Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Links to past scientists

The photograph above is of Peter Mitchell, a gentleman scientist who achieved the rare distinction of receiving an unshared Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1978. His great achievement was the discovery of how the breakdown of glucose and other nutrients in linked to the production of a high-energy intracellular molecule (ATP). It was an elegant theory, elegantly demonstrated. He was, by all accounts, a great bloke too according to my undergraduate tutor who worked with Mitchell in his labs in Cornwall for a number of years. Sitting in tutorials, I was once removed from this work.

When I moved to take a PhD, initially I was similarly once removed or directly involved with a number or biochemitry giants. These included Arthur Kornberg, Lubert Stryer, Hans Krebs and JRS Fincham. Apologies for the nerdy name-dropping

The world of biochemistry seemed to be one where large thoughts were generated and proofs pursued methodically over several years. There were close connections between the big discoveries and current opportunities.

It may be me but these connections are much diluted at the present. The process of developing a scientific lineage of PhD graduates from a supervisor's early work naturally splits a large field into smaller ones as graduates take an element of that work and run with it. After twenty or thirty PhDs have come out of a lab, the field has been split so often it's looking like a bastardised version of Zeno's paradox.

An example of this was a friend of mine who went to work with a scientist looking at a topoisomerase. By the time he'd arrived, two other PhD students had started and the protein's three domains had been allocated to one student each. Unfortunately, the bit he inherited turned out to be a spacer domain which let the other two domains do all the interesting stuff which made his viva interesting.

The sense of excitment I felt as a newbie undergrad scientist undertaking a short research project, the proximity to big leaps that had been made only ten years previously, waned quickly and for others too and by the mid-90s I was also mutating a wee bit of a protein to see what happened... just like four other groups around the world who were working on the same protein.

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