Johnson & Johnson-Backed Science Project to Create Champions of Science, Challenge Stereotypes

Published: Sep 19, 2017

J&J-backed Science Project to Create Champions of Science, Challenge Stereotypes September 19, 2017
By Alex Keown, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Science needs champions.

That is the belief of Johnson & Johnson ’s Seema Kumar, vice president of Innovation, Global Health and Science Policy Communication. And that’s a belief being harnessed by a new J&J initiative that celebrates the legacy of Dr. Paul Janssen, one of the most prolific scientific innovators of the past century.

J&J has launched the Dr. Paul Janssen Project, which is aimed at extending the legacy of Janssen and promoting a broader engagement of science and technology innovation to the nation.

The project was announced at the Janssen Award celebration last week. Since its inception in 2004, the Award has recognized 15 outstanding scientists, including two who went on to win the Nobel Prize. The most recent winner was Dr. Douglas Wallace of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, a pioneer in the field of mitochondrial genetics.

Although Janssen winners have accomplished great things, they are not household names. Their stories have been relegated to specialty publications. Those stories, though, deserve greater recognition due to the tremendous impact they have had on society. That’s where the project can make a difference, Kumar said.

Kumar said science and those who work in the field are often stereotyped as “nerds” or absentminded geniuses. That leads to a misunderstanding about who the people working in the field are, Kumar said. That’s something that is hurting the future of the industry, she told BioSpace in an exclusive interview.

Despite all the advances scientists bring to the world, Kumar said community members don’t receive the recognition they deserve. As an example she pointed to the long-running James Bond film franchise. She said Bond typically survives and overcomes his enemies using gadgets created by Major Boothroyd, known as “Q.” Children want to be Bond, she said, but not Q.

“There’s a narrative on science that indicates a stereotype – nerds, misfits and fashion unconscious. We need to change the narrative as to what science is all about in order to attract more people into the field,” Kumar said. “Science changes our lives every day. It increases our life expectancy, it has improved the human condition… we’ve gone to space. It (science) shouldn’t be shrouded in mystery.”

That’s why the new initiative is so important to Kumar and Johnson & Johnson. She said it is a step in inspiring champions of science. If no action is taken, Kumar said there will be a shortage of scientists in the future.

The project will include three challenges to re-imagine a new future for the sciences. The first is a redesign of the traditional white lab coat. For years the coat has remained relatively the same. Kumar said she hopes designers will be able to change the coat and make it more fashionable, use new textiles to make the coat or add wearable technology to the design.

“As a woman I’d like to see something less boxy and more fashionable,” she said.

Kumar said she anticipates the challenge, which begins in October, will draw submissions from designers all over the world. The designs will be judged by Shark Tank entrepreneur, Daymond John, among other experts in the fashion and medical industry. Following the lab coat, Kumar said the next long-time device that could deserve a makeover is the stethoscope.

Another issue the project will attempt to address is challenging the current stigma associated with mental health issues. Throughout history, people suffering mental health issues were often mistreated because physicians did not understand how to address their problems. Janssen was one of the first to develop an anti-psychotic treatment. Since that time, the company has been dedicated to mental health treatments, Kumar said. But developing medicines is only half of the battle. She said the negative societal stigmas associated with mental health issues are “more insidious” than the condition itself.

“We want to break the chain of stigma. We are still operating in a space where people have not dismissed the stigma,” Kumar said.

In collaboration with cientific American Custom Media, Johnson & Johnson has launched a content series to share the stories of “brilliant thinkers, big ideas and exciting breakthroughs that make our world a better place.”

“There are a lot of fabulous stories that go untold,” Kumar said. “These kinds of stories can help policy makers when faced with decisions.”

The project will kick off in October with the lab coat challenge. Kumar hopes the challenge is successful in raising the profile of science and scientists and brings new people into the industry as champions of science.

“We need scientists to solve Alzheimer’s, to put us onto other planets and lead exploration, to find out more about climate change,” she said.

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