society and the world.

It was a great question but I found it hard to give him an answer. From what I saw at Caltech, there is incredible new research underway in every field. Any one of these disciplines would be enough to keep me excited for a lifetime. As I told the students, “The amount of innovation and the pace of innovation—contrary to what some observers say—I believe is faster today than ever.”

With continued government support, the number of amazing new discoveries at our universities will grow, as will their benefits.

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