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I'm a budding biologist and aspiring entrepreneur. I've wanted to cure aging since I was eight. Now, with support from Peter Thiel's 20 Under 20 program, I'll be in Silicon Valley for the next two years developing ways to commercialize anti-aging research and extend the human healthspan. We'll see where this adventure takes me, but I'll try to chronicle the journey on this blog, What a Wonderful World. It'll be a mix of real-life updates and vignettes about the wonders of science. Shoot me an email at ldeming[dot]www[at]gmail.com

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A lovely way to learn

Hi guys! A few folks have asked what it was like to grow up outside the traditional academic route - here's a quick piece written for GHF (Gifted Homeschooler's Forum) on growing up 'unschooled'. Enjoy!

When I was homeschooled, everything was magical. My parents didn’t crack open hefty tomes and lecture me on the intricacies of basic algebra. They left us to figure out basic math on our own. Instead of a dry run through tables of formulae, Dad and I would chat about the beauties of math. How intricate, spiraling, numerical patterns could—and did—save the world on a daily basis. How we were a walking, talking summation of billions of tiny biological calculators, each calculator a cell, and each cell a miniature cosmos in its own right.

My dad painted a vivid picture of the titans of science. I idolized Archimedes, Galileo, da Vinci, Faraday, Newton, Maxwell, Tesla, Pasteur, and Darwin. I couldn’t believe they were all dead, and that I would never get to meet them and hear them talk. One living scientist that I admired, Cynthia Kenyon, was working on ways to extend the human lifespan so that these great minds, and all others, could live longer and healthier lives.

When I was 12, I met Cynthia Kenyon. She opened up the world of ‘real’ science to this starry-eyed preteen. I got to work in her lab at UCSF, at a bench, planning and performing real experiments. I got to fiddle with lasers, scoop up mounds of microscopic worms, and stare mesmerized as the modified, glowing creatures writhed and wriggled around a plate.

Cynthia taught me how to decode scientific papers; jargon-stuffed screeds turned into thrillers, hunts for elusive proteins and fragmented pathways. I got to feel the elation that comes when you discover something nobody else has seen or known, the satisfaction of clicking in the final puzzle piece.

And UCSF was wonderful place to be. I got to roam the halls, exploring intricate ribosome models and gawping at two-story-high statues of DNA. Lectures taught me what I couldn’t pick up at the lab bench. Professors and grad students were kind enough to walk me through problems and grade my attempts.

I had always wanted to go to MIT. Richard Feynman’s alma mater had to be a great place to imbibe scientific knowledge, and I was already using online MIT lectures in a self-structured curriculum. I scraped together the necessary test scores, muddled through the online application, and stuttered past the requisite interview. Wes Beach, a California-based expert at translating homeschooling experiences into fitting admissions applications, helped me shape my curriculum into a readable transcript.

A year later, I started freshman year as an MIT biology major. College had ups and downs; I’m most thankful for a wonderful stay at the Weiss Lab with mentor Adrian Slusarczyk and a thrilling semester exploring quantum mechanics with Prof. Allan Adams and Prof. Scott Hughes.

But the most valuable lessons I’ve learned still come from my dad and my science mentor Prof. Kenyon, both still in awe with nature, and both insatiably curious to know more. If you are homeschooling parent, please, share that awe with your child. We can take it from there.


  1. It's wonderful to meet a person with similar interests and worldview and such a different background! (by "difference" I don't mean XX vs XY:))

  2. How do you plan on getting started? I have been working on things similar to this for the past 9 months and I would love to talk to you and compare notes etc...

    --and good luck

  3. Quite inspiring. If I reach a place where I feel ready to bring someone into the world, and it's a daughter, I'd hope to create that early relationship -- to share with her the awe and beauty of learning.

  4. Have you ever seen this by the lovely Astra Taylor, who was unschooled until the age of 13? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwIyy1Fi-4Q

  5. First off -- congrats on being one of Thiel's 20 under 20. That's seriously... amazing.
    Second -- how much do you wish someone showed you this when you were like.. 5? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahXIMUkSXX0

  6. I am amazed at where you have reached and your pursuit further. But I am appalled at your interest. You say "I've wanted to cure aging". Well, whats wrong with aging? isn't it normal? isn't it a natural phenomenon? I would have been offended if I read your statement 30 yrs later...nonetheless, aging is not a disease that anyone can cure. If your pursuit was to find a cure for life threatening disease thats taking millions of lives every year it would have sounded phenomenal.

    1. Suppose a world in which every day everyone was, without fail, woken by a sharp blow to the head with a club. It's completely inevitable, utterly unavoidable, and most people don't really know why it happens. How long do you think it would take before people like you start talking about how it's not so bad. How it's just part of life that we have to deal with. How being woken by a blow to the head really wakes you up and gets you energised for a new day. It's a natural thing, part of life, perfectly normal, nothing to worry about.

      Ageing is horrifying. It's terrifying, terrible and tragic. It also seems inevitable, and so to deal with the fact that something horrifying is inevitable we have to convince ourselves that it's not horrifying at all. It's a simple coping mechanism. Yes, ageing is normal, like dysentery was centuries ago, when no cure was known or imagined.

      Given a choice, you wouldn't want to be woken every morning by a blow to the head, and you wouldn't want to be forced impotently to watch the gradual deterioration of your body, mind and eventually self. Given the choice.

      If you believe you have no choice, your position is a reasonable response to maintain your sanity, but the thing is, ageing is not inevitable. It's reasonably well understood, it happens through no more than ten or so mechanisms, the basics of which we have largely figured out. We can really do this.

      What will the elimination of ageing do to society? I don't know and nor do you. No, you don't. But I don't think we get to decide not to do it because of some possible problems later. We can handle those problems when we've beaten the far bigger problem of ageing.

      Which life threatening disease kills more people annually than ageing?

      It sometimes surprises me, the sophistication of thinking required just to think about this problem simply.

      Death is bad. Ageing is bad. We should cure them.

      P.S. I want to thank you for so perfectly presenting the straw-man on this, you pretty much went through the checklist for ageing apologism, which is really a public service.

    2. What you're essentially arguing is that it is valid to seek an end to entropy which is a mathematical impossibility. Even stars and galaxies are born, live their lives of millions or billions of years and then die. In the simplest terms they change forms so that they are no longer what they once were...

      Aging is nothing like dysentery and that is a gross over-simplification of the nature of matter and energy. We are finite biological creatures. Death is built into the system and the illusory goal of overcoming it is our most basic (and oldest) collective fantasy.

      I appreciated the authors interest in understanding the biological mechanisms behind aging and seeking to slow or restrict their slow and steady march and I wish her well in this pursuit. We should struggle to extend our lifespans and to limit the impact of aging. However, we are ultimately meant to have a beginning and an end. We may find ways to stretch our lifespans longer and longer, but we will never "overcome" death.

      I do find your use of the term "ageing apologism" hysterical though. :)

    3. When we talk about "defeating ageing", we aren't talking about everyone living forever, we're talking about defeating *ageing*. That doesn't mean people can never die, it means that when they do die it isn't just because they got old. Obviously people still need to eat, they still need to breathe, if they are shot or poisoned, they'll die. Defeating ageing doesn't mean reversing entropy, because people still need energy to maintain themselves. When the sun goes out, there's no energy to maintain a liveable temperature, grow food etc, and so people die. But they don't die just by being too old.

      And yes, it's valid to seek that, even if it can never be found, just as in engineering we seek machines of perfect efficiency. It may be impossible, but it's the ideal to which we aspire.

      > the illusory goal... is our most basic (and oldest) collective fantasy.

      They said that about flight. Probably in those exact words, in fact. Every great goal is ancient and insurmountable up until it is achieved. Every hole in our knowledge stretches back to the beginning of knowledge itself.

      > we are ultimately meant to have a beginning and an end.

      We are not 'ultimately meant' to have/be anything, what does that even mean? Are you saying a creator designed us to be mortal? Or that evolution has volition and intentions, and 'meant' us to be mortal? We weren't meant to fly. It's the is-ought problem.

      We wanted to fly. It seemed impossible, we learned how it worked, and we did it, because whether or not we were 'meant' to fly, we wanted to fly. I don't want to age, do you?

    4. Correct me if I am wrong but I don't think "Death is built into the system" is an accurate statement. There is a worm species that hums along nicely without aging and dying.

      Asumming that the outward signs of aging are "cured", what about internal age related problems like the accumulation of gene mutations that lead to diseases such as cancer? It would be ironic if the theoretical lifespan was greatly increased yet people still died on average at the current typical ages because of the usual life-threatening illnesses.

    5. We're on the same page when it comes to the attempt to slow or stop aging. But, at the end of your post you wrapped death itself in with aging when you stated, "Death is bad. Ageing is bad. We should cure them." We cannot cure death. I do want to live longer than the current average lifespan, but I have no desire to live forever. :)

      >They said that about flight. Probably in those exact words, in fact.

      What I meant is that overcoming death has the stuff of religion for thousands of years. I'm not aware of hundreds of religions centered around a deity or individual who could grant others the power of flight. Conquering death and living forever is on a completely different level than soaring with the birds. A better comparison might be splitting the atom, but even that fails to achieve the same level, in my opinion.

      Ultimately, the drive to stop aging is firmly rooted in a desire to conquer death. This is something we ALL dream of from the moment we're old enough to truly understand that there will be an end to the beautiful and amazing existence.

      > We are not 'ultimately meant' to have/be anything, what does that even mean? Are you saying a creator designed us to be mortal? Or that evolution has volition and intentions, and 'meant' us to be mortal? We weren't meant to fly. It's the is-ought problem.

      It means that this is the nature of our shared reality. :) I'm not arguing for or against a creator in this, just stating what we can see about every single living creature with which we share this world. Every living thing which we observe and study is born and will die. It's not meant to be a statement about deity or purpose, simply an acknowledgement of how living organisms in our biosphere function.

      When I was younger I saw death as the ultimate negative, a horrible, terrible thing because I thought entirely of myself and a linear progression of my lifespan. As I studied more about biology I came to see the circles and spirals within ecosystems and the very real necessity of death. Life feeds on life. When you die the basic building blocks that make up you and make your unlikely and beautiful existence possible should go on to become new organisms. They will provide sustenance, energy, structure and form to other life forms. I have come to see that, in the most basic biological sense, life is not possible without death.

      Maybe we can eventually use our technology to seek to remove ourselves completely from this system that defines all other living creatures, but should we...?

    6. I was wrong to say/imply "We should cure death", when it would have been more accurate to say "We should cure ageing, and avoid death wherever possible". It was form over function. Obviously death is inevitable, but that doesn't mean it has to come in the next ten thousand years.

      Anyway, death is not the only (or possibly even the biggest) problem with ageing. If I could live to 85 in my current body, and then promptly explode in a shower of confetti, I'd call that a win over the current set-up. Ageing causes gradual debilitation, eventually ending in death. It's like the AIDS of debilitating diseases. Debilitating diseases are horrible not simply because they kill you, but because they take a long time and involve a lot of pain and unpleasantness. The desire to stop ageing is not just about not dying, it's about having good health and full capacity for as long as possible.

      You're still in the is-ought trap. Yes, ageing has always happened, and yes, other animals age (though not all of them https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biological_immortality#Organisms). These are all 'is', and you can't get an 'ought' from that so easily. Just because something happens doesn't mean that it's a good thing, or that we shouldn't try to stop it.

      When people die, their bodies decay and act as fertiliser. This is true, but do you not see how this is saying "Being woken by a blow to the head really wakes you up"? Fertiliser is a tiny tiny upside to a horrible thing. You have to weigh that up against *the deaths of tens of thousands people every single day*. If it's so valuable that people's basic building blocks go on to form other life forms, why wouldn't you want to just kill everyone and mulch them? That's not rhetoric, it flows from "people ought to die because of cycles in ecosystems". If you would allow people to age and die in order to preserve what you see as the natural order, that is where your priorities lie. Do you really value these 'spirals and cycles' more than human lives, or are you rationalising to deal with what you perceive as a horrible inevitability?

    7. Now you've built a strawman where I actively wish for the deaths of others or assume that because I acknowledge the natural processes of the vast majority of biological systems, that I want to "kill everyone and mulch them". I'm not arguing that we should all just kill ourselves and return to the Earth or just surrender to death right now because it's an inevitability.

      Struggling to survive (and the inherent fervent will to live) are also a strong components of what it is to be alive. However, other organisms die each and every day so that you can live. Every plant or animal you eat (and every plant or animal they in turn ate). This transfer of energy is necessary and it is what makes life possible. I personally see it as the very height of human pride to assume that we will overcome this reality simply for the purpose of extending our own existences as long as we see fit. If you are arguing that human life trumps any and all other concerns and should be extended at all costs, then we're going to have to agree to disagree here. :)

    8. It does feel like a straw man, but I still feel like it's valid criticism of the idea that natural cycles take precedent over human life.

      > I personally see it as the very height of human pride to assume that we will overcome this reality simply for the purpose of extending our own existences as long as we see fit.

      I think it would be pride to assume that we'll succeed, but that's not a reason not to try. There's a good chance we won't succeed, but the possibility of success is there, and I think we have to go for it.

      > If you are arguing that human life trumps any and all other concerns and should be extended at all costs, then we're going to have to agree to disagree here. :)

      Human life is one of the things I value. A lot of the other things I value are currently only possible through human life, though other options exist in theory. The 'natural order' is not something I particularly value, at least not compared to human life. I think human life is important, I think health is important, and I think if we can prolong them, we should do so. Aumann's agreement theorem says that we can't agree to disagree on matters of fact, but since this is a matter of values, I'll agree to disagree with you on this one.

    9. Accepting aging and death in the dawns of technological advancements is saying you have given up living. Aging is natural allright, a natural defect, as natural as cancer is, but we still try to cure it. As long as people perceives aging as the natural course of life we will never tackle it as a " Natural Disease." The only reason why Pharmaceuticals haven't focus in researching for a cure is because it is not in their economical interest to find a cure for anything. Curing, unfortunately, is not profitable. Keeping the disease in check is!! So it is up to young minds, like yourself Laura, with passion and the motivation to free us from the claws of greedy corporate thinking and help us as a species to move forward biologically.

      But again, there is nothing wrong in playing their economical games. I am sure if you could find, not a cure, but a way to keep extending life through long term treatments (thinking like the greedy bastards of course) I am sure you will attract tons of venture capital to help with your research.

      @Laura, although I am not a billionaire, such as Thiel, I am well enough that if your research has developed positively forward during the 2 years of your fellowship, you can count on me to help you with some level of financial investment in order to keep you doing your research. As an investor of course one will expect a profitable return, however we share a passion and I honestly believe we will be able to cure aging and I will do anything to help anyone in the science department to achieve that goal, even take a loss in a investment, as long as I can live forever. :-) Please let's keep in touch. I would love to be included, if possible, in any developments throughout your fellowship years.

      You are 200% correct, death is bad, aging is bad, we should definitely cure them (hopefully you will) :-)

      Cheers and best of luck,
      Caio Marsili

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  8. Hi there - first time here following a hacker news link :).
    Congrats on your achievevements so far and may you be strong and fresh to bring on much more.

    I wouldn't write anything - I myself harbor quite mixed feelings about aging and death but your saying: "Death is bad. Ageing is bad. We should cure them." reminded me of the Fountain movie very vividly. Maybe there is something there that could add to the ethical issues raised by your research.

    Yet, please allow me to mark that a great many people on Earth don't get to the point of being killed by ageing - something usually more morbid and usually more easily preventable gets them earlier (e.g. hunger, wars, cancer due to pollution).

    1. Let me tell you that the vast majority of the population nowadays dies due to age-related diseases. What's more, there are a many initiatives that target the problem of hunger, pollution, etc. Why shouln't we have an organized effort against the problem of aging? I think it's a reasonable pursuit.

      By the way, the SENS foundation has summer internships available to undergraduate, graduate and medical students. I don't know if the grant you got from the Thiel Foundation allows you to take internship positions, but I guess you could learn a great deal if you could spend some time learning about the research they are doing in SENS.

      Hope that helps,

  9. First-timer from HN as well. :)

    Damn, I wish I was home-schooled. Sounds fun. Instead, I failed through middle school, high school, and two colleges before I realized that I'd rather teach myself.

    My blog is about the future, and will definitely examine anti-aging. My most recent article about Human Suffering touches on it in the comments, where a reader brings up the issue of gratuitous suffering. (I think aging is ultimately gratuitous.)

    I'm really curious to see what you come up with in this blog. I'd love to post responses to your compelling content. Ingenuity is rare; diligence is rarer. So... get to writin'. :)