From Dante’s irony to the future of painkillers

  • October 20, 2013

This week's Gates Cambridge internal symposium covers a wealth of subjects, from hidden irony in Dante's work to the potential for new ways of combatting pain.

A joke made by Dante which was not understood for seven centuries, the changing face of biology, the future of painkillers, remote health monitoring devices, the burden of non-communicable disease in sub-Saharan Africa and Nazi doctors will be presented at this week’s Gates Cambridge internal symposium.

The symposium, which takes place on Tuesday 22nd October, offers Gates Cambridge Scholars the chance to speak about their research to other Scholars and their guests from a wide range of specialisms.

Ambrogio Camozzi Pistoja [2010] will talk about a joke which Dante made in one of his major works, the Banquet, and that no-one understood until now and how this reveals “the subtle potentialities of irony, our lack of rhetorical education and, more interestingly, our lack of moral fibre”.

Guilhem Chalancon [2011] speak about why single-cell omics and computational systems biology are paving the way for a new area of biology, enabling scientists to explore how cells function both individually and collectively, across time, environmental conditions, tissues and individuals. He will also explain why this will help scientists, doctors and innovators to overcome long-standing limitations in our attempts to tackle complex and evolving diseases like cancer.

Lubin Chen [2009] will talk about the potential future of painkillers based on research into the role that hyperpolarisation-activated cyclic nucleotide-modulated (HCN) ion channels play in both inflammatory and neuropathic pain. He says these channel function as a switch turning up or down the firing frequency of nociceptors (neurons that sense pain), which directly correlates to the intensity of pain.

Gina Murphy [2009] will discuss the burden, distribution and importance of non-communicable diseases in sub-Saharan Africa and talk about the key findings so far from a large-scale epidemiological study in rural Uganda.

Alessandra Colaianni [2013] will discuss her research into the more than 7% of all German physicians who became members of the Nazi SS during World War II. This compares to less than 1% of the general population. She says: “In so doing, these doctors willingly participated in genocide, something that should have been antithetical to the values of their chosen profession.”

Her research sought to explore the unsettling question: is there something inherent in being a physician that promotes a transition from healer to murderer? She has identified six distinct moral vulnerabilities present within contemporary medical culture that were also contributing factors to so many Nazi physicians’ decisions to participate in the Holocaust. These include the hierarchical nature of medicine, clinical detachment, comfort inflicting pain, use of medical terminology and euphemism, career ambition and the license to commit acts that would otherwise be considered criminal.

She says: “Though nearly all physicians want to save lives and promote health, there are aspects of medical culture that can paradoxically pave the way for us to act immorally and unethically. Being aware of these deleterious aspects may make us safer doctors.”

Isaac Holeman [2013] will discuss his fieldwork with eight clinics in rural Kenya as they adopted a wireless device to remotely monitor vaccine refrigerators. He says that, in a setting troubled by electricity outages, vaccine spoilage and staffing shortages, the device played an important role in changing workers’ experience of accountability in the workplace. 

He argues: “We can only understand their experience and the mechanism through which this device might improve vaccination programmes, by acknowledging that accountability is not a quality which describes or durably inheres in people or organisations. Rather, it is an immediate and provisional ramification of workers holding one another to account and anticipating being held accountable.”

*The symposium takes place from 7-9pm in the Gates Cambridge Room.

Picture credit: www.freedigitalphotos.net and Kittikun Atsawintarangkul.

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