Penman No. 134: Frontiers and Pioneers

IMG_6867Penman for Monday, Feb. 2, 2015

 

I’VE BEEN to California quite a few times over the past 30 years, on such varied missions as covering Steve Jobs and the iPod Shuffle in MacWorld 2006 and tracking Jose Rizal’s footsteps in San Francisco. Just last September, I was there again to interview a cohort of former activists from the First Quarter Storm.

California’s the kind of place that promises to never run out of surprises for the game and attentive visitor, and this time around—on this ongoing Pacific Leader Fellowship with the University of California in San Diego—I ran into more wonderful discoveries that straddled the past and the future.

My program allowed me to make specific requests for visits to places of personal interest, and after consulting with knowledgeable friends, I settled on two destinations that couldn’t be more different from each other: the old mining town of Julian, about an hour’s drive up the mountains away from downtown San Diego, and The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), a cutting-edge facility overlooking the blue Pacific. This way I could encounter two extremes, from the museum to the laboratory, from the anciently analog to the dazzlingly digital.

I was accompanied on both visits by Mrs. Julie Hill, a good friend and old Manila hand whose life story and travels to dozens of countries I’ve been privileged to edit in three books, going on a fourth. We were graciously driven to Julian by Greg Mallinger, the coordinator of my program. I usually undertake a digital reconnaissance (meaning, I let my fingers do the walking on the keyboard) of points on my itinerary before the actual visit, but this time, I did no such thing, prepared to be surprised by whatever the place had to offer.

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The drive to Julian in itself proved a delight, with a view of wide valleys fringed by rolling hills dotted by huge boulders that might have been left by titanic geological upheavals but were now simply picturesque. A brief stop at Sta. Ysabel just before Julian led to a Spanish mission from 1818, recalling our own acceptance in the Philippines of the friars and their message; I had visited another California mission years ago, and had seen there a Chinese-eyed santo carved by a Filipino sculptor in the 1700s—so far, I thought, did Spain’s colonial reach extend.

Julian emerged on the road, a scenic huddle of tall-fronted houses along Main Street. It had experienced a brief boom in gold mining after the discovery of the precious metal there by a black man named Fred Coleman in the 1860s, but the miners have long since been replaced by tourists eager to sample the town’s new gold, its famous apple pie. We were met by the town’s historian, a retired engineer named David Lewis, who also operates the town’s museum (chock full of choice artifacts and very tidily maintained) with his wife.

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Our tour began in Julian’s windy hilltop cemetery, where David introduced us to Julian’s founding fathers and mothers—notably the Baileys who started a mine and the Robinsons who put up a hotel that still stands today—emphasizing the unusual role of African-Americans (such as the Robinsons) in the town’s development. The Julian Hotel is a living museum of 19th century charm—except that it now offers free wi-fi—and I made a mental note to bring my wife Beng there sometime, a wishful thought no doubt shared by the busloads of tourists who descend on the town every Wednesday.

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We met another kind of pioneer and another kind of frontier at the Scripps, an impressive complex of buildings devoted to biomedical research. Lying in La Jolla close to UCSD, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, the Scripps is a key part of a science complex probing the frontiers of medicine and leading the laboratory fight against AIDS, Ebola, cancer, influenza, and other deadly diseases.

Our first stop might have belonged to a Hollywood props or special effects studio—a special lab where what seemed to be colorful toys in all kinds of shapes were laid out on a table. David Goodsell—a professor at TSRI and a molecular biologist who also happens to be an accomplished artist—explained that they were physical models of cells and cellular structures, created by machine through 3-D printing, and creatively colored to be used by researchers and teachers for educational purposes. Dr. Goodsell has exhibited his fabulous watercolor illustrations and published them in a book titled The Machinery of Life (Springer, 2009).

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As beautiful as the structures of life may emerge from Goodsell’s work, TSRI scientists don’t forget for one minute that some of them are the very carriers and agents of diseases that can cripple and kill, understanding and defeating which is a major part of the institute’s mission. (TSRI is also looking into such varied areas as deafness, memory disorders, autism, aging, and stress.) They help discover and develop new drugs to combat diseases and correct disorders.

Those drugs include Zmapp, also developed in San Diego by Mapp Biopharmaceutical. Zmapp gained prominence as the experimental drug used to successfully treat some Americans who had contracted Ebola. To better understand exactly how ZMapp worked, TSRI scientists employed electron microscopy to see how antibodies from the drug bound themselves to the Ebola virus.

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One of those scientists was Andrew Ward, an associate professor in his mid-30s who, when we met him in his lab, looked like he might have just stepped off the stage from playing with a grunge band. Dr. Ward heads a team of 14 scientists pulling long hours at TSRI’s electron microscopy lab, which has seven state-of-the-art electron microscopes, including a $7-million, 12-foot Titan Krios whose million-dollar camera (not part of the package) can see into the smallest corners of cells. Ebola was all over the news, so it was important to work on it, said Dr. Ward, but he emphasized how even more vital it was to lick influenza, a common disease that could kill milllions.

Stepping out of the lab, I remembered how, as a boy, I had marveled at the effects of the 1966 sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage, in which a miniaturized medical team ventures into the bloodstream of a man. That day at TSRI, I felt like that boy again.

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