National Writing Project

Why I Write: Anthony Atala's Words Are as Powerful as Sci-fi Gizmos

Date: October 10, 2011

Summary: Regenerative medicine specialist Dr. Anthony Atala's state-of-the-art lab grows human organs—from muscles to blood vessels to bladders, and more. Although he's immersed in sci-fi gizmos in his work, he says writing "is the communication vehicle that moves science forward."


Why do I write?

Mention the terms literate scientist and literate physician to a roomful of people, and most will tell you they are oxymorons. After all, aren't physicians known for scrawling illegibly on prescription pads and scientists for being more attune to algebraic formulas than words? How would writing figure into those professions?

In fact, effective writing is just a vital to science as mathematics is and plays a tremendous role in moving scientific research forward.

My own research team has sometimes spent years on a particular project—struggling to meet a difficult challenge and trying and retrying innumerable potential solutions. And when we finally achieve success, being able to effectively share what we've learned is almost equally important to what we've accomplished.

It is the sharing of scientific achievements—through precise writing and in a standard format—that allows other scientists to take what we've learned and move forward in new directions our team might not have considered. If we cannot accurately and precisely describe our work, as well as why it is relevant and how it fits into the field, we do not do our work justice.

How could I not write? It is an essential form of communication and is a skill and an art worth cultivating.

But the sharing of research results is only one example of the importance of writing to the science professions. Today, scientists spend a significant portion of their time applying for funding for their research. In these grant applications, it is vital to be able to describe the project in terms understandable to a non-scientist and to convey the potential of the research and what it could mean for future medical treatments.

The scientists and non-scientists who review grant proposals have varied backgrounds. They review hundreds of applications, which is why it is imperative for applicants to make it crystal clear why their projects are important and deserve funding over others being considered.

For me, the very act of writing helps me organize and clarify my thoughts. As I compose sentences and paragraphs and see them take shape on my computer screen, I think about my audience, whether it is students who will read a book I'm writing, a colleague who will read a thank you note, or a journal editor who will read an article submission.

My goal is to make certain that I convey my thoughts effectively to the audience, and don't leave them to struggle to understand my intent. I try to see things from their perspective, which sometimes leads to new ideas. It's almost as if writing—and working to be understood—helps makes things clearer for me too.

Why do I write? How could I not write? It is an essential form of communication and is a skill and an art worth cultivating. It is vital to my role as a scientist and physician and in my personal life as well. Writing helps clarify my thinking, sometimes leads to new ideas and ways of seeing things, and is the communication vehicle that moves science forward.

Watch Anthony Atala's TED Talk

About the Author Anthony Atala, MD, is director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and chair of the Department of Urology at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He leads a team that is working on developing healing cell therapies and growing replacement tissues and organs in the lab for more than 30 different areas of the body.

Atala led the research team that built the first lab-grown organ—a human bladder—to be successfully implanted in human patients. Currently, his team is working on several different strategies for engineering organs—including "printing" them. The ultimate goal is to help solve the shortage of donor organs that are available for transplant. In addition to bladders, his team has successfully implanted lab-grown urine tubes in patients.

Dr. Atala is a recipient of many awards, including the US Congress funded Christopher Columbus Foundation Award, bestowed on a living American who is currently working on a discovery that will significantly affect society. Dr. Atala's work has been listed one of Time magazine's top 10 medical breakthroughs of the year and as Discover magazine`s Number 1 Top Science Story of the Year in the field of medicine in 2007. Dr. Atala was featured in U.S. News & World Report as one of 14 Pioneers of Medical Progress in the 21st Century, and his work in 2010 was listed by Smithsonian Magazine as one of 40 things to know about the next 40 years.

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