In Episode 51, Quinn & Brian ask: Are we thinking about CRISPR all wrong (and what the hell is CRISPR)?
Our guest is C. Brandon Ogbunu, an evolutionary systems biologist working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University.
Although the title is different, his role is almost identical to Brian’s here at INI: He uses experimental evolution, mathematical modeling, and computational biology to better understand the underlying causes and consequences of disease, across scales: from the biophysics of proteins involved in drug resistance to the social determinants underlying disease.
In doing so, he aims to develop theory that enriches our understanding of the evolutionary and ecological underpinnings of disease, while contributing to practical solutions for clinical medicine and public health.
So, like Brian, it’s pretty apparent why C. Brandon is vital to the survival of our species. (The similarities are just uncanny, aren’t they?) We’ve talked about CRISPR before on the show, but if you’re not familiar, here’s a brief and overly simplistic overview of this potentially world-changing technology: it’s scissors for DNA. It’s still a very young technology – it was only patented in 2012 – but it has the potential to do everything from eliminating genetic diseases from our lineage, to making our food supply more efficient and productive, to creating a real-life Jurassic Park. But what can’t we do with it – and perhaps more importantly, what shouldn’t we be doing with it? That’s what we’re going to find out today.
INI Book Club:
From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton
Learn more at https://vivo.brown.edu/display/cogbunug
Read C. Brandon’s writing: https://medium.com/ogplexus
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Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And I'm Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: And I forgot to bring Teddy to work today.
Brian: That's true. I forgive you.
Brian: This is the podcast where we dive into a specific top or question affecting everyone on the planet right now or in the next 10 years.
Quinn: Or so.
Brian: If it can kill us or turn us into CRISPR robots, we're into it. Our guests are scientists, doctors, engineers, politicians, astronauts, we had a reverend. We work together towards action steps that our listeners can take with their voice, their vote, and their dollar.
Quinn: Brian, this week's episode is, hey Brian, are we thinking about CRISPR all wrong? Also, what the hell is CRISPR?
Brian: This week's guest is Brandon Ogbunu. He's an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University. He's an evolutionary systems biologist and uses experimental evolution, mathematical modeling, and computational biology to better understand the underlying causes and consequences of disease across scales. From the biophysics of proteins involved in drug resistance to the social determinants underlying disease. Holy shit.
Brian: In doing so, he aims to develop theories that enrich our understanding of the evolutionary and ecological underpinnings of disease, while contributing to practical solutions for clinical medicine and public health.
Quinn: I couldn't be happier that I made you read that entire thing.
Brian: I fucked up one word.
Quinn: No, more or less, it's just preposterous.
Brian: It's insane, the amount of-
Quinn: Would you say, and I know we've talked about this before, it's weird and it's creepy how much the answer is yes, that that description more or less matches up with your day-to-day responsibilities here at Important, Not Important?
Brian: Exact same.
Quinn: Pretty close. Like 80%, right? You would say that you guys do the same stuff for 80% of the time?
Brian: Good god!
Quinn: Yeah, super smart dude.
Brian: I almost want to say that you're making some of that up, but you're not.
Brian: That's his description.
Quinn: Where would I get those words?
Brian: I have no idea. I don't know how he said those words.
Quinn: Yeah, not even close. Love talking to this guy.
Brian: Yeah, he's awesome.
Quinn: Just want to go take one of this classes immediately, but I did college and it was fine and I barely escaped so I'm not going to do it again, but I'll take it.
Brian: I will just say this. He is just the perfect ... This is who I want all my teachers to be.
Quinn: Oh, I know.
Brian: He's the perfect man to be an educator. So great.
Quinn: I know. Would that have changed things for you?
Brian: Everything. Eh, probably not.
Quinn: Probably not. All right, awesome. Let's go talk to Brandon.
Quinn: Our guest today is Professor Brandon Ogbunu. I should mention his Twitter handle is, unless I'm mangling this and it's the wrong person, is @Big_Data_Kane.
Brandon Ogbunu: You got it.
Brian: So good.
Quinn: I cannot tell you, as a big data loving former asthmatic who cherishes tight lyrics in the golden age of rap, how many boxes that checks for me. I'm looking forward to it.
Quinn: Anyways, we are going to ask together, are we thinking about CRISPR all wrong? We're going to also tell you what CRISPR is because I have a feeling most people don't have any idea what the hell we're talking about, but that's the goal today. Brandon, welcome.
Brandon Ogbunu: Appreciate it. Thank you for having me.
Quinn: Sure, man.
Brian: We are very happy to have you. Quickly, just tell our listeners who you are and what you do.
Brandon Ogbunu: Great. Like you heard a little bit, I'm a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown and I'm a computational biologist that's interested in what I call diseases across scales. That means everything from the very molecular level, like how to genes and proteins interact in certain diseases, to the societal level like how do people and cities and the climate and all that influence the way diseases spread.
Quinn: That feels pretty timely with everything that's going on with the fight that the Congo's still dealing with, with Ebola, and things like that, and all the measles outbreaks all over the world because people refuse to vaccinate their fucking children.
Brandon Ogbunu: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian: Very interesting.
Brandon Ogbunu: Oh mean, don't even get me started.
Quinn: That might be a different conversation. Awesome.
Brian: Awesome. It's been, I guess, a couple ... It has been a little bit since we recorded an episode. As a reminder to everyone, our goal with this whole thing is provide some quick context for the question that we are asking and then dig into some action-oriented question that get to the heart of why we should give a shit about it and what everyone out there can do about it. If that sounds good right now, let's do that.
Brandon Ogbunu: Let's make it happen.
Quinn: Rock and roll. Brandon, we like to start with one important question, sort of set the tone of things. Instead of saying, "Tell us your whole life story," we like to ask Brandon, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Brandon Ogbunu: Well, you know, I confess. I cheated and I've heard a few people answer that question.
Quinn: Oh, you.
Brandon Ogbunu: And most people, they do it thoughtfully and modestly. I'm not going to be modest.
Quinn: Yeah, get it!
Brian: Here we go!
Brandon Ogbunu: Nah, I'm just playing.
Brandon Ogbunu: Nah, what I say is I like the stuff that I do and I think I work on important issues. What I'll say is less me personally and just more people like me, I think, who are unafraid of walking into new disciplines and fields and being the dummy in the room and asking different core questions, that's really what defines my career. I think a question like this, you ask me two, three years from now, I'll have a different answer. I'll be working on different problems and different questions. I think my interest in gene editing, for example, is an example of that.
Brandon Ogbunu: So I think that's what I'd say, kind of being courageous about entering new fields, asking difficult questions, and moving on that.
Quinn: I love that, man. I think that's important.
Brian: Yeah, being a leader.
Quinn: Yeah, yeah. We need more of those, for sure. All right, awesome. We're going to set up some context for today. I got some notes here to get everybody on the same page. Brian can ask some questions. Brandon, you can tell me all the specific places why I'm wrong.
Brian: Yeah, you'll probably need to correct Quinn.
Quinn: And that will be great. So what the hell is CRISPR? Stolen from "Wired" magazine, one of my favorites. CRSIPR is a "revolutionary new class of molecular tools that scientists can use to precisely target and cut any kind of genetic material." It's scissor for DNA.
Brian: There you go, thank you for that.
Quinn: Yeah, you're welcome. How new is it? It's pretty fucking new. Two hard working genius ladies, Jennifer – I'm going to mangle this – Doodna? Dowdna?
Brian: Doudna, I think that's right.
Quinn: Brandon, do you know which one? And Emmanuelle Charpentier published and patented the process in just 2012, which is not a long time ago.
Brandon Ogbunu: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Quinn: And shit has kind of gone off the rails since then in a good and maybe not so great way.
Quinn: What does it do? "CRISPR systems are the fastest and easiest and cheapest method scientists have ever had to manipulate the code of life in any organism on earth, humans included." It is scissors. It truly is scissors for the code of life, right? It's like search and replace on ... I mean, hopefully you're not using Microsoft Word, but whatever you want.
Brandon Ogbunu: Word?
Quinn: So it's exciting, it's new, it's also terrifying. It's obviously more complicated than it sounds. As usual with science, which is great, we're finding out a lot of what we don't know, but what we think we can do with CRISPR, gosh, let's see, everything the dreams of bio hackers everywhere, right? We could theoretically eliminate disease at the germ line forever in humans or mosquitoes. We can make plants and food more efficient and productive. We could bring back an extinct species, right?
Quinn: So the better question is what can we not do with it? We're finding out again what we don't know. And again, that's science and that's important that there's stumbling blocks and finding out how the body interacts with itself. We found out most people could basically be immune to CRISPR or not because our species DNA, specifically, has spent a hell of a lot of time developing ways to defeat intruders or changers to the source code, which is what keeps you alive. You're welcome.
Quinn: I think what we're going to get in today is really, we haven't even made up the rules for using this stuff yet. If you've watched anything with, for instance, the US Congress in the past year are trying to figure out what the fuck Facebook even is. These old white people don't know what that is. So getting them to regulate CRISPR is an entirely different issue.
Quinn: Because it's, at least in some ways, really simple and there's not a ton of rules, there's been a lot of chatter about how to make those rules. A lot of enterprising folks and future super villains don't really care as much and are just trying to get out there and doing the damned thing. Obviously, there's been some news about that recently that could really change the world one way or another.
Quinn: So what I want to get into it is, Brandon, maybe you can offer a more concise description or a specific example of how it could potentially be used, what we know about, and then we'll get into our bigger question of are we thinking about CRISPR all wrong? Are we asking the right questions at the right time?
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah. I think your summary was correct, even at the detailed level, you got most of it right.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think you go back to the 2012 discovery and the other discoveries after that about how we're able to use it to do these very cool and interesting things, but I think it started with a discovery, a very basic science discovery, in bacteria. I think that's what makes CRISPR such an exciting thing. It has its weird acronym. It's Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Who cares? Whatever.
Brandon Ogbunu: But the point is it's basically a primitive ancient immune system for bacteria against viruses. This is something that kind of exists in nature already that we were able to wield for this practical purpose. I think that's one of the neat things about it is evolution kind of optimized this thing for a different purpose and we just kind of co-opted it rather than some of the other genetic modification technologies that we've tried over the last 20 years or so, which were really a lot more artificial. This one is very, very particular and precise because it had a very particular and precise function in a highly successful organism like bacteria.
Quinn: So what you're saying is it was less typical, with humanity, this was less invented and more discovered. It was something that already existed and, like you said, we're learning how to wield it. Is that correct?
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah. I mean, you know, I'm not a patent attorney, so they wouldn't say that.
Quinn: Right. And that's been a big part of it, right?
Brandon Ogbunu: That's been a debate, yeah. That's been the debate.
Brandon Ogbunu: But what I would say is I think the genius of it was in fact that it was a co-option of something that nature used very intelligently already, right?
Brandon Ogbunu: That doesn't make it less innovative; that makes it more innovative.
Brandon Ogbunu: But yeah, and that's kind of why it's been so effective and why the minute it was applied the way it was applied initially, we've been able to use it for all these different reasons.
Quinn: I love that. For everybody out there and I guess Brian, I asked Brandon, what's a question about CRISPR that keeps you up at night? Brandon, maybe you can tell the people what you told me and then we'll go from there.
Brandon Ogbunu: Well, many things about CRISPR and genetic modification writ large keep me up at night. I think part of this has to do with my own ontogeny as a scientist and a thinker. I think we're all influenced by different ideas that were around and whatever your major was, I'm sure there was a big controversy in your field.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think with me, I'm a child of the AIDS era and I'm a child of the first genomic modification era, which was gene therapy. I think gene therapy was a big deal in the end of the 20th century and the early 2000s. More in the end of the 20th century, the late 1990s. That was supposed to transform everything and all of the stuff I hear, the confidence about how we're able to eradicate genetic disease forever, we're going to change ... People were saying the exact same things and I wasn't a kid. I was late in college or applying to graduate school around that time. I saw that movement come and essentially, over night, disappear because there were things that people were not considering at the time.
Brandon Ogbunu: What happened was that in 1999, there was a clinical trial where a patient in a clinical trial was killed in a gene therapy for a disease that the individual had. I think over night, it was like, "Whoa, wait a minute." And in hindsight you look at it and I think the ethical review of that clinical trial were like, "There's a lot of things that went wrong," but there were more than that particular clinical trial, you look at the whole field just had blinders on, had tunnel vision, and didn't really see the massive kind of potential scientific issues and the ethical issues.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think there are analogies between that era and this era. I think we're included to ... We might make some of the same mistakes, I think.
Quinn: Have we learned anything?
Brian: Yeah. Does it feel like some of those mistakes won't be made this time?
Brandon Ogbunu: Well, so a couple things. I'm not apocalyptic about it and I like my sci-fi apocalypse stuff as much as anybody.
Brian: Hell yeah.
Brandon Ogbunu: We can even talk about that later if you want.
Brandon Ogbunu: Because I think those things are actually useful for thinking about a lot of these issues.
Brandon Ogbunu: Let me say something good, the good stuff, first. That is that the science is way better, okay? I think the gene therapy technology where we deliver genes via a virus, it was just messy for a lot of reasons. I think that was the problem is you couldn't really control exactly where you put a mutation or a suite of mutations in. I think there was a lot of ... Well, you could, but not as precisely as you can with CRISPR. CRISPR is very, very good technology.
Quinn: I try to do this sometimes because I'm a nerd and I read about this shit and obviously you work on it, but could you take a step – you mentioned how precise CRISPR is. Could you just give a specific example of, again, dumbed down for everyone here-
Brian: Right, for me.
Quinn: Exactly what you mean by how precise it is and what we can do with it?
Brandon Ogbunu: There are experiments where you have the millions and millions and millions of nucleotides in a genome of an organism. We can exchange single nucleotides or short, short sections of a gene. We can delete very, very short sections of a gene of several nucleotides. There's that much revolution with this technology.
Brian: That's so crazy!
Brandon Ogbunu: It is very, very, very precise in terms of what it can do at the genotypic level.
Brandon Ogbunu: It really is a remarkable piece of technology.
Quinn: Wow. So it's understandable why there has been so much excitement and the freight train is moving so fucking fast on this thing.
Brandon Ogbunu: Oh, no question. I think there's a lot of reason to be excited about it. I think that's part of the concern, right? I think it can do a lot of wonderful things for a lot of people in the world. I don't know where you stand on the GM crop issue and I think this is part of the problem is that the issues with genetic modification are different depending on the organism you're talking about, right?
Quinn: For sure.
Brandon Ogbunu: If we can make a crop that can survive rough conditions better, you can feed a lot of people. You can do a lot of good in this world. Now, again, ethics of that and the economics of that and who can patent this and that, that's a different conversation, but at face value, growing things is not easy in every part of the world. That is actually a bottleneck in some places to people being able to eat and get nutrients.
Quinn: And it's getting harder in a lot of places.
Brandon Ogbunu: That's right.
Quinn: You look at what's happening in India, farmers are literally killing themselves by the thousands because they can't grow food anymore.
Brandon Ogbunu: Exactly.
Brian: With pesticide. Oof.
Brandon Ogbunu: Exactly.
Quinn: So you got a bunch of white people in Santa Monica who said, "I don't eat GMO foods," and farmers in India are going, "Please, find some way for us to grow food again."
Brandon Ogbunu: Exactly, exactly. On that end, there's a lot of promise. It's funny and I don't know if y'all are beer drinkers-
Brandon Ogbunu: But I read a manuscript where they're optimizing the yeast to be able to make better pilsners with CRISPR.
Quinn: Sure, everybody wins.
Brandon Ogbunu: So on all levels, this has the potential to do a lot of good. I think that's exciting.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think on the problematic side, there are a lot of concerns, even within GM crops. Let's put aside the economics of about who owns what in patenting and all that and the corporate interests and all that. At a basic level, there's the scientific issue of – this is a science question, this is before we've gotten into right and wrong – there's a science issue of how do you know that a given mutation or suite of mutations that you put into a genome of an organism that confers phenotype A in this organism is going to do the same exact thing in all other organisms of its kind?
Brandon Ogbunu: I might have isolated a mutation that helps a tomato ripen faster, but if I take that same mutation and I put it in a, let's just call it a cousin tomato, a related tomato that's not exactly the same, how do I know that's going to do the exact same thing? The answer is we don't.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think that's a fundamental question of basic science evolutionary genetics that is very, very relevant. We call these things with mutations off-target effects. You can target this one thing here, but it could have these other effects throughout the organism and genome because it's hard to know exactly how everything fits together. The genome is not just this linear stretch of information; these things are interacting with each other.
Brandon Ogbunu: So you mutate this one thing thinking you're going to get this one phenotype and due to a ... This is a force, a process in evolution we call epistasis. And who cares? But basically what that is, it's the interaction between mutations at one site in a genome and mutations at other sites in a genome. Really, this can make it difficult for us to predict very, very carefully how I know that this mutation is really going to make the beer better. It might and it might do it 70% of the time. The issue is in beer, who cares? You get a really good beer, I get a lousy beer, who gives a crap, right?
Brian: Right, right.
Brandon Ogbunu: But when you're talking about engineering homo sapiens, babies, right?
Brian: Slightly bigger deal.
Brandon Ogbunu: It's a slightly bigger deal.
Quinn: Right. All of a sudden, you get the fucking X-Men, which for better or for worse, is complicated. You're right, we haven't even gotten to the ethics part of that, which is all of the handicap folks are going, "I understand why you think it's cool to get rid of my handicap, but also, I live a whole life and there's a culture based around this and why would we want to get rid of it?"
Brandon Ogbunu: Exactly.
Quinn: Anyways, you talk about the science. It comes back to despite all the technology and all the computing power and the machine learning we have and the ability to pick up on patterns and all the genomes we've scanned and things like that, even though they're mostly white people, we look at something like the microbiome, which feels like every month we're like, "Wow, we didn't know that" or, "Wow, we didn't know that." Like you said, it would be great if we asked these questions or took some time to think about questions and applied them to a fucking tomato before we even considered doing this with humans, but unfortunately, that's not the way it's gone, has it?
Brandon Ogbunu: No, no, and I think we're finding now, like with any big discovery, I think the news or the publication records self-select for the good stories, for the successful stories, and understandably so. I think there was a lot of excitement because it's really done some really, really cool things. But now we're starting to see, we're getting, "Eh, I don't know." There are examples now where CRISPR is causing double-stranded breaks. The particulars of that don't matter but it can cause mutations in other parts of the genome. It can cause these unforeseen effects in other parts of the genome, and that is legitimately frightening.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think this is actually, at one point, got the market. When the market responds, people are like, "That's how you know it's serious." Even the CRISPR market was like, "Wait a minute, what's going on with this?" So there are these examples that have already happened. These are actually starting to come out more and more now.
Brandon Ogbunu: Say, for example, I CRISPR, I want to add this set of nucleotides into one gene. I can cause deletions in another gene somewhere else in the genome. And that's bad! That's really, really bad.
Quinn: It feels like an understatement, yeah.
Brandon Ogbunu: That's right. Yeah.
Quinn: That's crazy. We just don't know. And again, all the credit in the world to the people who are working on this and the people who have spent, like you said, the past 20 years working on genomics and things like that and the Human Genome Project and all that, but again, we just haven't made that much progress on it to be able to say, "Oh cool, now we can cut it out and replace it with whatever we want." In most cases, we have no idea how that's going to affect other parts of the genome, which is so complicated.
Brandon Ogbunu: It's interesting because the problems with genetic modification, I think the good news is a common problem I mentioned earlier of what does a given mutation do in an organism? That problem is common throughout the genomic world. It's not just about genetic modification.
Brandon Ogbunu: For example, the question of, the fears of genetic discrimination where you have a mutation that gives you a higher probability of acquiring schizophrenia at some point. The fear is that you'll have a society where that's going to happen. And the fears of genetic privacy.
Brandon Ogbunu: These are all based on that same problem: we really don't know all that well how to tell for sure how a given mutation or run of mutations in a gene is going to do blank. There are very, very few examples in the history of medicine or biology where we are really, really sure that this mutation does something. The classical ones, we know. We know Tay-Sachs, we know sickle cell anemia, we know these very, very ... There are some that you get these mutations, you're going to have X problem. Usually it's disease things that we've characterized that way.
Brandon Ogbunu: But for the vast majority, vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of phenotypes that we care about, it isn't that simple. It's like most traits that we care about, even morphological ones like height, are dozens of different mutations in hundreds of different genes that are interacting in all these kind of messy ways. We're dealing with that problem now in the basic science of understanding who we are. You take that problem and the genome modification problem kind of has all of those issues in it because we're just not very, very good at being able to disentangle what individual things are doing within a gene.
Quinn: To me, again, it's so hard not to just barrel right into the ethics questions of this.
Quinn: Obviously, we're definitely going to get to "Gattaca" at some point, but it does seem like, again, as quickly as this train is moving scientifically and as much as there's obviously been some slightly terrifying recent news about this, about this science actually being executed, it does seem like though we have learned some lessons in what we should do. It does seem like ethicists are actually getting the chance to chime in on this, as opposed to, for instance, anything coming out of Silicon Valley these days where the mantra of "Move fast and break things" has truly fucking broken everything.
Quinn: So maybe not enough or as much as we hoped, but do you feel like there are ... Again, let's stick with the science for just another minute. Are there science questions we have answered? Where have we made progress since 2012?
Brandon Ogbunu: Well, on the science front, yeah. I'm not pessimistic necessarily about this in the sense of ... Rather, I don't know about my future outlook, but I'm thinking about my current outlook.
Brandon Ogbunu: I feel like the science is doing ... Science is fantastic in a lot of ways and I think it has a chance to do a lot of really good and cool things. Even just in terms of laboratory tests, I think the science is doing quite well. I think even since 2012, we have new ways to deliver CRISPR casts, we can do it better, we can do it in more organisms. I think we are developing better and better technology around CRISPR. I'm pretty confident about that.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think just generally speaking, and getting into the ethics, we can talk about that. Yeah, I think we are trying to stay ahead of the science in a way that we once did not, right?
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, there have been a lot of good conversations, I think. The genetic privacy conversations, which at one point, the technology got way out ahead of the law. I think the law has caught up in many ways. Not to say this is not going to be a problem moving forward, but I think the conversations are being had publicly in a way that, for what it's worth, I'm reasonably satisfied with.
Quinn: Here's the thing though, I'm glad we've clearly learned some lessons because it's the fucking Spider-Man quote, which you can attribute to anything. "With great power comes great responsibility." We, as a species, don't fucking do well with that very often, right?
Brandon Ogbunu: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Quinn: From nukes, backwards and forwards. But you look at what has happened, for instance, look, it seems like the inevitable outcome is there's going to – and it's the same way with all these genome projects – is we're going to attempt to use them for good, and I'm not trying to be apocalyptic about this either at all, I'm trying to illustrate the broad spectrum of where people should ask questions.
Quinn: I guess to be specific, I look at what has happened with data in the past 18 months and go, "Oh, if you apply this to that, then it's actually 'Gattaca,' maybe at best," right? Again, yeah, I'm curious. Where are we having the success on the ethical fronts?
Brandon Ogbunu: I think it's fascinating the way you articulated that and I'm a huge Spider-Man fan.
Brandon Ogbunu: So that resonates. But I think here's the issue. I think with all things like CRISPR, all big breakthroughs, be they technological, be they the algorithmization of everything like you're talking about in the data space, I think there's three things about people that are hard to distinguish and all three of them, when together, cause problems.
Brandon Ogbunu: People want to help people. And not everybody wants to help people, but people often want to help people. There are a lot of people who want to do good in this world and I think there are people who wielded the original gene therapy stuff that I told you ended up not working, who really, really wanted to help people. I think people want to be famous. People want to be rich. I think those three things, people aren't good at being able to distinguish those things.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think people who are wielding these technologies in blind ... For example, the recent case in China of the presumptively, we still don't know for sure, but the first CRISPR baby which has a deletion in a gene hat confers resistance to HIV, if you read the comments from the scientists, he might be full of shit, but he sounds like he did something meaningful for someone. Right?
Brandon Ogbunu: Basically, the parent, I think the father, but one of the parents is HIV-positive. There's a lot of discrimination, as there is, and stigma against the HIV-positive community there, where the individual's from. The notion is that, "Oh, I can have this child that will never have to face that stigma by virtue of them having, essentially, no chance of getting HIV," which is just kind of weird for a bunch of reasons. There's a lot of ways not to get HIV. HIV's not like a cold. You don't just catch a cold. Whatever.
Brandon Ogbunu: The point is there is an appeal to emotion there. I think the scientist very well might think that he did something right.
Quinn: And history's riddled with those people, right?
Brandon Ogbunu: That's right, that's right.
Quinn: Who are doing it from a sense of integrity and a sense of being progressive and thinking, "Oh my god, look what it can do. Why would we wait to do this to help these people?"
Brandon Ogbunu: That's right.
Quinn: But again, as I mentioned before, there's been these discussions of you talk to, again, the handicap world, which is huge and wide and varied, and these people are incredible, and they go, "Oh" ... Let's talk about blindness, for example. There's a culture and there's a community there and these people are going, "So wait, if you cut out blindness or all the different degrees of blindness and variations on it, you lose that culture too." And someone who just barrels ahead and says, "Oh, I've cured blindness in a couple girls from Iowa," or whatever, all of a sudden you go ... It's just so complicated.
Quinn: That's the fun and importance of ethics, but I also think, and this might not be your ball game and maybe it is, everyone rips on the "Star Wars" prequels, right?
Quinn: There's this great ... The whole thing is a Jedi is not supposed to fall in love and all this shit. There's this great quote by Ryan Johnson, the guy who made the last one, "The Last Jedi," it was right when he got hired to make it and everybody rips on the prequels. He gave this quote about them saying, "Devil's advocate. The prequels are a seven-hour long kids' movie about how fear of loss turns good people into fascists."
Quinn: It's really interesting because it's Anakin, who turned into Darth Vader, did some really fucked up shit in both that third movie and then obviously going forward, but to him, maybe killing a bunch of kids maybe wasn't, a little consumed by the Dark Side, but again, people do things out of what they think is a good intention or a protective intention.
Quinn: What if a scientist who figures out how to cure blindness has a two-year-old blind daughter? Or what's the further extreme of that? It's just really complicated. I'm glad we're having these discussions, but yeah.
Brian: Yeah that Chinese scientist, from all I've read, doesn't seem to have any ill-intention at all. He was probably just super excited about the fact that he could do it, and unfortunately, did it without enough research.
Brian: As opposed to asking, "How do we keep this from causing some terrible, just terribly awful shit possibly?" Are there innovative new ways to confront the ethical implications and science and the combination of the two?
Brandon Ogbunu: Yep, yeah. I think to the Chinese scientist in particular who did it, and I think it's a tremendous kind of biological feat, so there's some actual scientific problems with what was done and not even ethical. We think that the embryos are what we call mosaic, which means the different cells might have different genetic information in them, which is not good. There's even some scientific ... That's one of the reasons why it's unethical because even what was carried scientifically looks like it might have been, in some ways, sloppy because that's where the technology is.
Brandon Ogbunu: But in terms of-
Quinn: But that goes back to just basic fertility.
Brandon Ogbunu: That's right.
Quinn: If you're doing in vitro fertilization, you don't put in mosaics. They're graded in two different ways. You put those in, like you said, it's just sloppy.
Brandon Ogbunu: That's right. It's very, very sloppy.
Brandon Ogbunu: To the point, now that we're in the ethical things, and it's part of the conversation, the point you made about the handicap community in particular was a very, very profound one because this is one of the areas and one of the reasons that this technology could cause serious problems. We need to stop and think about why we want to modify certain things about who we are. Damn it, you have a right to like a pilsner that's hop beer or whatever. There's no consequences there. But again, to say that something needs to be eliminate from the species is to cast a very particular type of judgment about that thing.
Brandon Ogbunu: So sickle cell anemia sucks, it's awful, so is Tay-Sachs. There's certain things that we can all kind of mostly agree-
Brian: All agree on, right.
Brandon Ogbunu: At least agree to get rid of.
Brandon Ogbunu: But speaking of "Gattaca," I don't know if it's an alterative ending or an alternative trailer, I think it's an alternative trailer. You should watch it sometime. It's a very beautiful, beautiful trailer and I've showed it in class. What it says is, it shows a picture of Albert Einstein and then it says, "Dyslexia," and it shows a picture of Virginia Woolf and then it says something like, "Manic Depression," or something like that. I forget who it was. I think it's Emily Dickinson, I forget who it is, but my point is it's a famous writer. It shows all of these historically famous people and it shows the afflictions that they had.
Brandon Ogbunu: Now, we don't know for sure whether or not that the source of that thing was genetic in that individual, but it's making the point that it very well might be true that certain things that we associate with a problem are only problems because we've made them a problem.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think a very, very personal example and something that is very, very personal and relevant to my experience as a scientist and a person in America is if you told me a mutation in homo sapiens that would be profoundly influence with lifespan and where you lived and how you lived, well, even today, but by law until half-a-century ago, it would be for black skin. Right?
Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brandon Ogbunu: In a situation where you're like, "Oh, I want to engineer a child who has a better set of chances in life," well, it's very, very obvious that the decision in that situation to be engineer a child without the phenotypic features of being a black person in America. But as we've observed, that phenotype, that's entirely a human decision we've made to treat certain people certain ways.
Brandon Ogbunu: So if we're not careful and thoughtful about the things that we want to change about ourselves because some of these things are entirely about the way society's engineered, and I think this is the real problem with CRISPR. It's not like taking Tylenol. When you take Tylenol because you banged your knee or something like that, you take Tylenol, the pain goes away, and then the Tylenol vanishes from the bloodstream and it never affects you again. When you change the genome of something, you have changed future generations. You've taken away the ability of human beings to be able to decide whether or not this thing is actually good or bad by virtue of the fact that society changes.
Quinn: Right. Again, let's say you have the "opportunity" to genetically modify an embryo so that it comes out less black or doesn't deal with those superficial things that we have used as instruments to just wreck the African-American race for 400 years. Part of you goes, "I could see why that's an advantage." And then part of you goes, "Well, what about the things that we lose when that child doesn't get to have that experience or what could they not contribute to culture?"
Quinn: And then the third question is all we do as humans is look for the easy fix. Maybe that's not the fix that this situation needs. Maybe we could take a step back and go, "Are there other ways to address this problem so that this child doesn't have to experience this but also gets to keep and inherit this incredible culture that he or she is going to come into? Does it have to be snipping out this part of his genome and his skin color?"
Brian: We never get to the root. It's never the root of the problem that we solve. It's always, "How do we just fix it now?"
Quinn: Right, right. "How do we make them look different? Look, everything is all better and they don't have to do that." It's like, "No, why don't we just treat them better? How about we fucking start with that?"
Quinn: It applies to ... Let's look at Autism. I'm not afraid to say two of my kids are test tube babies and they had to be so that's why I can speak about fertility and mosaics and all that shit all day long. I basically have a PhD in that shit. You look at it and you go, "Oh, these are the genomic things that came up." We had hundreds of bad embryos, "bad" ones, that came up for different things or it didn't have an answer, which is almost just as bad because you find out later.
Quinn: One of the things obviously you look for, Autism, but then you look at some of the ways progressive and innovative people have looked and go, "Wait a minute, this Autistic person might not fit into society this way, but look at this specific almost superpower they have in other ways that can contribute to my cause or my mission or my company," whatever it might be. Again, you have to ask the question of what do we lose when we do that?
Brandon Ogbunu: I couldn't have said it better. On the Autistic side, in particular, that's a fascinating phenotype that is a great example conversation of how conversation about ... The neuro diversity movement is one of the things. That's transforming the way schools are structured, and the way we're educating people. Brains are different, minds are different. Just because all right, somebody's a little bit kind of different, whatever the heck that even means, doesn't mean that they're suffering from an affliction. I think the Autism community has done a really nice job of that.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think in the context of things like race, part of the problem in terms of us thinking there's a quick fix goes back to why you asked me why I'm vital to the species or whatever you asked me. I think it's because a lot of the people who are doing the CRISPR don't think about society and they don't read that literature and they're not thinking carefully about these things. So interdisciplinarity, or there's a lot of phrases for that now, are essential.
Brandon Ogbunu: Take me, for example. The reason that I'm a scientist now unquestionably, even if you're talking about biological inheritance, is because of my mother. My mother would have been a scientist if she was born with more opportunities. No question about it, no issue. The reason that she was not is she experienced the tail end of Jim Crow. It's one of those things where, because I understand the experience of how a phenotype that can be arbitrary, I now enter these conversations like, "You know what? Maybe y'all want to think about why you want to edit that thing" because I know somebody who was genetically, she was a math teacher which was about as high as you could go for that demographic. You know?
Quinn: Right. Black people have experiencing "Gattaca" for 400 fucking years.
Brandon Ogbunu: For 400, right. Exactly. And I think "Gattaca," it's funny. I was on Twitter the other day and it's been over 20 years, that film changed my life. I was on Twitter and somebody was talking about how it was inaccurate. I was like, "Whoa, you missed the point, G." The movie's not about genetics. It's about how we, like you said, we look for these shortcut and easy fixes for society and we think that we have more control over fate than we tend to. Yeah, I think that's where we're headed if we don't get our act together.
Brian: Are there ethical questions that we have mostly agreed on? And then sadly, ones that we're maybe too late on? For the most part.
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, for the most part. I think there are very strict FDA regulations on ... Number one, there was a ban on human embryos pretty much right away, which was good. I think there are very, very strict limitations about ... There's some kind of legal baseball about gene editing versus gene modification and some things involve adding things and some things are about removing things. One thing is little. We're sorting out what the difference between that is because people are less afraid of deleting things than adding things, even though it doesn't really matter.
Brian: Oh, really? There's different rules?
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, different rules.
Brandon Ogbunu: A lot of this is still being sorted out. But my point is, the conversations are being had and I think that's a good thing. Frankly, I think the situation with the CRISPR baby, which we'll call this child for lack of a better way to describe this individual. Right?
Quinn: It's how they're going to be known for their entire life at this point, right?
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Quinn: Because they're the first person in history we've ever-
Brandon Ogbunu: Yep. They're going to be scrutinized.
Brian: If it's true. Didn't he not even provide evidence?
Brandon Ogbunu: No, there's no evidence. He didn't publish the results.
Brian: Right, right.
Brandon Ogbunu: It's kind of fascinating because-
Brian: It's so wild.
Brandon Ogbunu: This individual was trained with the best people in the world. It's like people are confident that he did it, it's just that nobody ... It hasn't been verified.
Brian: So strange.
Brandon Ogbunu: It's very, very strange. I think part of the issue is that the same standards that are held here and in the UK aren't held everywhere else, right?
Brian: Right, right.
Brandon Ogbunu: It's universalizing the ethics, I think, is the challenge. I think in the UK and in the US, I think the conversations have been pretty good about regulating human activity or outright banning it. Even in crops, I think there are regulations on transparency that are good. So I feel good about that.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think the problems that we still have are the greater problems that we discussed regarding what are the things that we deem as disease, kind of like the Autism example, and what are the ones that we don't? I think that's a conversation that needs to be had within the clinical community, and the psychological community, in the educational community in the sense of Autism. Those are ones that we are going to continue to have to have at a very, very detailed level, and we are having.
Quinn: And they're so complicated. I'm glad we are because as much as we say, "Oh, the handicap ..." Again, the blind or the deaf community might say, "Wait a minute, don't wipe out this culture we've built." I'm sure there are people who go, "Yeah, I don't want to fucking be deaf. I'd rather live a more standardized, full life." Of course, then you go further down the water fall of, "Oh, that person's 14 and they're now legally allowed to make decisions for themselves but their parents want them to not be deaf" back and forth. As long as it seems like we're pushing these conversations, even if it's so hard to establish standards all the way down the grain, the conversations are what are vital.
Quinn: I actually want to move into what I feel like we do best, which is so Brandon, as citizens who are either bystanders or could maybe "benefit" from said science, what are questions you feel like now we should be asking of our representatives around this stuff?
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah. I think I call citizens "citizen scientists" because we're all involved in this.
Quinn: Yes, love it.
Brandon Ogbunu: Even when we're not in the lab. I think you should ask and we should ask, there's some scientific things we can ask, and there are policy things we can ask.
Brandon Ogbunu: From the scientific perspective, this is the thing that I study, fundamentally, is this concept of epistasis, which I talked about. It's how do we know that when we put a mutation in a given organism that it is doing the same thing in genetic background A versus genetic background B? The flat question is when you see CRISPR for a great brand of beer, "This was brewed with GM," you don't have to get horrified by it, but a reasonable question is, well, what are the strains of yeast that this CRISPR experiment were carried out in? Or was it tested in one, verified in one, and then just thrown into a bunch of different strains without testing them? You want to make sure that the thing that we're consuming has specifically been tested, I think, across the different genetic backgrounds. That's a practical question.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think related to that is one of the other big things in modern genomics that complicates the study of human genomes and who we are is the effect of the environment. If you test an effect, you have a mutation that's associated with really delicious beer, but only when it's – I don't know anything about brewing beer. Do either of you? Whatever. I'm going to say something stupid. If you brew it at room temperature or something like that, but in certain places you can't get it to room temperature, you heat it up, you get a completely different effect. That mutation that's associated with the yeast being able to do something is completely different in a different setting or when you add a different ingredient or something of that nature. That could completely change the flavor of the beer.
Brandon Ogbunu: I use that kind of trivial example for a reason because fundamentally, the questions are the same for that as they are for the CRISPR baby. They are, all right, this mutation that we think is useful to humans or life or livestock for this reason, what environments did you check test this mutation in? Did you check it across temperatures? Did you check it across a bunch of different, I don't know, in bacteria it's like pH of the solution matters quite a bit. Did you test it in a bunch of different culture conditions? Whatever.
Brandon Ogbunu: The point is you want to make sure that anything being consumed or being offered to society via the CRISPR method, that it was tested in a lot of different, we can just call them contexts. Did we test this CRISPR thing across a bunch of different contexts? Because this tomato that grows beautifully in the lab in this setting, what happens when I grow it in another setting? I think that's a practical question that citizen scientists can ask of their science. I think anybody in this industry should be able to answer that.
Quinn: And it's important too because it seems silly to ask those, to say-
Brian: Yeah. It seems like, "Duh."
Quinn: "Oh, but did you try it in a room next door where it's five degrees warmer?" That might seem silly to some people but it's like this is shit we've known about – this is so fucking lazy – "regularly grown plants" for thousands of years since agriculture and we're trying to start from scratch with some of these things because if you're making germ line edits to a plant, you're inherently changing the functions that have evolved into for thousands and thousands of years. We do have to ask those.
Quinn: And then to me, I would, again, just come back to when they say, "No" or they say, "Yes," it's why or why not? Why didn't you test that there? Was it because of speed? Was it because of money? Was it because you don't think it's necessary or relevant? Because that is actually, to me, gets to the heart of these things a little bit more.
Brandon Ogbunu: Yep. I think the good news and the bad news when I look at it is, in terms of what to ask, there is a blueprint in place – and you'll see why I say good and bad news – there is a blueprint in place from the pharmaceutical industry.
Brandon Ogbunu: Right? Meaning a lot of the questions are rather similar. When you have a new drug on the market, the question is who did you test this in? What was the structure of the population? As you know, things are pulled off the shelf all the time because the range of people that it was tested in was narrow or they didn't test it for long enough and the long-term effects of this thing were negative.
Brandon Ogbunu: My point is there's a blueprint in place for how to ask that of GM technology writ large. I think there's another-
Quinn: But it's good that there's a blueprint, right?
Brandon Ogbunu: That's right.
Quinn: It's good that somewhere, again, for better or worse like you said, the good and bad, there's an exhaustive list which almost it can't be exhausted enough of, "Did you test this everywhere?"
Brandon Ogbunu: That's right.
Quinn: I remember my uncle was one of the first guys to have, way back, one of the first guys to have LASIK. At the time, he was doing stupid white people shit. He was climbing a bunch of mountains. I remember, they were like, "Hey, could you go climb up to 15,000 feet because we need to see if your eyeballs fucking explode?"
Brian: Oh my god!
Quinn: He was like, "Well, we do have to find that out, so I might as well be that guy."
Brandon Ogbunu: Right.
Quinn: And he was in some fucking climbing magazine or something. It was just another box that they did need to check, even as much as it's a niche thing-
Brian: But still!
Quinn: This niche thing could apply to a lot of fucking people, you know?
Brian: I don't get how these things are not happening and yet these procedures or drugs or whatever go out anyway and then they have to get pulled because you then find out, "Oh, fuck."
Brandon Ogbunu: I might act like I'm well-rounded and well-read, but I'm a geneticist. I'm an evolutionary geneticist. I study genes. I'm on their side, ultimately.
Brian: Right, right.
Brandon Ogbunu: I say that for a particular reason. The thing keeping my lights on and the reason I got good wine in my cupboard is because I can tell you that the effects of mutations change in different environments. That's the thing that I'm studying right now. My point is nobody should tell you, "That's a stupid question" because it's not a stupid question. I got data to show that. I think a lot of people have data to show that.
Brandon Ogbunu: So they lying. I hate to snitch on my people, but nah, you should be able to test these things across ranges. That's a reasonable and fair question to ask of the science.
Quinn: Well, and I think that's probably some of the fear that people have with GMO foods and stuff like this and why we're so quickly to say, "We need regulation. We need a label on it." By the way, a lot of times, most of the times, some regulation is great, but I think it's easier for people to go, "Monsanto didn't test this. They don't know what this does. This and this." And by the way, some of the times, they might not have fucking done that.
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah. I get that. I get that! The thing is, I'm not anti-GM crop at all. Number one, I think a lot of the fear of genetically modified crops in particular in based on an old antiquated idea of you call it the naturalist fallacy, things that are in nature are better. That ain't true. That ain't true at all. Nature comes up with all kind of screwed up, bad, awful things. It's not bad simply because we engineered it. I think that's why people hate it.
Brandon Ogbunu: At the same time, I do empathize, like you just outlined, with the notion that we should be able to answer the question of whether or not something was tested across the environment.
Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian: I'm going to ask you to use your wildest imagination here. Imagine, Brandon, that me, I, am a young scientist and I actually want to get into this work. Where do I start? What do I do and how do I have the most impact?
Brandon Ogbunu: Great question. So what stage are you, if I might ask? How old are you?
Quinn: Let's say high school. Right?
Brian: Yeah, yeah.
Brandon Ogbunu: Perfect, perfect.
Quinn: These young people that are out there that are going to change the fucking world. Basically, anybody over 45, we're done with. They've had their chance. They've ruined the world.
Brandon Ogbunu: Pretty much.
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, so great question. It's a great question because education, educating the public, is a big part of who I am as an academic and I think about this carefully. This is also interesting because this has changed during my academic life.
Brandon Ogbunu: What I would say is pay particular close attention in math class because biology, as a whole, has gotten a lot more quantitative in the last 15 years or so. People who study math and computer science are really the ones, in many ways, who are running these fields, even fields like CRISPR. CRISPR was a very, very laboratory and empirical discovery, but I think the field of bioinformatics and things of that nature, they're the ones who and maybe even we're the ones, I'm of that ilk and I pivoted-
Quinn: You're a computational guy, right?
Brandon Ogbunu: I'm a computational guy. I think I pivoted at the right point so to speak. So number one, I would get really, really adept quantitatively so that you understand things like statistics, you understand computer science, you understand that.
Brandon Ogbunu: In addition to that, you should pay close attention in English class. The recommendation is kind of lame in the sense of ... Listen, I was a lousy high school student, so I don't care. I'm not saying get As in all your classes, but what I will say is make sure you're reading broadly and understand what you US history was and world history was so that when you enter these conversations, you can bring something else to it. I think this is really the problem is the underappreciation for how arbitrary things about the way we've structured society, we conflate that with solutions that could be provided by things like CRISPR. That's what I would tell a young person.
Quinn: I love that. It is incredible and I imagine the computational side is only going to just keep exploding over the next five, ten, twenty years. Look at what groups like the Flatiron Group like Jim Simons is doing in New York and stuff like that.
Brandon Ogbunu: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Quinn: It's wild, and hopefully, for the better. But yeah, as a liberal arts major, I couldn't agree more. And again, we'll come back to the Silicon Valley thing. We have to have people who not just ask these questions but now how to ask the right questions and how to say, "Stop, we should think about this. Why are we doing this? Why or why not?" If you can bring both of those things to the fold, that will be even more impressive and we will be thankful for you.
Brian: This is so great. I wish that I gave a shit when I was in high school.
Quinn: Oh, I was the worst.
Brian: It would have just been incredible.
Quinn: I was a monster.
Brian: Brandon, we've had you for almost an hour here. Thank you so much for being here, man.
Quinn: Yeah, this is great.
Brian: We're going to wrap it up, ask some more questions and stuff, but we really appreciate it.
Quinn: All right.
Brian: This is what we call the lightning round, Brandon.
Quinn: Yep, yep, yep.
Brian: We've got some questions for you. Get ready.
Quinn: Hey Brandon, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Brandon Ogbunu: It was probably my freshman year of college. Not unironically, I think that's the same year I saw "Gattaca."
Brandon Ogbunu: That's the first time I started really doing well in school. School was easy for me through high school, but I think that's kind of I had an identity kind of thing, an awakening, and I learned that wow, I'm actually good at this stuff and people appreciate me for it, and wow, these concepts connect to real problems in the world. It's funny, I think, yeah, "Time Magazine" awarded a Man of the Year to an AIDS researcher and I think that was another kind of moment. I think it was in that window of time.
Quinn: Yeah, that makes sense. It's amazing when and how things impact you
Quinn: Who is someone in your life that's positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Brandon Ogbunu: Oh boy. I'm a collaborator supreme. I think there's a scholar, actually, I believe he was on this show. Dr. Sam Scarpino.
Brian: Oh yeah!
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, Dr. Scarpino has been really, really great for me. I think our work overlaps in some ways and I think he taught me new ways to think about some of the problems that I work on. Hopefully, I've taught him a few things, but I think have cross-pollination with somebody relatively nearby whose work I respect and admire, I think has been really, really important for me to being able to grow as a scientist.
Quinn: I love that. Even if you're working on slightly different things, it is amazing what can come from that relative interdisciplinary approach or at least environment. I feel like history's littered with those types of interactions.
Quinn: What do you do when you feel overwhelmed by everything, specifically? Things have been a little chaotic.
Brandon Ogbunu: So you mean all the time.
Quinn: Right. What's your day-to-day sign-off?
Brandon Ogbunu: You know, I love consuming – this is going to sound lame but it's true – I love consuming creative and dope ideas in different realms. I love music, I love hip-hop, I love film, and I like to see human creativity on display, which is why I have such a deep connection to the sci-fi. So all the stuff you're talking about with "Star Wars," I've got very strong opinions on all that. I agree with you with everything, but my point is I think I love the human capacity to create. Whenever somebody's doing something interesting and cool, even if it's not something that I know about or I dig necessarily, I want to at least experience it. That kind of keeps me hopeful about where we are as a species.
Quinn: I love it, man. Anything you've really dug lately?
Brian: Yeah, I was just going to ask.
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, you mean just in general?
Quinn: In general, yeah. What's grabbing you?
Brandon Ogbunu: Just general things? Yeah. I think I've been impressed. I saw a bunch of good films recently, I saw a bunch of good films, so I've been enjoying film. Recently, I just saw ... Actually, did you see the new "Spider-Man" movie?
Quinn: Oh yeah, it's so sick.
Brian: Is it so great? I really want to see it.
Brandon Ogbunu: Oh my gosh! It's beautiful. That's a good example. I'm glad you actually ... I didn't think about this. That's a good example. That film had such a big impact me that it got me thinking. Apparently, the animator community is way bigger and richer and more wonderful and I don't draw shit, man. I don't do any of that.
Brandon Ogbunu: But there's this whole wonderful, diverse world of animators. They got their own culture. I'm not on social media all that much, but I've started following a few of them and just every day, they post new, little, interesting things. I'm like, "Wow!" Here's this thing that I kind of ... I've seen all these Pixar films and I like them. They've obviously been tremendously successful and these animated films, but I've just taken it for granted. It's a type of genius. I was like, "I had no idea."
Brandon Ogbunu: Frankly, I'm looking for ways to work that into my ... There's this one drawer, artist, who is drawing sketches of my lab members for me. I'm trying to work this into what I do as a scientist somehow.
Quinn: Oh, that's dope.
Brandon Ogbunu: That's an example of me being inspired by something and me following up on it and me trying to work it into the things that I do.
Quinn: Yeah, there's a hell of a lot to take away from that movie from the art to the sci-fi side of it to the superhero stuff, it's [crosstalk 01:01:30].
Brandon Ogbunu: Yep.
Brian: Don't spoil anything, all right?
Brandon Ogbunu: Nah man, go see it. Right after this. Go!
Brian: I actually already Googled show times.
Brian: Brandon, how do you consume the news?
Brandon Ogbunu: You know, I sit down and I read, "The New York Times," like a lot of people in my demographic. They've had some issues recently, but I think everybody has. I haven't been great about consuming 10 and 15 different news sources.
Brandon Ogbunu: Some of the news is just so ... It affects me so deeply and so personally that I can't bring myself, I'm not even going to even say it, I can't even listen. There's some stations that I just can't turn on because it's going to ruin my day. I think the argument for consuming that poisonous stuff is that it's important to know what the world really thinks, right?
Brian: Of course, of course.
Brandon Ogbunu: Which I get, but I think not if it ruins my day and it prevents me from being able to do the things that I have to do. In some ways, I'm still sorting that out. I try to stick to publications and institutions that have built my trust over the years and I try to remain critical of them as well.
Quinn: I love that, man.
Brian: All right, if you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would it be?
Brandon Ogbunu: Oh, shit!
Quinn: We have had a full line, a wide variety of shit.
Brian: Oh yeah. What a range. We're going to include it in our Amazon book club.
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, yeah. Well, it's tricky because it's like ... Is he going to read it?
Brian: We're assuming that he will read it or that somebody will read it to him.
Brandon Ogbunu: All right, fair enough. Fair enough.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think there's a great book to give a perspective about how ... I try to read broadly, I'm interested in mass incarceration the way a lot of people are these days. It's one of the big social justice issues of our time. There's a great book, "From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Makings of Mass Incarceration in America." I think it's by Elizabeth Hinton.
Brandon Ogbunu: I think what really struck me about that book is that it outlined specifically the very practical, political decisions that were made that led and created the policies of modern mass incarceration. It examines a bunch of Presidential, going back to Johnson and Nixon, it's humbling and kind of like, "Wow" to read these decisions that a handful of people made really crafted our crime control policies today. I think it's one of those things where, as a kid, I was a conspiracy theorist the way everybody is.
Quinn: Of course.
Brandon Ogbunu: I was a conspiracy theorist the way anybody is, but it's one of those things where, wow, you don't really need far-out conspiracy theories when you have books like that that just articulate it in a very intelligent ... Yeah, ""From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime," I would say that.
Quinn: Yeah. That one in combo with "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander.
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, those are the two.
Quinn: They're incredible.
Brandon Ogbunu: Those are the defining ones.
Quinn: Yeah. I love it, man. I love it. That's a good one.
Quinn: Brandon, last question. If you want to use, obviously you talked to incredible students every day, but if you're going to use this podcast to speak truth to power, any last things you want to say, get out there in the world before we let you go?
Brandon Ogbunu: Oh, wow! Truth to power.
Brandon Ogbunu: Well, how would I say this? This is from my scientist hat, so to speak, that is we're a species just like everybody else or unlike everybody else in some ways, but like everybody else in the sense of we're not ... There's nothing guaranteeing our existence. I think we should treat our time on this planet as a very tenuous and sensitive thing. I think act like we belong here but act like we're not guaranteed to be here. I think that's not a sad thought.
Brandon Ogbunu: That should be an empowering thought. It should be like the things that I do actually matter. I think studying, reading about, from my culture, the African-American experience, there's a reason I'm a big fan of things like hip-hop and jazz and these kind of cultural American inventions. It's because it's people who wanted to say something and found a way to say it. I think always be willing to do that, no matter how crazy or ... I think the kids, the teenagers who invented hip-hop had no idea they were going to create what they created. Look what they created. It hasn't always been good, but nothing ever is.
Brandon Ogbunu: The point is be creative and leave the world with some cool, new ideas because you never know who's reading them. You never know what they're going to do. That was a mouthful, but.
Quinn: No, no, no. It's good, man. I love that, man. I love it.
Brian: It goes back to why you said you were vital because you have the courage to lead.
Quinn: And do new shit.
Brandon Ogbunu: Hope so.
Brian: So we obviously mentioned your pretty dope Twitter handle, @Big_Data_Kane, but where can everybody follow you online besides that?
Quinn: Is that the place to be?
Brandon Ogbunu: Yeah, you can find the rest of my stuff there. I'm also on Instagram, which I don't use much yet, but I will start. Yeah, Twitter, @Big_Data_Kane, as in, you know.
Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brandon Ogbunu: I think I have a website there. I have a Medium page. Medium.com/OGPlexus. And that's OG Plexus, OG is the first two letters of my last name, and Plexus is ... I call my research group a plexus. A plexus is an interconnected network of things. I don't run a lab. I run a plexus is how I think about it.
Quinn: I dig it.
Brandon Ogbunu: You can also find it there, which you can find on the Twitter page.
Quinn: All right. We will put all of that and everything else we mentioned today, in the show notes.
Quinn: Brandon, man, we cannot thank you enough for your time today and all that you're doing out there as a scientist and as an educator and communicator. All those things are equally vitally important in our eyes. So thank you, man.
Brandon Ogbunu: Thank you for what you're doing. I love what you're doing. I think this channel, what you're doing, is an example of what I mean, having the courage to ask the important questions and the diversity of people that you bring on here, this is how we make change happen. Congratulations for the two of you, and really, thank you for giving me this opportunity.
Quinn: For sure, man. Least we could do.
Brian: Oh, this stuff's a blast. Thank you.
Quinn: All right, Brandon. We'll talk to you soon, my man. Thank you.
Brandon Ogbunu: All right, take care.
Brian: Take it easy.
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dish washing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at Important, Not Important.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @ImportantNotImp.
Quinn: Ugh, I just.
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Brian: Please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. And if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcasts. Keep the lights on, thanks.
Brian: You can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website, ImportantNotImportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks guys!