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Q and A: Mark Lythgoe interview

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CNN caught up with Mark Lythgoe in London to talk artistic enlightenment, magnets and creativity...


Lythgoe designed and curated a Dan Flavin retrospective, "AfterImage," at the Hayward Gallery in London.

CNN: Mark, how did you become a scientist?
Mark Lythgoe:
I've had a pretty unusual route into science, to put it mildly. I never went to university to start with, although my mother eventually pushed me onto a diploma course. I served my time as a fitter in a factory, worked as a guard dog trainer in Israel and ended up as a climber in South America before I got on an MSc course and finally a PhD.

CNN: What do you think is the essence of a good scientist?
Lythgoe: I say to students that it's really important to think what no one else has ever thought before. There's that real creative element which can be lost sometimes.

But it's a lot more than that: you've got to look at the world in a completely objective way. That's what scientists do -- look at things without their own personal feelings being superimposed upon the data. Yes, there is an element of thinking out of the box, you've got to think laterally, you've got to be more creative than anyone else has ever been before, but by the same token you've got to be systematic and rigorous -- that's what science is.

CNN: Can you tell us a little about your specific area of work?
Lythgoe: We're just about to open the new Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London, which will have one of the largest MRI scanners in the country. It will be used for developing new techniques for imaging both the heart and the brain, developing new therapies for people who have had heart attacks and looking for new therapies for patients that have had both stroke and epilepsy.

CNN: What was it like, coming to science comparatively late?
Lythgoe: I had a moment of revelation when I came to science. I'd found something that was able to address so many of my questions in life. It allowed me to look at myself completely differently, it provided answers that I'd never dreamed of, but I also found that it had really quite distinct limitations.

CNN: What sort of limitations?
Lythgoe: Well, in science you're trained in a very particular regimented fashion and at first I lost a little bit of myself. I wasn't able to think in the way that I used to. My contact with the arts allowed me to think far more freely and openly again; I think that's what the arts can bring to science.

CNN: So you believe the arts can further scientific discovery?
Lythgoe: Yes, but it's not directly about ideas. It's a way of thinking. Artists are, in my mind, a completely different species to scientists. They walk differently, they talk differently, they even dress differently; but more importantly they think about the world differently; and I think these differences can help and inform science.

CNN: Are there key questions that art can pose, which science itself isn't quite able to handle?
Lythgoe: Art can address lots of things that science can't. For example, science can describe an emotion like love, hate or anger in the most wondrous and infinite detail: you can see parts of the brain lighting up, you know all the biochemistry that's happening; but it will never be able to explain to you how I feel, how I love, what my anger is at any moment in time. The arts are really good at looking at how an individual feels or thinks: they can ask those questions that science will never be able to touch.

CNN: How did you get the idea for using magnets in stem cell research?
A few years ago, I was talking to some artists about whether you could use magnets to levitate people, move things around, even heal people. A couple of weeks later we were in the lab having a conversation around stem cells. Stem cells are special types of cells that can turn into all sorts of cells -- heart cells, brain cells, liver cells and so on; and in principle they should be able to regenerate damaged tissue. But how do you get these stem cells to go to the heart or the brain, the liver or the kidneys?

I remembered the conversation I'd had with the artists about these magnets and I thought, well, maybe if we pack the stem cells with thousands of very tiny iron filings, perhaps we could somehow guide the stem cells to the brain or the heart with magnets so that they could regenerate the damaged tissue.

So we rushed away and started writing to one of the grant bodies about a stem cell and engineering initiative to try to pull these new theories together. We've now been awarded one of the largest grants to do stem cell and engineering work to see whether magnets will help target stem cells to repair damaged tissue.

I do not believe that we'd have come up with this crazy idea unless I'd had those conversations with artists several years ago. Those conversations allowed me to change the way I think.

CNN: What stage has the research reached now?
Lythgoe: We've been developing both the nanotechnology side of things -- the small iron filings that we're able to put into the stem cells -- and the different types of magnets so that we can attract the stem cells to the site of the damaged blood vessel when they are loaded up with the iron filings.

CNN: Finally, can you tell us your ultimate goal?
Lythgoe: I have two main aims, really. From the point of view of science I would love to be able to make a genuine difference to people's lives. I would love to find a treatment for the kids that we see at the hospital who have epilepsy or stroke.

But also, I get up every day and look at the world differently because of the science and art collaborations that I've had, and I hope that people will look at the world slightly differently when they see the products of those collaborations, like I did when I first came into science. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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