Taking the Long View

Barbara McClintock was a geneticist who did much of her work with maize, or what we in the US commonly call “corn.” Because maize has a far longer generational cycle than E coli bacteria (the subject of most genetic research at the time), McClintock’s work took longer to develop than that of her contemporaries. She also developed insights that others did not.

Her work on gene regulation challenged the beliefs of many leading scientists. She saw things that they didn’t. The negative reactions to her work were so severe that she quit publishing the results of her work. She continued her studies but was generally ignored by her peers.

Ten years after she quit publishing her work, her discoveries were confirmed by others. Her work finally achieved the recognition it deserved. Thirty years after her initial discoveries, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Many of the most promising genetic advances in medicine have their origins in McClintock’s work. This included the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. McClintock’s work was a true breakthrough. Her belief in her ideas was a lesson for everyone. How many of us would continue our work when others doubted us so much? How many of us would keep the faith that eventually our ideas would prevail? How many of us could keep working with the optimistic spirit necessary for gaining new insights? How many of us could resist the temptation of devolving into bitterness at the rejection of others?

Just imagine if we approached societal problems with a long view as Barbara McClintock did in her studies of maize. Unfortunately, our approach to societal issues seems more geared to 2-year election cycles or quarterly earnings reports. Just imagine the courage it would take to persist with ideas that break from current thinking. Just imagine what it would take to ensure that long view possibilities are given the consideration they deserve. What would it look like to be a society that encouraged and supported truly innovative ideas, especially ones that take the long view?


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“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” – Albert Einstein

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