Seize the opportunity when you have it
June 30, 2010 | 10:09 AMTanya Petrossian
Today was an exciting day of lectures! All were very interesting, but I had been looking forward to two in particular: Dr. Oliver Smithies’ lecture on “Chance, Opportunity and Planning in Science” and Dr. Kurt Würtrich’s on “Structural Genomics and the Expanding Universe of Protein Sequences.” Both did not disappoint!
Dr. Oliver Smithies is absolutely one of the most intriguing and down-to-earth scientists I have ever met. In fact, the 85-year old laureate is still doing wet lab experiments! During his talk, he showed us pages from his old notebooks. The first was from 1954, describing his efforts to find a precursor to insulin through protein migration on filter paper. He joked, “I never found it.” However, through his “failed” attempt, Dr. Smithies discovered something much more important: he developed the protocol for gel electrophoresis, a technique that every biological scientist has run at least once in their lives.
In the early 50’s, the local hospitals would conduct protein electrophoresis with a wet box of starch grain as the medium. However, in order to locate the protein, scientists had to cut the box into several slices and conduct 40 chemical determinations on every slice for one electrophoresis experiment. Instead, Dr. Smithies described to us his solution: “I remember helping my mother to do the laundry when I was a child. When she starched my father’s clothes, she cooked the starch and used the starch to make my father’s collar stiff. When you tidied up at the end of the day, the starch would set a gel… I thought that I could cook the starch and make it into a jelly… All I would have to do is stain the gel.”
The most fascinating thing is that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering this technique; he was awarded it for genetically modifying mice through embryonic stem cells.
At first, I couldn’t help but wonder how Dr. Smithies ended up working with mice and embryonic stem cells when his initial focus was on discovering insulin precursors. Dr. Smithies quickly answered that question in his lecture. He encouraged us to “seize the opportunity when you have it.” Dr. Smithies was not afraid to redirect his focus to molecular sieving after his initial experiments weren’t working. And he continued with this mindset through his long, fruitful scientific career.
Dr. Würtrich added to these words of wisdom based on his own scientific career. He reminded us that many of his papers that have been cited over a thousand times were published in low-impact journals because the high-impact journals valued the method of crystallography more. His lecture was particularly interesting to me since my thesis project is in the field of structural proteomics, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for solving a protein’s structure through NMR. I suppose the appreciation was mutual since he stressed the importance of bioinformaticians. He described how informatics can elucidate the function of many unknown proteins once a novel structure has been solved. This is, in fact, the focus of my dissertation: using these structures to discover novel methyltransferases.
The feeling in the lecture hall was quite a bit different when we left today. The idea that the Nobel laureates are scientific Gods or superbeings was dispelled. These scientists are actually quite similar to us. Of course, they are very intelligent. But they, too, have had experiments that don’t work and publications in low-impact journals. What seems to be common among many of the laureates is that they were not afraid to be different or creative when developing solutions to these problems. They each described how they recognized a gap in scientific knowledge, and used it as an opportunity to advance their own scientific careers, even if it was outside of their specialty.