Uncomfortably uncertain: Understanding 'and' in COVID-19 research

Engineering science and mechanics alumnus Bill Warren to present on the importance of interfacing in pharmaceutical research


By Ashley J. WennersHerron

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Bill Warren, Penn State alumnus and now the vice president and leader of a biotech unit embedded within the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, often refers to the 13th-century poet Rumi in his work focused on accelerating next-generation influenza vaccine projects.

“Rumi said, ‘You think because you understand “one”that you therefore understand “two,” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and.”’ The way I work on my research, it is important to understand the ‘and’ via multiple hypotheses,” said Warren, who earned both his undergraduate degree and doctorate in engineering science and mechanics (ESM). “It is also important to ask why am I doing something? Is it for scientific pursuit, or for scientific pursuit that has a positive impact?”

The “and” has become particularly relevant in the current pandemic and political climate, according to Warren. He will address research in this context at 3:35 p.m. on March 31 at Penn State in a talk on ethics in engineering, titled “What’s the ‘and’ in COVID-19?”

Register to attend Warren’s talk here.

“The case study for the presentation will be the COVID-19 pandemic, in which ‘and’ is an important word,” Warren said. “Is the pandemic real and political? Are there public health and economic devastations? Why are there symptomatic and asymptomatic cases? Will the vaccine be safe and efficacious? Should we innovate vaccines and repurpose drugs?”

The list goes on, but the thread remains the same: In every question, and every answer, multiple realities exist simultaneously. To accurately identify such multiplicity, and to begin to understand the implications of it, diversity is critically needed, according to Warren.

“If you have just one hypothesis, you’re starting from a point of bias,” Warren said. “The inclusion of diverse ideas and models brings us closer to the objective truth.”

Warren credits his ESM education with the training to pursue inclusive research.

“In engineering science and mechanics, we have the ‘and’ right in the name,” Warren said. “We are trained to be interdisciplinary, and we learn to appreciate the innovation that stems from collaboration between disciplines. ESM makes T-shaped researchers: broadly aware, with a deep interest in a particular area. ESM set me up for this work.”

A reason we need “and” in our research, Warren said, is that the answer is almost never singularly simple.

“In the 13th and 14th centuries, maps of the world showed dragons in the oceans,” Warren said. “Maybe the dragons represented a whale, but it was more likely a metaphor for the unknown, for what they could not see. What dragons do we have in front of us? Do we want to be comfortably wrong about what’s out there, or uncomfortably uncertain as we pursue a more accurate understanding?”

Judith Todd, P.B. Breneman Chair and department head of ESM, said Warren’s talk should resonate not just with those in ESM, but also with individuals across the University.

“Dr. Warren is a visionary leader with powerful and creative ideas,” Todd said. “His ESM journey has taken him along multiple diverse pathways encompassing atomic scale defects in semiconductors; the electronics industry; defense manufacturing and research administration; design of an artificial lymph node; and most recently, to vaccine design. His entrepreneurial spirit has navigated him successfully from invention to startups and industry transitions multiple times. His story is unique and an inspiration to us all.”

Warren is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Central Florida and a co-founder of two companies — nScrypt and VaxDesign. He has authored more than 200 referred publications, including top-cited papers in both the Journal of Applied Physics and Applied Physics Letters, and has over two dozen patents or patent applications. He has received numerous awards and honors, including the Penn State Alumni Fellow Award in 2016, three R&D 100 awards, the 2011 BioFlorida Company of the Year Award, a 2009 Governor’s New Product Award and the Henry Award from the American Ceramic Society.


Share this story:

facebook linked in twitter email


Megan Lakatos


headshot of a man