William Talman admits he was never really good at jigsaw puzzles, but that didn’t stop him from a career in biomedical research and science advocacy.
During his first year of medical school, Talman recalls, “One of my professors challenged us one day, saying ‘Do any of you like to solve jigsaw puzzles? If so, you will probably like neurology because you can logically put the pieces together.’”
Today, Talman is a professor in the UI Department of Neurology, seeing patients and conducting cutting-edge research on how the brain regulates cardiovascular function. He also spends a good deal of time in Washington, D.C., advocating for science and helping shape science policy.
As the current president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), Talman’s job is to inform elected leaders and the public on the value of science and the need for continued support and funding.
In a sense, Talman is helping others put the “pieces together” when it comes to the value of science and research.
fyi spoke with Talman recently about his roles as physician, researcher, and policy advocate.
How did you join FASEB?
I got involved with the administrative side of the American Physiological Society, a founding FASEB society. I was appointed chair of its Public Affairs Committee in the mid-’90s, and it really took hold. Through that effort, I began to work with the Science Policy Committee in FASEB.
How does your background as a researcher help you advocate for science?
A few of my favorite things…
The movie Rudy
Lunch at one twenty six
Opera and folk rock
Anyone who has expertise and experience in a specific area is an ideal person to provide information to our elected leaders. Nobody is going to do it for us. Most people have no idea what makes a scientist tick—sometimes scientists don’t know. Being a physician and scientist, I can see the benefits of what we do in the laboratory for patients. Frankly, I’ve never met a scientist who does what he or she does to only benefit him or herself.
Do you think the public understands the importance of government funding for research?
The general public is very supportive of scientific discovery, particularly for the betterment of their lives. They certainly understand that only through new discovery can we find treatments and cures for some diseases that we currently can’t treat. However, sometimes people are confused by things said in the media by leaders whose comments may undermine the value of science.
How do you reach people who aren’t knowledgeable about science?
As a physician who always seeks to provide necessary information to my patients, I am very aware of the need to speak of clinical matters—and for FASEB, scientific matters—in a way that has meaning for the listener. We must emphasize the mystery of science and the value of discovery but also note the caution we take toward discovery so that we don’t oversell our “product.”
What is the single most important issue facing science today?
There is no single most important issue. Of course, funding is vital—trust in those who seek to make research discoveries is critical to public support of the effort. Trust is also a vital link to the public’s application of what we learn from discovery.
We periodically see news reports saying that American kids are lacking in science and math education. What can be done?
Keep in mind that kids from all over the world flock to the United States for education provided by American universities. President Kennedy inspired a generation to pursue science in a way that also allowed kids to see career opportunities in science. The brightest minds may find other careers if our leaders cease supporting research. When you see in the papers how certain state governments are slashing K–12 education funds, how textbooks are published with political ends in mind rather than science education, how dedicated science teachers fail to find career rewards—adequate salary and public recognition—for their work, you can see that those problems require systematic approaches to improvement.
American kids are bright and eager to learn. We must give them the environment and resources to maximize their curiosity and make a life out of discovery.
How do you balance all of your roles and responsibilities?
I don’t remember the last 40-hour week. You have to learn to prioritize things. I continue to teach, see patients, and do research, and when FASEB calls me to do something that might take me away from patient care responsibilities, someone else covers that and I pay them back later.