TED Fellow Seeks Collaborative "Magic" and Cancer Cure (and Might Actually Have a Shot)

MIT PhD candidate in computational biology Luke Hutchison is the kind of engaged, cross-disciplinary thinker that TED totally hearts.

Most scientists can only dream about curing cancer. But Luke Hutchison might just be up to the challenge.

Hutchison, a PhD candidate in computational biology at MIT, was named a TED Fellow this week. With that award comes the opportunity to attend the annual Long Beach conference next February, all expenses paid, and more importantly, the opportunity to enter what has become one of the world's most elite talent pools.

"I'm ecstatic," Hutchison says of receiving his TED Fellowship. The rest of us should be, as well.

While some academics may see the opportunity as a chance to show off their work, gain increased recognition, or become outright famous, Hutchison's take on the appointment is somewhat anomalous in the cut-throat world of academia. He actually--genuinely, truly, and excitedly--wants to learn from others.

"The most important innovations for the future will come from interdisciplinary problem-solving," Hutchison tells Fast Company. "I'm most excited to meet people from all different fields. I'm looking to synergize with others and with other ideas."

Hutchison's own work is interdisciplinary in nature--computational biology is essentially the fusion of computer science and biology--and his interests and outlook are equally interdisciplinary. When not working on his PhD thesis, he spent three years of his PhD riding his bike up the Charles River to Harvard each day, where he studied Chinese. He even completed a Chinese-language intensive summer program at the Harvard Beijing Academy.

"Asia is transitioning from being the world's hub of manufacturing to being the next world hub of innovation," says Hutchison. "And the East won't need the West to accomplish this."

With that in mind, he's placed himself squarely where he needs to be and is now fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Korean and continues to spend time in Asia, including North Korea where he previously donated Wikipedia and OpenCourseWare content to the universities there.

It's such interests that make Hutchison a very TED-friendly fellow. His eagerness and excitement about the world is immediately palpable and what's equally impressive is his ability to switch between highly complex computational biology jargon to translating into digestible sound bytes.

"I believe there is a structural pattern language used by biology and I'm looking for that language," Hutchison says of his work. "The human body is an incredibly complex biological machine. The structure has to be encoded somewhere, but biology doesn't give many clues to where. So I'm trying to mine the DNA to figure out where the structural blueprint of an organism is stored."

That information will ultimately lead Hutchison to understand cell division and cell death, which points to how to control cancer cells and re-grow healthy ones. Hutchison, then, is apparently not at all the type of scientist whose work is limited to the comprehension of his fellow Ivy League colleagues. His research has the potential to revert what has become one of the leading causes of death around the world and enable people to live longer, healthier lives.

To take on such ambitious efforts, Hutchison is wise to seek collaborations and what he calls a kind of "magic" that comes from two people connecting over ideas.  

"Two passionate people are able to synergize about almost anything," says Hutchison. So you can be sure that there will be plenty of "synergizing" at TED next year, and don't be surprised if Hutchison is a leading catalyst.

For more information, follow Luke on Twitter.

Follow me, Jenara Nerenberg, on Twitter.

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