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Andrew Pelling will take to the TED stage on February 15. Illustration: Kim Wiens

Andrew Pelling’s ‘unconventional’ mentality to be showcased

A University of Ottawa professor’s unorthodox style and original projects have caught the attention of the organizers of TED, who have designated him as a TED fellow.

Every year, TED chooses 21 people from across the globe who they consider to be potential innovators. “They just find these quirky people,” said Andrew Pelling, a professor in U of O’s departments of physics and biology. “It’s interesting to know what it is that makes these people tick.”

Pelling runs a lab at the U of O that conducts research that most of us would’ve never even imagined, like how to grow human cells in an apple.

As a fellow, he will attend and speak at the major TED conference in Vancouver on Feb. 15. “It’s a lot of exposure for the work that you do,” he said. “It’s a little bit nerve-wracking to be honest, it’s such a big platform.”

The exact nature of the talk is kept secret until the event. “My approach to science is a bit unconventional,” said Pelling. “I’ll talk about why I work the way I do.”

Pelling doesn’t run your average science lab. Researchers work side by side with artists and social scientists. “It’s great because you get all these perspectives in the room,” he said. “It’s just like an incubator for creativity.”

Pelling himself takes a very creative approach. “I like collecting garbage and dead equipment and just taking it apart and building new things.”

Take gene editing for example. A recent advance in gene editing technology called Crispr has received widespread media coverage for its ability to modify our genetic code. It’s cutting-edge technology, and it’s the opposite of what Pelling is working on.

Pelling says his lab asked, “can we control and make living things without actually touching any DNA?” According to Pelling, it turns out that in some cases you can.

Using what Pelling jokingly calls “stone-age” methods, the lab was able to grow human cells inside of an apple.

Pelling said he likes to aim for simplicity. “How cheap can I be and still do really complicated science?”

It might sound like a throwaway comment, but it can have big implications—complicated gene editing like Crispr is expensive. “Let’s say this becomes standard practice, only people of a certain economic bracket will be able to afford it.”

One thing is certain—Pelling’s science is different. “If the majority of people are going along one particular route, my instinct has always been to just make a right-hand turn,” he said. “It forces you to be a bit more creative and approach problems in a more unconventional way.”

Pelling says he’s also trying to pass this mindset on to the younger generation.

“I hope I’ve been able to create a space where students can try things in a place that’s safe,” said Pelling. “They can take a chance, they can take that risk because you never know, the payoff might be amazing.”

More information on the conference can be found here.