NOTE: This interview is the third of a special Thiel Fellows (Bright Minds Under 20) week at Daily BR!NK. Last March, twenty-four brilliant students were awarded $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation to spend the next two years in Silicon Valley pursuing their scientific, technical, and entrepreneurial projects. Since Daily BR!NK is all about up-and-comers and individuals revolutionizing their respective industries, we simply couldn’t resist featuring five trendsetters who will undoubtedly give you a glimpse at what tomorrow will look like.
INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN |PHOTOGRAPHY by CHRISTOPHER RASCH
For those of you who follow Daily BR!NK regularly, you’re familiar with the concept of entrepreneurship: finding something that is missing in society, and creating a business around that need. The light bulb went off in Laura Deming’s head when she was just eight after learning about the concept of death: what if there was a way to fight aging? After working with her mentor and pioneer in the field, Cynthia Kenyon, this Rubix cube fanatic started attending MIT at just fourteen, getting more acquainted with the current research in the field. There, she noticed that the quality of work conducted was too dependent on the funding obtained via different channels. When the Thiel Fellowship opportunity arose, the now seventeen-year-old jumped on the opportunity to embark on a unique two-year adventure in Silicon Valley.
Out of all the Thiel fellows, your project is certainly the most provocative yet one of the most brilliant. Can you tell us a bit about it?
The goal is to extend the healthy human lifespan. In the past couple of decades, we’ve learned a lot about the basic science of aging. Now it’s time to start translating the basic science into marketable therapies. I want to find and fund the projects creating those therapies.
When did you become interested in the idea that aging could be cured?
When I was eight, my mom told me about death and I couldn’t stop crying for days. What a tragedy! Life is incredible, but death is inevitable. I already knew biology was fantastic fun. But that moment, for me, made science more than fun. It made it into a power that could save lives. And I couldn’t imagine doing something more fascinating or important.
And it’s not like you’ve been sitting around waiting to be the proper age to conduct research, right?
[laughs] You can say that, I guess. When I was twelve, I was lucky enough to meet Cynthia Kenyon (biogerontolist and molecular biologist), who is a pioneer in the field of anti-aging research. She is amazing. I ended up working in her lab, at the University of California San Francisco, for a few years. She had a way of describing scientists as detectives, trying to solve mysteries and catch genetic culprits. Growing up at UCSF, getting to tinker with tiny worms in a biology lab and sit in on classes about genetics and biochemistry… that was an incredible experience.
It seems like you’re not just interested in the research and development aspect of anti-aging, but in the business side of it…
Anti-aging is such an important field, but it is underfunded. Building business around an anti-aging therapy is no mean feat, especially when the FDA does not recognize aging as a disease. The goal here is to create a profitable, self-sustaining structure that will fund a portfolio of anti-aging projects, and then commercialize the research. It will be important that scientists get a stable source of funding for long-term lifespan projects, and a cut of the revenue from the projects they create.
Anti-aging seems like something most people would be enthusiastic about, given how the majority of the population is terrified of death. Have you encountered any criticism?
You know, it’s actually been strange… I’ve talked to a lot of excited, supportive folks. But many have been more critical, saying things like, “Why would you want to do that?” I don’t know if it’s the idea of immortality that is scary, or the thought that “living longer” means looking and feeling like an 80-year old would, but for 200 years. The real goal, of course, is to extend lifespan in a youthful, healthy way. Then, of course, there are giant problems that come with longer lifespans…
Overpopulation, lack of resources…
Exactly. But coming up with creative solutions to meet those problems and find a way to thrive… that will be a whole other, exciting challenge. One that quite a few folks are starting to work on right now.
Similarly to the creation-evolution debate, are there different views and clashing ideologies when it comes to studying aging?
I would absolutely say so. One theory states that aging is caused by “random wear and tear.” Others focus more on genetics. Aging is probably caused by a complicated mix of genetic and stochastic factors. By looking at worms (useful because of their simple metabolisms), scientists discovered a clear genetic way that shifts young worms into old ones. This is a huge find in a world where that same genetic pathway is found to be affected in long-lived human populations. Aubrey De Grey also came up with the seven types of aging damage that exist, and what he thinks we can do to actually get rid of those.
With the next two years spent in Silicon Valley and working full-time on this gargantuan project, are you afraid you won’t get to experience the social aspect of college?
[thinks] Well… not really. Have you seen The Social Network?
Yes, I have.
There’s a kind of excitement there that Jesse Eisenberg portrayed really well. The feeling of working on a project that’s indubitably yours, in the context of a network of bright, motivated entrepreneurs who want to solve the same problems… there’s nothing else like it, and nowhere I’d rather be.
Who are your favorite authors?
I’d have to say Shakespeare and Twain. Oh, and H. L. Menken and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Nabokov and… gosh, too many to mention!
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
If you’re already in the field of anti-aging research, contact me. Even if you know someone who is involved, I’m looking to expand my network of individuals working toward a similar goal.