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How to Grow a Human Arm in a Lab

Tissue engineering researcher Nina Tandon looks at the future of biology and the moral questions new technology encourages.


Conversation Club

  1. Nina Tandon starts her talk by showing photos from her childhood that highlight both her close relationship with her siblings and her early interest in science. She explains how all three of her siblings have genetic conditions that makes them see differently and how this helped her to understand that we each experience the world differently, sometimes for biological reasons. Can you think of other ways in which biology – specifically your own unique biology – might influence how you see the world? How have your personal experiences, in childhood or otherwise, influenced how you see the world?
  2. Tandon explains that she is an electrical engineer and describes how she studies the interactions of electrical signals with living cells. This combination of electronics and biology is pioneering science. What is your first reaction on hearing Tandon explain this research? Are you intrigued? Are you confused? Are you alarmed? Why?
  3. Tandon goes on to talk about her current work growing new “bones” in the lab, using individuals’ stem cells and MRIs of their bodies to make one-of-a-kind transplants. What are her reasons for why this is better than existing transplant options? What do you think of the idea of growing replacement bone tissue in a scientific lab? What are the benefits to this method? Why might doctors and patients prefer these one-of-a-kind transplants to other alternatives made of metal or even transplants from another person?
  4. Tandon goes on to list a surprising number of examples of other people who are working in this field of biological engineering. One example is a fashion designer who is growing plant-based “leather” to replace animal-derived leather. What are some of the other examples of innovators in this field that she mentions? Which did you find most interesting and why?
  5. Tandon summarizes many different examples of cutting-edge research by saying they all “think of cells as technological partners.” What do you think of the idea of cells being “partners” in research? Why do you think this field of research might be controversial? For instance, do you feel differently about the idea of scientists conducting experiments on cells that are plant-based versus animal-based versus human-based?
  6. Tandon herself feels that tissue engineering needs some kind of oversight. She mentions illegal use of stem cell injections in the beauty industry. And she concludes that the question is no longer “What can we do?”, but “What should we do?” Who do you think should be involved in that debate? Should it be everyone? Should it be policy-makers and people in government positions? Should it be only people who understand the complicated science involved in this kind of research? If you could have a voice in this debate, what might you say? What other information would you want to know in order to shape your opinion?
  7. Tandon gives a few examples of the kinds of moral questions this area of research provokes. For instance, she wonders if it is okay to tinker with genetic material for the purposes of research, education, or entertainment. What do you think? Can you think of a scenario in which you might support research that uses human cells and a scenario in which you would be opposed?
  8. Tandon concludes her talk by describing a science lab in Brooklyn, New York, that was launched by a journalist, an artist, and two scientists. To her, this lab demonstrates that anyone interested can learn more about the scientific process and the many moral questions sparked by new research in biology and technology. Would you be interested in going to a lab like this? Do you think visiting this lab might be a valuable learning experience? Why? Is this a good way to draw more people, scientists and non-scientists alike, into the moral debate?

Video Series

This video exists as part of a series gathered around the theme of Civil Society. Other videos in this series are listed below.

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How to Grow a Human Arm in a Lab
How to Grow a Human Arm in a Lab
Saving the Coral Reef One Stitch at a Time
Saving the Coral Reef One Stitch at a Time