Director’s Message September 2012

Welcome to the Interactome.

Even if you’ve just glanced at this issue of GenomeLIFE, you’ve come across references to the “Interactome”, our collective name for the faculty, students and staff at Duke who are engaged in the study and discussion of the broad array of issues at the intersection of science, technology and society. While some members of the Interactome are based in the IGSP itself and focus their research, teaching and scholarship directly in the genome sciences, many others are based in departments, schools and other institutes across campus. The Interactome is meant to be all-encompassing, inviting and welcoming; the topics and issues that are raised by new scientific discoveries and their applications are far-reaching and require every colleague we can find – and every perspective they can bring – to join in the discussions and to, well, interact.

“Let’s imagine how we might define our community within the Interactome – and let’s share those ideas.”

There is a growing awareness in society that both the pace and breadth of exploration across a wide swath of scientific and technological innovation have real impacts on our lives and how we view our lives. Such awareness, whether reflecting excitement or concern, brings with it both opportunities and responsibilities for us all. The opportunities invite us to probe deeply into issues by taking advantage of the colleagues and students here on campus, but those are matched by the responsibilities to turn those discoveries into useful and even transformational advances for society. We’re also obliged to share those insights and engage the public at large as they – and we – grapple with the ethical, policy and legal implications of new discoveries or capabilities, especially ones that appear to some to be controversial, “unnatural,” or even deeply troubling.

As was anticipated when the IGSP was conceived some dozen years ago, many such examples stem directly from the original Human Genome Project and its derivative ‘omics investigations; however, examples from other fields such as neuroscience, stem cell biology, nanotechnology, and the information sciences now raise very similar issues for individuals and society. As overlapping as these issues are, the controversies, discussions, policies and any apparent solutions are also likely to be similar and thus transcend the genome sciences. Hence, the need for an Interactome.

So, what might the Interactome be? That, of course, must depend on the members of the Interactome. We will need creative and ambitious ideas. Some may build on events and activities that we’ve enjoyed in the IGSP since we began – our monthly Genome Forum dinners, for example, at which faculty and students gather for informal discussions on different topics, or our various series of seminars, symposia and discussion groups geared to different interdisciplinary groups. But we will also need new ideas, bold ideas, to capitalize on the traditions of Duke that make the concept of an Interactome possible here, across schools, across disciplines and across perspectives, eclipsing potential barriers that might, at other institutions, make such interactions unlikely if not impossible.

What would you do if you could do it? Imagine those interactions – whether in person, electronic or artistic, formal or informal, scheduled or by chance. Imagine the colleagues – whether down the hall, across campus, or halfway around the world. Imagine capturing the energy and ideas of students at all levels – whether in the classroom or outside of it. Imagine software or a touch screen app that would enable you to share documents or notes with the Interactome and see what others are doing in real-time. Software that would allow you to comment on ideas, or ask for advice, or seek out a collaborator. An app that would invite you to glance over draft documents or look at a spreadsheet and say “have you thought of this?” or ”oh, wow” or ”you should talk to so-and-so in Philosophy” (or at Sanford or Pratt or Nicholas or…you get the idea!). And, perhaps most importantly, even “are you sure this is right?” Imagine how you might engage the colleagues and students you want. In short, let’s imagine how we might define our community within the Interactome – and let’s share those ideas.

The mark of an Interactome like this might best be an interrobang – a fusion of question mark and exclamation point – representing reflection, impact, excitement, emphatic ambiguity, perhaps disbelief or surprise. That has been the world of the genome sciences and policy and now can be the world of the Interactome.


Huntington F. Willard, Director

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