Thursday, April 14, 2016

The 1% Can Push Science Research Forward -- Example1: Bob Wright!

Typically, the majority of people walking the Earth have a bad impression associated with the class of wealthy individuals often referred to as "the 1%."  Why is that the case?  Maybe because of stories like that of Children from Wealthy Chinese Parents  who -- are tearing up the town of Vancouver in sports cars that cost a comparable amount to a house in the U.S. featured in the New York Times yesterday?   How about changing the lens with which we view the 1% for a moment?  How about a "series" on the 1% that actually use their money to promote good?

From here on out, everytime you see the title start with "The 1% Series That Move Science Forward -- Example: Bob Wright" -- this will be a short post talking about research that is funded by a member of "the 1%".  Sound good?  I think so.  That is not to say that I will have a post on this topic weekly.  Although, I will interleave the post with other topics like those covered in the past from the popular news.  This series will be an opportunity to learn about a different way of promoting research -- through the motivation of successful who have chosen to help move scientific progress forward with their wealthy earnings.  Without further ado, lets meet Bob Wright!

Money Moves Mountains!

There are many ways to promote good health and well-being through philanthropy in our society.  Why Bob Wright?  Who is Bob Wright?  Lets answer that in the reverse order.  Bob Wright has had an amazing career -- simply stated.  If you are interested in reading a semi-detailed account of his past, check out his "Wikipedia" page.  That page will have the broad strokes of his history -- his career and timeline with success -- but very brief.

For a more comprehensive story, read his new book titled "The Wright Stuff: From NBC to Autism Speaks."  Here is an excerpt about the subject matter from Mr. Wright's past that caught my attention from the Amazon Review of his book:

What does someone like that do when he retires? If he’s Bob Wright, he starts all over again. At almost the exact same time as Bob’s NBC reign was winding down, his grandson Christian was diagnosed with autism, a condition then poorly understood. Baffled by a lack of medical knowledge and community support, Bob and his wife Suzanne founded Autism Speaks, which in short order became the leading advocacy and research funding organization for this mysterious condition that so devastates families. They make a powerful team―the compassionate, charismatic, indefatigable Suzanne who won’t take no for an answer, and the analytic, efficient executive who poured all his business acumen into building an organization from scratch.

As the two story lines unfold in The Wright Stuff, readers will gradually see that both endeavors―revitalizing NBC and building Autism Speaks―reflect the same key management tenets that apply to any organization facing disruptive change.

You are probably wondering why I am mentioning an excerpt from a book review by an author from Amazon.  I was led to the book after watching an interview with Bob Wright and Charlie Rose on the Charlie Rose Show -- which is shown below:

The interview is around 15 minutes long.  I always enjoy watching interviews with professionals who are at the top or hold a high position within their company.  They have worked hard to get to the position that they currently hold.  The story is usually filled with "ups and downs."  Although, for the purposes of this blog, what would cause a CEO of NBC to start fighting for greater awareness or treatment for the emerging disorder of Autism.

In order to understand the cause or pursuit of such awareness, lets digress for a bit and look at the traits of successful people.  Many of articles, books, blogposts have been written on the subject -- what am I going to reveal that is new?  Nothing.  Lets review a bit.  If we were to ask Dr. Gregory Jantz, who has written in the subject in articles, he would probably cite excerpts from his work.  One such work can be found on the website "" titled "6 Traits Of Successful People."  Here are three of the six traits from his blog post:

1) They faced their fears—and conquered them.  
Most of us develop confidence by confronting our anxieties and discouragement, and determining to do what we have set out to do. When you admit that most of your fears are homegrown, you can make the decision to stop feeding them, hold them up by the roots, and regain control of your life.

2) They stayed focused and flexible.
Success will probably not come your way overnight. Progress takes time. Achieving anything of significant value not only takes long hours but demands long periods of courage and stamina. These attributes will help you do your job with greater confidence, provide you with more wisdom, and make you a more resilient person.

3)They refuse to give up on their dreams.
Whenever we have a dream, we must realize that there will invariably be dream-snatchers lurking in the most unsuspecting places. They may be well-meaning family members, colleagues at work, and even some we thought would be the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for our new venture. You will learn to accept these individuals as temporary obstacles around which you must either walk or run. Never allow them to determine your direction.

You may be wondering what the other three traits are of successful people.   The remaining three traits are not any less important toward success.  They are: 1) Maintaining optimism, 2) Thinking with their hearts, and 3) Using "stumbling blocks" as stepping stones.  As you can see, these can be considered just as, if not, more important than the previous three traits.  Of course, all six traits blended together form a complete set of traits to tackle any problem.

At this point, you might ask -- what does a psychologist know about business or successful people?  Fair enough.  Aside from treating various types of successful people as patients, an education into the psychology of success from a mental health standpoint.  If you are not convinced that the traits match what a 'business person' would say, then I can refer you to a professional (CEO) who consults as a 'business coach.'  Read the article out of "" titled "Top 10 Qualities Of Highly Successful People" by Lolly Daskal and compare the similarities to the six traits outlined by Dr. Gregory Jantz.  Ten qualities presented by Lolly Daskal.

How do these qualities translate into funding scientific research from outside the profession?

What do I mean by this last sentence?

These traits emerging from a very successful CEO of NBC can produce results.  If we disregard the money that is raised by Bob Wright, isolate the effort down to the skills that he possesses professionally.  His business was to elevate ratings in various networks -- in a very general sense.  Couple that with the ability to donate money and get support from other very successful people.  Now, the ability to "move mountains" is quite possible.  But he has done so with failing and learning along the way.  Lets look at the research being conducted and funded by Bob Wright.

Autism Speaks!

In the interview with Charlie Rose above, Bob Wright talks about the emergence of his foundation -- "" -- with his wife Suzanne.    As is the unfortunate case with most proactive people fighting to find a treatment for a disease, Bob's story was no different -- his grandson was diagnosed in the following manner.  Here is an excerpt from the above interview:

In 2004, he was two and a half years old. We had gone through six months prior to that -- it was about this time of the year, right in this kind of semi cold thing. And he -- he was losing all of his identity over a period of six months, as if people were coming in at night and stealing -- they were stealing his vocabulary. They were stealing his dexterity. They were taking his health away. And we watched this whole thing happen. We ended up at Columbia Hospital -- when I was on the board of New York Presbyterian at the time and ended up at Columbia. Three days later and $12,000 later, he got a diagnosis that said there's a lot of things wrong with him but we can't really help you. He's autistic, and we don't have a protocol to deal with autism.

Can you imagine being on the board of a prominent hospital and hearing that there exists no "protocol" to deal with your grandchild.  Many people probably have the unfortunate experience of hearing the terrible news regarding "no protocol" without having clout and influence.  What did Bob do as a result?  Give up?  No.   Knowing that nothing is was going to change in the form of protocol, he decided to educate himself on the current state of research -- knowledge gathering (another trait of successful people).  Here is the description of his initial pursuits into finding out the current state of research and treatment from the interview above:

Not going to change. So, we ended up, you know, out on our own sort of and we couldn't believe it. We got into it. I went to the hospital. We got a lot of information out of the hospital about what it is, after that, and what they do about it. A neurologist and a psychologist and psychiatry and it was all pushed into that world, the world of psychiatry and neurology. We're not in the M.D. world, the typical M.D. world was like out. We traveled around a bit. We went out to see different groups. We met with people. Everything was very depressing. People were -- money was a huge issue. There was no insurance. There was no coverage. Parents were having to -- one was having to quit work to take care of the child. The other one was away all the time working. They couldn't come up with enough money to cover it. They were living off credit cards. We bumped into Bernie Marcus--

 He called me up and he said I need to talk to you. You're going around talking to people, I understand. Let me tell you my story. And he said I put a lot of money into this and I've been on a number years and quite frankly I failed in my expectation and the reason is there's no awareness of this. I can't build awareness at the medical level. I can't build it up at political level, at the hospital level. Maybe you guys, if you're going to want to do something, I'll support you. I'll be a major financial supporter if you want to take this challenge on. So, we talked about it a lot and I contacted a couple other people and I got Phil Geyer, who is the long time CEO of Interpublic, the largest ad agency in the world at the time. Mel Karmazin came on board. The Slatkins too. Laura and her husband both came on board.

Awareness!   He found out that awareness was the main impediment to a cure or treatment of autism.  Second, he used his background as a CEO of NBC to find a solution.  Instead of just giving up, he decides to gather very successful people at spreading awareness regarding important issues (autism being one).  What caught my attention the most was that he demanded that the pace be set by himself and procedure through which to run a non-profit.  Here is another excerpt:

Yes, but not Phil. Phil is just a great close friend. And lastly, Andrew Robertson, who had no connection with autism, but was a really up-and-coming advertising executive of BBDO. Today, he's the president, and he said, "I'll help you because they like to take on -- not for profit charges if they really believe in it. That was our core and that took -- I said this going to be run like a business. This isn't going to be one off to think, I want audited financials from day one. I want to be registered in every state. I want to be registered as an entity that can raise money and then can operate and be licensed in every state. Any place there is restrictions, we need to follow the law.

Naturally, as a scientist I am always interested to see how the progress of running a non-profit organization with a goal to spread awareness and search for a treatment that involves science research will unfold.  Bob Wright has been at this for 11 years now and his foundation "AutismSpeaks" is covering a large amount of great ground.  If you visit the website for the foundation "", you will find simple format of a website that is rich in information.  I love how the layout is simple and to the point.  That in of itself helps dramatically to raise awareness.

The core basis of autism is rooted in the genetic footprint of the inflicted individual and trickles from and to other family members.  Therefore, to find "biomarkers" or genetic markers, the research is intensive in genetic screening -- which costs money.  Although, in the 11 years running, the cost of sequencing a genome is dropping dramatically in cost.  This is great news!  Why?  Because in the case of the research that is being conducted to search for markers for autism, there is hope that  other diseases might be explored via the genetic profiling too.   To really understand the impact and scope of the problem, here is a 4 minute video taken from the website -- which is worth watching:

With 10,000 families volunteering to give genetic data, there is bound to be advances.  Of course, here is where the current "bottleneck" resides -- processing the data.  As highlighte in the video, google has jumped on board to help with the project which is super reassuring.  Google is a data analytics company and will undoubtedly move the field of awareness and research into autism forward.  Not to mention any other disease research that might come out of this global effort.

Now, the importance of having a member of "the 1%" push scientific research forward is completely apparent.  Imagine if every person who was categorized in this category of wealth devoted as muc of their time to finding cures as Bob Wright has done?  Where would we be?  Often, the thought arises in the publics mind that research is mainly funded by public institutions -- like the National Science foundation or the National Institutes of Health -- the top two in the U.S.  That is not the case every time.

A part of the time, businesses and nonprofits like AutismSpeaks can apply for small grants to fund research which could turn into a profitably venture.  Other times, the money has to emerge from the "private sector" which very well could turn into a government venture (the reverse case).  One hand feeds the other at any given period of time in a general sense.  That is why a person like Bob Wright can make such a large difference.

Here is a video of the progress that "AutismSpeaks" has on their website under the page "10 Years Of Autism: What We've Learned About Autism."

The problem with research into various diseases is the complexity that is involved.  As Bob and Suzanne Wright have learned over the years, diseases are now unfolding as a combination of genes and pathways.  The observation now increases the complexity.  How?  In the past, researchers might alter "one gene" at a time in a "mouse model" and then observe the result in a research environment.  How do you accomplish this if the number of genes is in the tens or hundreds?  How do you tackle such a difficult problem?

Work done by the Simons Foundation that was investigated by Professor Wendy Chung is truth telling of the complexity of searching for the causes of autism.  Her work with screening a few thousand people unveiled numbers that caused researchers to take a step back and consider different approaches toward finding treatments or cures.  The current estimates are that there are 200-400 genes that cause autism.  This is the reason why autism is thought to be a "broad spectrum" disorder.  The range of the disorder is complex as shown in the diagram below:

The realization caused researchers to take a step back and think about an adaptive approach to tackling the issue at hand (the complexity).  Below is a diagram that was proposed by Prof. Wendy Chung's research group -- which was taken from her TED talk in 2014:

I like this slide.  The reductionist approach is easy for a chemist to understand.  Genes sit near the bottom of the hierarchy.  Although, the impact of translating a gene correctly impacts each of the categories above and manifests itself to the disorder that is visible in the child walking around us.  Therefore, the research approach is of significance and I commend Prof. Wendy Chung and non-scientists like Bob and Suzanne Wright for dedicating time and resources to pursue genetic clues.


What else is there to say?  Bob and Suzanne Wright are heroes.  Each of us decides how to form a perception or opinion regarding the class of wealth in which we resides.  Furthermore, each of us can form opinions based on experiences and environmental clues about others in the distribution of wealth (spanning from the 1% through to the 99%).  Each of us has the ability to form whatever opinion we would like.  And each of us can convey that opinion to other family members and friends and colleagues at work.

What type of opinion do you have of your own wealth status?  Are you in "the 1%"?  If so, what is your opinion of "the 1%" label?  Are you in the 99%?  If so, what is your opinion?  Does your opinion involve "resentment" that you do not have a huge amount of wealth?  Are you healthy?  Maybe you have a huge amount of wealth by having a large amount of health (you are healthy)?  As you can see, all the money in the world cannot help if the resources are stacked against you or non-existent.  Awareness is the key.

The next time that you hear about the label "the 1%" think about this post.  Furthermore, what are you doing to raise awareness of the much needed treatment for various diseases?  Or are you sitting around wishing you had more?  What traits do you possess?  Any of those listed above for a successful person?  Remember that success does not always have to involve money or accumulating large amounts of wealth.  Although, in this case, using that success to produce success is an admirable pursuit by Bob and Suzanne Wright.  Think about it.

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