On rock climbing, bravery, and big medical research projects
On June 3rd 31 year old Alex Hannold became the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National park. To the uninitiated this might seem like an unexciting event. However, if you know anything about rock climbing this feat was incredible.
Some of the most renowned climbers had never even considered free soloing El Capitan.
Maybe that was because it is not only difficult, it also includes some very sketchy ‘slab’ climbing. Slab climbing is more than anything about overcoming fear. Slab climbs, particularly the very hard ones, have no holds, and barely anything to stand on. Only by striking the right balance between the friction of your shoes and your center of gravity can you stay on the rock. Thousands of feet up the mental pressure must be enormous.
Even with meticulous planning and practice, free soloing El Capitan requires unprecedented bravery.
Simple vs. complex bravery
When you think of bravery, the image of a knight in armor rushing forward and singing out “And here I come to save the day!” comes to mind.
During the middle ages bravery was about not shrinking away in face of an enemy. Today, bravery comes in many different forms.
Alex Hannold faced no enemies, only the fear in his own mind. Yet even his type of bravery is relatively simple.
He knows what he has to do, it is just a matter of doing it. Modern day knights have to have a more complex form of bravery.
A brave modern day knight
Last week Peter J. Sterk was awarded a knighthood in the Netherlands.
Peter is someone I have worked closely with over the years. In fact, he was our first ‘concretey’ award winner.
Listening to the long list of his accomplishments that was read out before he was knighted it was clear that he did not face the physical threats that medieval knights did, or the rock climbers of today do. But, if you think that means he did not need to brave. You would be wrong.
One of Peter’s bigger accomplishments was the Unbiased BIOmarkers in the PREDiction of airways disease outcomes (U-BIOPRED) project. I had the fortune of being there from the start when Peter, Ratio Djukanovic, Ian Adcock and myself first sat together to come up with the concept that would later become U-BIOPRED.
The bravery that Peter exhibited even at that early stage was to be bold and think big in terms of what the U-BIOPRED project should accomplish.
No matter that at that time the idea of integrating different types of data to characterize a patient was thought to be impossible. Never mind that bringing together 39 partner organisations to work on a project that went from basic science to clinical research to clinical practice seemed like insanity.
Peter’s refrain was always the same
'This is going to be so much fun.'
Peter was also certain that we had to involve patients in a meaningful way. Eight years ago even involving patients at all was a novel idea.
Slaying the big project dragon
His bravery turned out to be important in helping hold U-BIOPRED together. As a big project with lofty aims the problems and issues just seemed to continually pile up. Peter’s constant harping on the shared vision of a new way to understand asthma through an integrated molecular profile ‘handprint’ inspired everyone to persist.
This persistence paid off. U-BIOPRED prevailed and is informally credited with pushing forward the idea that determining a patient’s endotype is a way to become more precise about how we diagnose and treat disease.
U-BIOPRED has also demonstrated that public/private partnerships can be highly productive particularly when the need to increase disease understanding is great. Most importantly the involvement of patients in the project’s operational teams where they not only provided insights, but also provided something more important, passion and motivation by telling their own stories. The manner in which patients were involved in U-BIOPRED is often held forth as a new standard of patient involvement in research.
Peter will agree with me that U-BIOPRED is not about the bravery of one person, it is about the bravery of over 250 people that were in some way involved. He does, however, get the credit for leading that merry band of brave researchers.
Perhaps more importantly, his bravery is a reminder to us all that research and innovation projects are difficult. Any project that is worth doing will evoke what seems like an endless torrent of doubt.
But we must face those doubts.
We now have the opportunity to truly embrace and understand the complexity of human health and disease. To realize this opportunity there has to be big projects like U-BIOPRED.
Now is not the time to turn away from these types of projects because they are too difficult.
We need to be brave in the face of uncertainty inherent to big challenging projects.
This is the only way we will reach our collective potential to substantially diminish the wanton human suffering inflicted by the ravages of disease.
For this reason we have a duty as researchers to develop and deliver big challenging projects.
What's your big project?
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