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Summer of Science Reading, Episode 2: Life beneath Our Feet

Welcome to Scientific American’s Science of Summer Reading. I’m your host Deboki Chakravarti. Sometimes on Science Talk, we have conversations with authors about their books. But this series is a little different.  What I love as a reader is seeing how books can end up feeling like they’re in conversation with each other, even when…

Welcome to Scientific American’s Science of Summer Reading. I’m your host Deboki Chakravarti.

Sometimes on Science Talk, we have conversations with authors about their books. But this series is a little different. 

What I love as a reader is seeing how books can end up feeling like they’re in conversation with each other, even when they’re not written to do that.

So this month, I’m taking on two science books at a time and just…chat with you about them. I’ll be talking through what the authors made me think and feel. 

Maybe you’ve read these books yourself. Maybe you’ve even had some of the same feelings…or maybe not.

And if you haven’t read them, well, maybe this Science Book Talk will inspire you to.

Today we’re going to talk about two books that describe two different parts of nature: fungi and moss. Two forms of life that we’re likely all familiar with, but that some of us (me) have probably overlooked.

But it’s the fact of how easily they’re overlooked that makes fungi and moss useful portals into understanding a wider ecology that they (and we) belong to.

Prologue: The Books

The first book is Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Future by Merlin Sheldrake

The book’s acknowledgement states “with gratitude to the fungi from which I have learned,” and from there continues with an exploration of the life of fungi as we understand it and interact with it, whether that’s in truffles being hunted, psychedelic experiences being had, or scientific investigations being undertaken.

The second book is Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Gathering Moss is a collection of essays that combine scientific descriptions and Kimmerer’s personal experience studying moss. And the essays combine to reflect on how moss fit into the world, both the world around them and the world contained within them.

Chapter 1: Why Fungi and Moss?

It’s easy enough to explain why Sheldrake and Kimmerer choose to write about these subjects. Sheldrake is a mycologist, and Kimmerer is a bryologist, meaning the former studies fungi and the latter studies moss.

But the great fun of reading any scientist’s book about their chosen field of study is to see how they explain the choosing, and to see how they explain their own excitement.

Both Entangled Life and Gathering moss begin with a trek through the forest, describing not just the land the authors walk through, but how they walk through it. 

Kimmerer describes her feet on the ground as “like fingers on the piano, playing from memory an old sweet song, of pine needles and sand.” 

But the familiar path leads her to an unfamiliar rock formation that she ventures into. 

She finds herself surrounded by moss and rock, describing for us the intimacy of the two together in both the present moment and their shared past. When she leaves the cave, she carries with her the task of telling the story of moss beyond just data. 

Sheldrake’s hike is more localized, set around the root of a tree. He spends the day tracking the root through the ground, digging and sniffing away as he works to uncover the fungal network entwined with the tree.

He ends his prologue with a sample of these fungi and writes, “I tugged lightly on my root and felt the ground move.”

Both of these introductions set the stage for the explorations we are about to embark on, from the moss as both scientific entity and deeper carrier of story, to the fungi as a hidden tangled foundation to our world. 

Using a word like “overlooked” to describe moss and fungi feels a bit presumptive on my part. I don’t know you or your relationship to these parts of the landscape. But I can safely speak for myself when I say that I am happy to see moss and fungi outside, and yet could not tell you much more about them.

And for these authors, who are able to track their lives and interests so much through these subjects, surely most of us must seem a little negligent in our attention. 

And so both take on many different angles of their subject’s lives to give us a richer understanding of a thing we might frequently see, but may not spare much thought for.

Kimmerer draws our attention to the relationship between moss and water, the advantages moss draws from their small stature, and the varied lives that different species maintain. 

The effect is to turn what might look like a big mass of green lining the forest into a bustling, diverse group of individuals with extraordinary talents.

Sheldrake introduces us to the branching mycelium of fungi along with the chemistry that shapes the interactions of fungi with the outside world, allowing them to respond in a way that may look like a chaotic spread, but that is actually much more directed and intentional.

These are individual subjects that contain their own distinct charms, and over the course of both books, we see the authors’ own curiosity over the mysteries they’re describing. 

But while fungi and moss are the subjects of these books, they’re also an entry-point, an earth-hugging gateway into a wider understanding of nature and ecosystems.

We’ll discuss how fungi and moss become windows into a wider world after a word from our sponsor.

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Megan Hall: Each year. the Cancer Community Awards sponsored by AstraZeneca, present the Catalyst for Precision Medicine Award. This award recognizes an individual or organization who enhances the ability to provide the right treatment for the right patient at the right time.

In 2020, Dr. Lincoln Nadauld received the award for his work as Vice President and Chief of precision health and academics at Intermountain Healthcare. As we prepared for this year’s awards, Scientific American Custom Media  reconnected with Lincoln to hear more about what’s happened since he received the award.

Thank you, Lincoln Nadauld, for joining me today. I’m so excited to hear more about what you’ve done in the past year.

Lincoln Nadauld: Well, my pleasure. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Hall: When you explain what you do to friends or family members, people who aren’t in the medical field, how do you explain what you do?

Nadauld:  Well, my job has a couple of parts. First of all, I am a medical oncologist. I see patients with cancer, I’m actively treating them, I help them along their journey, and I’m trying to cure their disease. I also have this job where I am Vice President of Academics at Intermountain Healthcare and of Precision Health, so my job there is to oversee the implementation of precision medicine across all of our 24 hospitals and 200 physician clinics. In addition to overseeing all of our academic pursuits, a lot of broad responsibilities there. And I love it

Hall: In a sentence or two, what is precision medicine?

Nadauld:  You know, precision medicine is just taking an individual’s DNA makeup, and devising a treatment plan for them. In shorter terms, it’s getting the right treatment to the right patient at the right time.

Hall:  What did it mean to you to win this Catalyst for Precision Medicine Award?

Nadauld: I was really humbled and thrilled just to find out about the nomination, and then to win that award was just totally humbling, honestly. It has meant greater visibility, not only in our organization but also in our communities and nationally.

Hall:  Can you tell me about a specific partnership or development that happened as a result of the award?

Nadauld:  You know, there are several, actually. So we’re constantly looking for cutting-edge ways to help our patients, and so we’ve been working with some early cancer detection companies to take novel technologies and implement them for our patient population. And we could take patients in our population, draw blood and see if they currently have cancer. We’ve  never been able to do that before. So now we’re going to implement that technology, and that opportunity has arisen as a direct result of this award.

We have a similar partnership with a company who is helping us extract data from our deep archive of samples that we’ve been collecting for years, and making sense of that data, helping us to structure that data and ask questions from that data and make discoveries. And that company became aware of us because of this award.

Hall:  I understand that you’re now a judge for the awards. Without giving anything away, what has struck you about the pool of nominations,

Nadauld:  I was so impressed with the applicants. I remember thinking, wow, we could hand out a dozen of these awards in every category. You know, every single nominee I thought was worthy of this award, and so in a way, it kind of feels like splitting hairs to figure out who the actual winner is. And there is great hope for the future of cancer care in the United States and beyond, because the level of expertise and the amount of dedication is stunning.

Hall:  Are there any new developments or advancements on the horizon for your work?

Nadauld: A major one is this ability to do blood-based early cancer detection. You or I could be asymptomatic. We go to see our primary care provider and they say, hey, let’s check your blood pressure, let’s check your cholesterol, and by the way, let’s check to see if you have any of up to a dozen different cancers, and we’ll do it through a blood test. So that’s really exciting.

As an oncologist, I’m growing really tired of mothers and fathers that are young in their 30s or 40s showing up in our emergency rooms with advanced cancer and we could have known about that. So that’s one example of an emerging technology that I think is going to be really exciting in the coming year or two.

Hall:  Well, thank you, Lincoln Nadauld for taking the time to talk about what you’ve been up to in the past year.

Nadauld:  My pleasure, thanks for having me. This is my favorite topic, I could talk about it all day.

Hall:  Lincoln Nadauld is Vice President and Chief of Precision Health and Academics at Intermountain Healthcare. In 2020, he received the Catalyst for Precision Medicine Award from the Cancer Community

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