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CNN Presents

America's Best: Science and Medicine

Aired August 12, 2001 - 22:00   ET


LEON HARRIS, HOST: Amazing advances.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's the holy grail for a neuroscientist.


HARRIS: Groundbreaking discoveries.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our deep history goes back three billion years.


HARRIS: America's best in science and medicine. Who's leading the way? Who's changing our lives? Innovation and its impact from CNN and "TIME" magazine.

Good evening, and welcome to this special edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Leon Harris.

They are improving our lives, expanding our world, preserving our past and defining our future. They are America's best. And each month, CNN and "TIME" magazine celebrate our nation's highest achievers by showcasing those leading the way in everything from arts and entertainment to business and technology.

Tonight, in the second installment of our five-part series, we bring you America's best in science and medicine -- 18 groundbreaking thinkers and researchers, and we begin with Dr. Anthony Fauci. His extraordinary work is revolutionizing efforts to treat and prevent the most dreadful diseases on earth. Hard to imagine then that there was a time when Dr. Fauci was a marked man, despised by activists and caught up in a firestorm of an epidemic. That story now from CNN's Rea Blakey.


REA BLAKEY, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's not often Tony Fauci doesn't win, or at least make a highly notable contribution. He prides himself on excellence, a result he says of his education by the Jesuits.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: They are well recognized for the kinds of qualities they try to impart upon the people that they teach, you know, things about economy of expression, precision of thought, knowing what you are doing, what is question you are asking.

BLAKEY: The questions Dr. Anthony Fauci has asked during his 30- year career have shaped the field of human immune regulation. The man who would go on to become nation's lead scientist on HIV/AIDS had contribute groundbreaking discoveries to the field had a rocky start. In the earliest days of the AIDS crisis, Fauci was a researcher, working for a government many believed was slow to respond to the growing epidemic.

DR. C. EVERETT KOOP, FORMER U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Dr. Fauci was as frustrated with the administration as I was.

BLAKEY: The early '80s. Dr. C. Everett Koop is surgeon general, Ronald Reagan is president, and AIDS is a raging deadly new plague for which there are precious few answers.

AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer.

LARRY KRAMER, AIDS ACTIVIST AND PLAYWRIGHT: You have to remember that for the first six years probably no one paid much attention to AIDS in Washington.

BLAKEY: Mr. Reagan didn't give his first speech on AIDS for seven years. Public pressure for answers was at a boiling point. Protests were staged at a number of government buildings. The activists' tactics including declaring Dr. Fauci and the FDA commissioner murderers and burning effigies of those believed to be at greatest fault for not finding a cure. Emotions on all sides were raw.

CHRISTINE GRADY, DR. FAUCI'S WIFE: Some of the attacks were personal, or seemed to be very personal.

BLAKEY: Christine Grady, Dr. Fauci's wife, herself a nurse and a Ph.D. in medical ethics, admits she took it personally.

GRADY: I thought they were unfair, because I knew how hard he worked and how dedicated he was, and some of the accusations were, you know, he doesn't care about this, he's not doing enough, he's a killer.

KRAMER: You know, we were just kids. We hadn't gone to medical school or anything. Just people fighting to save their own lives.

BLAKEY: Dr. Fauci did the unimaginable: He invited a few protester representatives up to his office to talk.

(on camera): What was it that made you say, I need to bring these people into the process?

FAUCI: If you got beyond the theatrics and listened to what they were saying, a lot of what they were saying made sense.

KRAMER: Letting the patients in, so to speak. And it was one of the smartest things anyone ever could have done, or else there would have been revolution, havoc.

BLAKEY (voice-over): Months later, Fauci would accidentally run into Kramer, the man who publicly labeled him a monster and an incompetent idiot.

KRAMER: We had a nice talk, like two old warriors.

BLAKEY: That meeting led to the creation of a program called Parallel Track, allowing AIDS patients who have exhausted all other limited treatments, unprecedented access to experimental medications not yet FDA approved.

Often referred to as a scientist's scientist, Fauci is always seeking answers.

FAUCI: So, I understand that things have been pretty stable?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Things have been very, very stable.

FAUCI: Feeling OK?

BLAKEY: He's a clinician, a medical doctor by training. He still makes rounds, teaching students, learning from patients.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, he received his medical degree from Cornell University in 1966 and became a clinical associate at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID.

In June of 1981, he saw a scientific article that would forever change his life and focus his personal mission. Several strange infectious disease cases have been reported to the CDC. An infectious disease and human immune regulation expert, Dr. Fauci found his element.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every once in a while, one is privileged to meet somebody who you know is in the absolutely perfect job at the time for his particular skills.

BLAKEY: Appointed director of NIAID in 1984, Dr. Fauci is credited with writing numerous scientific articles. He and his colleagues were among the first to recognize the engine that drives HIV is the body's own activated immune system.

FAUCI: That's something that was just essentially unthought of or unheard of with other viruses.

Yeah, John, I'll show you what it is, it's the one that says "effect of short cycle..." BLAKEY: His most notable contribution to HIV/AIDS scientific literature, according to renowned AIDS researcher Dr. Robert Gallo, appeared in the journal "Nature" in 1993, proving that HIV infection is always lurking in the lymph nodes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The article said this was no time to relax.

FAUCI: You look at the lymph nodes of HIV infected individuals, those people have virus that's alive, well and replicating even during the period of what we were calling the clinically latent period.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it unified thinking that therapy should be given throughout the period, even when people are feeling well.

BLAKEY: A few years later, as better medicines were developed, some researchers began to talk of wiping the virus out of the body, if medicines were taken for a certain amount of time. Again, Anthony Fauci's contributions helped change the course of HIV/AIDS research.

FAUCI: What we were able to show is that even when you treat people for two, three or more years, and you think that the virus is under complete control, there's always that persistent latent reservoir that when you -- you either take the blood out of the body and put it in the test tube, you can invariably isolate the virus. Or, if you stop therapy, then the virus will invariably come back.

BLAKEY: Scientists are no longer thinking in terms of eradicating the virus. Instead, they're focusing on the long-term control of HIV. Thanks to more therapy and prevention strategies, the annual AIDS death toll in the U.S. dropped by two-thirds in 1999, from more than 50,000 people a year to just over 16,000.

Meanwhile, Fauci still maintains an active lab at NIH. In 1999, he won the highly esteemed Barry Prize for unraveling immune mechanisms.

(on camera): Are you impressed with yourself?

FAUCI: Mostly not, really, because it's tough to get impressed with what you do when you are in the middle of an engagement or war, if you want to use that metaphor, in which this foe or enemy that you are fighting is galloping uncontrolled throughout most of the word.

BLAKEY (voice-over): In this position, scientist regularly testifies on Capitol Hill, seeking funding for his institute and educating lawmakers about HIV/AIDS.

During Fauci's tenure, the annual budget appropriations from Congress has grown from sixth largest to the third largest, at $2.4 million.

DR. ROBERT GALLO, CO-DISCOVERER, HIV: All around, multidimensional component of his work in the disease is not surpassed by anyone.

BLAKEY: Dr. Fauci is also dad.

How does this man with such endless professional responsibilities find time for family? It's a tight fit.

KRAMER: I would not like to be his wife. A woman of great patience.

BLAKEY: The couple met at the bedside of a patient from Brazil. Nurse Christine Grady was serving as the patient's interpreter. She assured Fauci the patient did agree to follow Fauci's strict orders to rest. What the patient actually said was that he planed to frolic on the beach in his native country.

FAUCI: A day or two later, Dr. Fauci came to me and said: "I would like to see you in my office at the end of your shift," and I thought, "oh my God, he know what happened."

BLAKEY (on camera): Did you reprimand her?

FAUCI: What happened?

GRADY: He didn't know. He asked me out.

BLAKEY (voice-over): They soon married, and now have three daughters. They eat together as a family almost every night.

FAUCI: We're ordinary people trying to raise a family, and we happen to be caught up, both of us, professionally, in one of the most historically significant epidemics in the history of mankind.

BLAKEY (on camera): What's the ultimate reward for Anthony Fauci?

FAUCI: To be able to do something successfully that had a major impact on your fellow man.


HARRIS: Coming up: America's best history that is literally melting away, and a modern day Indiana Jones racing to save it.


HARRIS: Right now around the world priceless historical records are disappearing. Inch by inch, we are forfeiting some of our planet's most important and precise archives, but lucky for us, Lonnie Thompson has already analyzed much of this gravely endangered history. As CNN's Jeff Flock reports, Thompson is part scientist, part adventurer, a researcher definitely in the extreme.


JEFF FLOCK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The snow of Kilimanjaro. In the Ernest Hemingway's short story, an image of this white-capped mountain is the last vision of a dying man. The words piqued the public's interest in these snowy heights on the equator. Now, decades after Hemingway first wrote about it, the ice field on Kilimanjaro and other glaciers on some of the world's tallest peaks have their own stories to tell, and Lonnie Thompson is their translator, deciphering the cryptic messages in the ice to tell the history of the world's changing climate.

LONNIE THOMPSON, CLIMATOLOGIST, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY: Understanding how the climate system works and has worked in a natural system is absolutely essential for any prediction of what's going to happen to the climate in the future. So, beginning this basic understanding of how the climate system works, and we are using one archive: The ice.

FLOCK: What the ice is telling Thompson is a tale we are all becoming familiar with: The earth is heating up, and the warming takes its toll on the ice. The glaciers are retreating. And when they melt, the archive is gone.

THOMPSON: Something that's really striking about the late 20th century is the scale at which the retreat is taking place.

FLOCK: Using a drill like this one, specially designed to bore thousands of feet into the ice, Thompson's team brings back ice core samples from the glaciers. Engineers demonstrated the drill for us outside the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University where Thompson is based.

The drill brings up ice one meter at a time. The deeper they drill, the further back they go in time. Their deepest core dates back more than 700,000 years.

THOMPSON: Everyone has seen tree rings and the annual record of time that's archived there. The beauty of ice, though, is that it's a physical parameter, not biological. It records what's going on in the Earth's system. And -- but it is layered, just like a tree, only it will go back thousands and thousands of years, so you can really get a perspective.

FLOCK: In order to understand the current human impact on climate, scientists must know how the system worked for thousands of years before people entered the equation.

To do that, researchers have mostly probed the polar regions, home to 98 percent of the world's glaciers. But early in his career, Thompson parted company with his scientific colleagues, arguing that by focusing on polar ice, they were missing an important part of the climate puzzle. He set his sights on the glaciers at the highest altitudes of the tropics.

THOMPSON: When you look at the Earth, 50 percent of the surface of this planet lies between 30 north and 30 south in the tropics. This is where the energy comes in to drive the climate system.

FLOCK: But to find ice in the tropics, you have to climb pretty high. Thompson has led some 40 expeditions -- to the Himalayas, Nepal, China, to Kilimanjaro in Africa and to the Andes in South America. To do the work, he assembles a team and hauls everything up to the mountain top, usually six tons of equipment, sometimes carried by yaks, but most often on the heads and backs of local porters.

THOMPSON: We had 92 porters that were actually going to carry this equipment from the end of the road up to the top, up to the crater.

FLOCK: Teams of engineers have developed a solar array to power the drill so they don't have to carry up generators and fuel. Once they get to work, the drill is housed in this dome tent.

THOMPSON: They're drilling inside the dome, yeah. This is the highest freezer, refrigerator, that was carried out...

FLOCK (on camera): Wait a second. You carry up a refrigerator with you?

THOMPSON: Yeah. So we put the cryopack, because the temperatures are not cold enough naturally to freeze this cryopack.

FLOCK (voice-over): And it's not just physical challenges. Thompson also faces logistical hardships, working with governments and local villages to secure permits and hire porters and mountaineers.

(on camera): I sense in your voice that you like pulling this off?

THOMPSON: Like a challenge. Yeah, it's a challenge, and I enjoy that.

FLOCK: It's a logistical nightmare?

THOMPSON: Well, it's a challenge.

FLOCK: What are you doing here?

THOMPSON: We're going to a new drill site. This guy is holding it down in case wind catches it and we are going to lose it.

FLOCK (voice-over): Thompson says all the effort is worth it in those exciting moments of discovery, discovery sometimes immediately visible in the ice, like this core in the Himalayas which shows very clear seasons.

THOMPSON: When you're having a monsoon season, you get the clear white sections, and then the dry season comes, you get a dust layer. Monsoon, dry season, monsoon, dry season, monsoon.

FLOCK: But most of the secrets in the ice won't be revealed until the cores are analyzed in the lab. To do that, the team has to get them back down before they melt.

Thompson has even experimented with a hot air balloon to float the cores down to the nearest freezer.

Once the ice arrives at the labs in Columbus, a team of seven scientists gets to work on the analysis. Lonnie's wife, Ellen Mosley- Thompson, is a key player on the team.

ELLEN MOSLEY-THOMPSON, LONNIE THOMPSON'S WIFE: I guess from about 1974 until 1983 it was really just the two of us, building the group.

FLOCK: The pair came to Ohio State after meeting in college in West Virginia. Ellen took an interest in physical geography and their careers started to converge. So they divided up the globe between the two of them.

MOSLEY-THOMPSPON: I don't work in the tropics, and Lonnie doesn't really routinely work in the polar regions.

THOMPSON: Part of this was a logistical issue of raising a daughter and making sure that we had a parent that was always at home.

FLOCK (on camera): How is it to share your personal and professional lives together? How does that work out? Do you sit at home over dinner talking about ice and dust and stuff?

MOSLEY-THOMPSON: The answer is yes.

FLOCK: You do?


MOSLEY-THOMPSON: I would say the bulk of our conversation is on three topics: Our work, our daughter and our dog.

FLOCK (voice-over): Their work together has helped to create an impressive archive that Lonnie calls a library of the Earth's climate history.

THOMPSON: These are the old cores, 760,000 years old.

FLOCK: Thousands and thousands of ice core samples stored on shelves in this deep freeze.

THOMPSON: Each of these comes from a different parts of the world. This is up from Greenland. This is from our new site from central Tibet. This is from the South Pole.

FLOCK (on camera): And this is history here.

THOMPSON: This is history, it's frozen history of the Earth.

FLOCK (voice-over): As researchers study the data in this library, they can reach back in time to mark the temperature over millennium. A recent core sample from the Disupu (ph) glacier in Tibet reveals the last 50 years to be the warmest of the last 9,000.

THOMPSON: Glaciers are a fantastic in that no one can argue they have a political agenda. They just respond to the system, and as the system changes -- the Earth is warming, there's no doubt about that -- and the glaciers are responding to that.

FLOCK: But Thompson is in a race against time to gather samples from tropical glaciers before they melt.

THOMPSON: Sometime around 2015, the ice will disappear off Kilimanjaro.

FLOCK: So, in the near future, if anyone wants to study the ice of Kilimanjaro, they will have to come to this freezer in Columbus, Ohio.

(on camera): And what do we have here?

THOMPSON: Two sections of core from the archive from Kilimanjaro. In this upper part, you can actually see that there are actually holes in the ice.

FLOCK: And what are those holes from?

THOMPSON: These are conduits for melt water.

FLOCK (voice-over): For Thompson, there is no textbook to becoming America's best. He has done it by reading nature carefully and translating the complex secrets embedded in the ice.

THOMPSON: If there is message that I would send to other young scientists coming along is to study nature, not books. It's the real world that we ultimately have to understand.


HARRIS: From reading glaciers to reading rocks. Just ahead, a remarkable discovery from one of America's best. But first, new science, new revelations and new warnings from four more American trailblazers.


HARRIS (voice-over): A love of ants leads to a lifetime of achievements. E.O. Wilson makes fundamental contributions wherever he goes. He has even established a brand new field of science, known as sociobiology.

PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT, "TIME" ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR: E.O. Wilson is a walking lifetime achievement. His career is sort of the series of reinventions. He's probably the most important scientist in terms of drawing attention to the biodiversity crisis, that we were killing off species.

HARRIS: Entire echo systems in danger. The alarm from biologist Peter Vitousek whose lab isn't in a state, it is a state -- Hawaii.

MICHAEL LEMONICK, "TIME": One thing Peter Vitousek has documented is the incredible devastation of the Hawaiian ecosystem, from invasions by exotic plants and animals, many species of birds especially are dying out.

HARRIS: New species related to humans are being unearthed by paleontologist Tim White.

LEMONICK: Tim White has pushed back our understanding of human origins by literally millions of years. About five years ago, he discovered a human ancestor species that was something like 4.4 million years old. That was about a million years older than anything we had ever seen before.

HARRIS: The biggest questions of the universe keep astrophysicist David Spergel looking to the stars.

LEMONICK: Spergel is working on the big bang, the very earliest moments of the universe, the most distant and ancient light we know about, but he's also simultaneously working on another project much closer to home. He has actually come up with a new design for a telescope, even though he's not an expert on telescopes.


HARRIS: CNN PRESENTS will return in a moment.


HARRIS: Welcome back to "America's Best." They are the age-old questions: Where do we come from? Where does life as we know it began? Well, the answers, surprisingly, may be right under our feet. At least, that's how paleontology Andrew Knoll sees it. His stunning views into our distant past from CNN's Bill Delaney.


ANDREW KNOLL, PALEONTOLOGIST, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: What you see here, is something called a stromatolite, and if you look at it carefully, you'll see that...

BILL DELANEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Rocks. Really not all that much to look at, radiant, though, with meaning.

KNOLL: This is kind of interesting because it tells us that a type of environment...

DELANEY: If, like Harvard University paleontology Andrew Knoll, you know how to look.

KNOLL: If you have the skill to read it, every query, every road side outcrop tells us about the history of our planet. I find that just intoxicating.

DELANEY: Intoxicating, the voice Knoll hears in the silence of rock, speaking of who we are, where we come from.

KNOLL: We are fortunate to live on a planet that actually preserves its own history. It is as remarkable a story as anything you could find in the "Arabian Nights." These are actually fairly well preserved.

DELANEY: Knoll is one of the world's foremost paleontologists, a student of fossils, who has articulated as few before him the importance, grandeur of what he calls deep history.

More than 80 percent of the Earth's 4.5 billion-year-old history before animals even as simple as the trilobites evolved.

KNOLL: Our deep history goes back three billion years before the first trilobites. All of the diversity we see around us today, including ourselves, are really the descendants of these early microorganisms that formed the Earth.

DELANEY: We all descend, scientists say, from single-cell life, ancient microorganisms, now shadows on ancient rocks.

Fossils Knoll first became mesmerized by growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch Country in the foothills of the Appalachians. By now, excavating in more than 50 countries, creating an all-new already encyclopedic record of fossils from uncharted realms of the distant past.

KNOLL: Yes, this is one of my favorite fossils.

DELANEY: In the process, tracing a path back to the very first stirrings of life.

KNOLL: So this is a tiny little example of something that was first discovered as a fossil, 800 million years old.

DELANEY: Knoll, like no one before him, illuminated infinitesimal ancestors of every one of us.

KNOLL: The so-called sino (ph) bacteria are the bacteria that invented photosynthesis.

DELANEY: An invention enabling plants to transform sunlight into oxygen. We can breathe because of bacteria small enough to jam millions on the head of a pin.

KNOLL: We, along with everything else that's alive today, is the product of this 4 billion years of evolutionary history.

They're about 550 million years old.

DELANEY: Knoll's fossil record also led to groundbreaking insights into billions of year of interplay between genetic evolution and the environment, making Knoll intensely aware that what took evolution and environment so long to weave can unravel if we abuse our environment now.

KNOLL: We're certainly seeing a lot of extinctions. The rates at which species are disappearing as, at least, a partial result of human activities, is unusual. I do field work in Africa some years, and I love to look at the animals in game parks there. And I look at a rhinoceros and I doubt that my grandchildren will be able to do that.

We're completely interdependent. We are completely dependent on those bacteria that evolved 4 billion years ago. We are completely dependent on the diversity of plant life and animal life around us.

DELANEY: The unfathomably complex web of life.

KNOLL: Science is not a cataloging of what he know. What we want to learn is what we don't know. And I'm certainly confident that if my grandchildren are scientists, they will see an ocean of mystery surrounding them just the way we do today.

DELANEY: Even as Andrew Knoll keeps swimming deeper to retrieve the silent rocks where the mystery speaks.


HARRIS: The mysteries of the mind are the playground of Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic. And coming up, she gives us all something to really think about.



HARRIS (voice-over): For years experts assumed that infants couldn't make sense of the world. Elizabeth Spelke turned that theory on its head.

LEMONICK: What her research means to parents, especially, is that interaction with the baby is really key to a baby's development, and that it is not a waste of time to talk to a baby, to try and convey information, to show it things.

HARRIS: Small enough to fit on top of a needle: embryonic stem cell hold the promise of dramatic medical breakthroughs. But because these cells are culled from 5-day old embryos, this research is denounced by many of the same critics as abortion. It is a delicate balance for pioneers such as James Thompson.

CHRISTINE GORMAN, "TIME": The greatest excitement is about -- is over these embryonic stem cells in terms of the possibility of creating treatments for diabetes, for spinal cord injuries, for Alzheimer's, for Parkinson's disease.

HARRIS: The ability to control the direct delivery of drugs into the body is a multibillion-dollar industry today thanks, in large part, to biomedical engineer Robert Langer.

GORMAN: Dr. Robert Langer's work on getting molecules into polymers or into plastics, and then placing them somewhere in the body so they can release led to his ability to do the same thing with chemotherapeutic agents so that they could be coded in a wafer and implanted into the brain next to a tumor. So what you have is chemotherapy that's delivered exactly to the target and then kept at a very high concentration to melt the brain tumor away.


HARRIS: There is an old joke that goes: The first thing we lose when we get older is our eyesight, the second is our memory, and -- I forget the third.

But why do we forget? For that matter, why do we remember? How do we think at all?

Well, considering it's monumental importance, it is amazing how little we understand about the brain. In fact, until Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic began studying human intelligence, we new virtually nothing about the most important part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex.

As CNN's Rhonda Rowland reports, Goldman-Rakic is charting the mind like no one else.


RHONDA ROWLAND, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's the essence of who we are, what makes us human, gives us the ability to think, reason, make decisions, act on them. It's what allow to us to remember a face or to create music, read a note, keep a chord in mind long enough to play the right keys. It is our working memory.

DR. PATRICIA GOLDMAN-RAKIC, NEUROSCIENTIST, YALE: Almost everything that you do, there's probably a working memory component to it.

ROWLAND: Working memory originates from a part of brain called the prefrontal cortex. What we know about its structure has, in large part, come from the work of this neuroscientist: Patricia Goldman- Rakic...

GOLDMAN-RAKIC: So how's it going?

ROWLAND: ... credited with giving us a blueprint of this critical area of our mind.

GOLDMAN-RAKIC: As we age our working memory system is one of the systems that seems most vulnerable and most fragile. And you have more trouble remembering where you left your keys, what is the name of that person? You might remember the face, but not the name.

ROWLAND: Goldman-Rakic's work has helped scientists understand what drives normal behavior and what goes wrong to cause diseases like schizophrenia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and attention-deficit- hyperactivity disorder.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was brave. She took a risk by starting to study something for which there wasn't already a really firm foundation that she could build on. ROWLAND: Harvard University psychologist Stephen Cosslin (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most science is incremental; it's building on what's been done before. Every once in a while, though, someone goes into something new and opens it up. That was her.

ROWLAND: Her pivotal discovery came in 1977 when she found there was structure to the prefrontal cortex. Instead of being a mush of neurons, as many assumed, cells why clearly organized.

GOLDMAN-RAKIC: I had no idea what to expect. And I looked down through this very -- through the microscope, just saw a small portion of the brain, smaller than you can imagine. And I saw that there was a stripe. My heart started to race, really.

ROWLAND: Goldman-Rakic has built on that discovery, working with laboratory monkeys to understand the function of cells. What she finds in animals, she says, can be directly applied to humans.

For instance, she found there are cells dedicated to specific memory tasks. In this experiment, researchers record the activity of a brain cell while a monkey searches, by trial and error, for the target that will give him a juice reward. Researchers can see certain cells firing before he reaches for it. Each time they see these cells activate, they can predict where his hand will move even before he does so.

GOLDMAN-RAKIC: When he decides to go to the lower left, another cell -- some other cell might be firing, but not this one. And that's really neat.

ROWLAND: The breadth and depth of her research is what her peers say makes her one of the best, peers like University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist Susan Seasack (ph).

SUSAN SEASACK, UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH: For me, I think being a woman, one of the first things that comes to mind is that this is one of the strongest female scientists in my field, and perhaps one of the strongest female scientists, period. She's very fierce, she's very competitive.

ROWLAND: Goldman-Rakic's interest in science took her to laboratories at UCLA, NYU, MIT, the National Institutes of Health, and then to Yale, the university she and her husband, Pascal Rakic, also a distinguished brain researcher, still call home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not just her work by itself, it's the work that her work has led to, which is expanded our understanding of the brain.

ROWLAND: The understanding of the brain that Goldman-Rakic has given us may some day lead to more effective education, better drugs, perhaps even cures for diseases that impair our minds.


HARRIS: Putting theory into practice leads to a milestone in brain surgery. When "America's Best Science and Medicine" continues.


HARRIS: Dr. Ben Carson likes to beat the odds. Indeed, it has become something of a hallmark for him. But Dr. Carson's inspiring surgical achievements seem to almost pale in comparison to the story of his life.

Here's CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hanna Kleeberger means the world to her parents Doug and Jill.

JILL KLEEBERGER, HANNA'S MOTHER: She has brought us so much happiness, she is the most wonderful thing in our lives.

GUPTA: And for her first few months, she was seemingly the perfect baby, but then it became clear something wasn't right.

J. KLEEBERGER: I looked over, and her eyes were kind of glazed, and she was going -- kind of a noise, I knew something was wrong.

GUPTA: That something was severe epilepsy, 60 seizures a day, and no treatment was working.

DOUG KLEEBERGER, HANNA'S FATHER: You are absolutely devastated if any parent sees their child in pain. And this is worse than pain, because something is going wrong, bad wrong, and you don't know what it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You want to show me where you nose is at? Where did your hair used to be? Right there.

GUPTA: The only hope was a radical and dangerous brain operation that required the permanent removal of half the brain. While Hanna could be cured, the procedure was not without great risks.

D. KLEEBERGER: We can lose our daughter tomorrow. We have to know that, we have to realize that. But we have to entrust the man that God has sent directly our way.


GUPTA: That man is Dr. Ben Carson.

B. CARSON: We will send somebody out periodically just to give you an update.

GUPTA: And many say he has gifted hands.

B. CARSON: Obviously, society places a lot of trust in us, and it is such an incredible privilege to be able to use that in a way to prolong life and improve quality of life. GUPTA: He's considered one of the world's top pediatric neurosurgeons. And while Johns Hopkins is his home base, he has helped patients all over the globe. Certainly, his most publicized case was the life-threatening separation of conjoined twins in South Africa.

CANDY CARSON, BEN CARSON'S WIFE: It's just so abnormal and it's just so tangled up. To try to slice between them, he told me it was less than one-twentieth of a thickness of a piece of paper. Well, the thickness of a piece of paper is not there.

B. CARSON: There have been 13 previous attempts to separate twins like that, none of which have been successful.

GUPTA: He was the first and only neurosurgeon in the world to successfully perform that operation.

B. CARSON: The patient has multiple lesions in the basal ganglia, in the...

GUPTA: Ben Carson thinks of himself as an instrument of God, a sentiment shared by many others, including his colleague Dr. Damland Long (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think instrument of God for those who believe in that way is very apt. He really embodies the religion and the ethics of the religion.

GUPTA: But Ben Carson hasn't always been held in such high regard.

B. CARSON: My initial problem was that I thought I was stupid, and everybody pretty much agreed.

GUPTA: Growing up in poverty in Detroit, academics weren't always a priority.

B. CARSON: I just liked to play when I was a youngster, and I did so poorly in my class work and I just didn't think there was really much point in listening and paying attention, because I didn't think I was going to get it anyway.

GUPTA: But school was a priority to his mother, Sonja Carson.

SONJA CARSON, BEN CARSON'S MOTHER: I was going to make sure that my boy was going to get an education at whatever cost it would take.

B. CARSON: And she says no more playing outdoors, no more anything. And with all that spare time, we had to read two book apiece from a public library and had to have written book reports.

S. CARSON: So, I asked him to go to the library and get books and give them three -- no less than two book reports per week.

B. CARSON: She would put a little check mark on it, acting like she was reading it. GUPTA: Acting, because she couldn't read.

Still, she raised a boy who would later become one of the most prominent neurosurgeons in the world.

But before he would get there, he faced another major challenge: His anger.

B. CARSON: When I was 14, I tried to stab another youngster because he angered me. And fortunately, under his clothing, he had a large metal belt buckle, and the knife blade struck with such force that it broke.

S. CARSON: The boy fled, and Ben went to the bathroom and said: "OK, I wanted to become a physician, but Lord, there isn't too much I can do."

B. CARSON: I said, "you'll never be a doctor, not with a temper like that. So, your choices are jail, reform school or the grave. There aren't any other choices." I don't like any of those choices.

GUPTA: The troubled teenaged searched for another solution.

B. CARSON: I just fell on my knees and I just started praying. I said, "Lord, you got to help me. I can't -- you know, I can't do this," and that's the day that I started reading the Book of Proverbs.

GUPTA: And that's the day Ben Carson said anger no long defined him. Turning to his faith and with his grades improved, he'd go onto Yale, the University of Michigan medical school, and then to become the youngest ever chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

Ben Carson's reach is beyond medicine. His passion to inspire today's youth led to the formation of his own scholarship fund to reward promising young adults.

B. CARSON: Making acceptable for young people across our nation from all backgrounds to realize how important it is to achieve academically.

GUPTA: Ben Carson is also the father of three boys, as well as a respected community and spiritual leader -- all important roles to him, roles that help define Ben Carson.

Still, Dr. Ben Carson continues to save lives one at a time. Like Hanna Kleeberger, who has been seizure-free since her surgery two months ago, and countless others where the scars on their heads as proud reminders of the healing and, yes, gifted hands of Dr. Ben Carson.


HARRIS: Breaking with convention, thinking outside the box. "America's Best" continues with three revolutionaries.


HARRIS (voice-over): The mysteries of heart disease. Cholesterol isn't the only culprit. Cardiologist Paul Ridker has uncovered another piece of the puzzle.

GORMAN: It's very well known that half of all heart attacks occur in people whose cholesterol level is considered normal. So, what else is going on? And for a variety of reasons, Dr. Ridker decided that it had to be a process called inflammation, and what his basic research showed that the inflammation of the arteriole wall led to these clogs in these arteries becoming unstable, and they would burst, and that would cause a clot, and that would lead to a heart attack.

HARRIS: No surgery. No biopsies. Test for cancer that are efficient and painless. That's the cutting edge science from oncologist David Sidransky.

ELMER-DEWITT: He has led this charge to sort of identify at the genetic, molecular level what kind of cancer do we have, and what that leads to is wonderfully specific tests to know what kind of lung cancer you have. That then leads to what very specific drug can we design to fight that cancer.

HARRIS: Dr. Wise Young's revolutionary treatments for spinal cord injuries are accredited with saving hundreds of thousands, including Christopher Reeve.

GORMAN: Dr. Young's treatments have become the standard in hospitals the world over. If there is a spinal cord injury as a result of a car accident, a horseback riding accident, a fall -- if that person can be treated with a steroid to keep the inflammation process down, frequently quite a bit of function can be preserved.


HARRIS: CNN PRESENTS will return in a moment.



HARRIS (voice-over): Every day, your DNA wiggles, warps and unwinds. Breaking down this molecular hustle and bustle is the job of biophysicist Carlos Bustamante.

LEMONICK: The most exciting part of Bustamante's work is that he could design specific new kinds of drug that have exactly specific functions.

HARRIS: From understanding the fundamentals of DNA to studying its more complicated functions, that is the specialty of Patrick Brown. He has pioneered one of the most significant breakthroughs in genetics, the DNA micro-array, a sort of microscope that allows you to see which genes are turned off and which one are turned on. ELMER-DEWITT: And it's actually used in all kinds of research, how to make drugs, understanding what has gone wrong in a cancer cell, understanding which cells are working, and which ones aren't.

HARRIS: Biology isn't just about life, it's also about death. Cell suicide, its contributions and consequences are the realm of Dr. Robert Horvitz and his work with worms.

GORMAN: Your brain cannot develop without a certain number of cells dying, and what Dr. Horvitz did was he said, this is programmed, this is not an accident. Death is not an accident, it's actually part of the way that an organism develops and is formed.


HARRIS: The discovery of cells suicide and its importance is having far-reaching effects. Beyond its role in brain development, cell death is providing important clues to understanding cancer. Researchers now believe that many tumors form because cells don't die when they are supposed to.

That's it for this installment "America's Best. Coming in September, CNN and "TIME" magazine bring you "America's Best in Society and Culture."

I'm Leon Harris, and we'll see you next week on CNN PRESENTS.