Friday, 23 March 2012

D.N.A. of a Scientist

Ok, I've been a bit lazy this past week (paper manuscripts, job contracts and genuine laziness) with the blog but here's a feature I'm hoping will take off which is trying to "interview" various scientists. I painstakingly tried to come up with a name and have settled for "Dare Not Ask of a Scientist" as it kind of works on a few levels then.

Initially they'll be people I know and I want to ask a range of people from PhD students and Postdocs to Group leaders and Scientific officers and people in industry. Volunteers are also welcome including non-biologists!
To start us off I'll interview myself as a sacrificial lamb and as an idea of what kind of questions I'd like to ask. Obviously for other people I'd be happy to do a to and fro interview but it would be little deranged to do that with myself. I'd be happy to negotiate.

So for the first DNA of a scientist we have the mega-talented, super modest, prodigy of fly genetics - Neil Pearson. glimpse into the inner workings of a "beautiful" mind.
As it's me it'll probably be a bit long-winded. You have been warned.

  What kind of biologist are you?
     I’d say I’m a geneticist at heart. I’ve always been fascinated at what our genes do as ultimately we are a product of them. Finding out what the proteins actually do is icing on the cake but I simply love finding out how different genes (preferably new ones) interact or seeing an obvious/interesting phenotype by removing a single gene.

            Why did you get into Biology? 
      To be honest I think it was instinctual from an early age. I can remember it was possible to pull the arms off "He-man" figures and I created bizarre hybrids of all those toys, so you could see the geneticist was latent way back then (or some kind of sociopath). I did similar things with my lego figures/vehicles as well so I’ve always been a tinkerer in that sense.  At school I liked being told about dominant and recessive genes and how it explained how/why (shaking my hands up at the heavens "WHY?") I had ginger hair while one of my brothers didn’t – I think that’s when I saw the obvious power of genetics to explain phenotypes. There was also that weird notion that science was “useful” in the sense I could do stuff with it. With hindsight I realise I could have done just as much with English and mathematics but it was that tangible “usefulness” that hooked me at school and encouraged me to become a scientist.

      What are you currently working on? 
      Good question! [praising myself] Currently nothing as I’m waiting to start a new postdoc. I was working on how size and shape is controlled. When you think about it all the difference we see in animals is due to changing the size and shape of various organs but we don't know a great deal about how that works. The Drosophila wing is a perfect model tissue for this and I performed a genome-wide RNAi screen  to see what happened to the wing. I then focused on all the odd shaped wings, one of which is a protease that appears to cleave the Fat cadherin, which is a pretty big deal as it not only identifies the protease that cleaves Fat but it also suggests that cleavage is essential to Fat function.
      The new job will be looking at how endosomal sorting may play a role in Drosophila development. Hopefully it does and not just in the ways we already know!

           Your Eureka moment(s)? 
      My first one was during a summer project in Edinburgh where I found Staufen in sheep. I can remember thinking this can go on my tombstone and that it was a MAJOR discovery. In hindsight, it doesn't seem to have changed the world but the feeling was great. Most recently I recall looking at a fly wing and going “it looks like it’s fat” and my boss took it as an even deeper insight than I meant and said “You’re right, maybe it is a new regulator of Fat!”. I pretended to think that’s exactly what I meant. Turns out it was.
      I can also remember getting a real buzz from when I finally discovered the Cks30A mutant that took up the first year of my PhD.The spooky thing about that was that the CG number (fly genes have CG12345 as names besides the more entertaining real names) was the same as my grant number. Since then I have never ruled out any genes from screens that have important dates or phone numbers in them.
      Wall of shame moment? (A good friend of mine used to pin up his stupid mistakes on his bench wall)
      Well it turns out I could have found CKs30A 6 months earlier if I had read all three reading frames. What the published data told me was the reading frame gave a synonymous change (it was still the same amino acid). If I had checked the other reading frames I’d have noticed it caused a amino acid change rather than being neutral. This led me to spend months doing northern blots on candidate genes on the assumption the mutation was affecting expression levels. Serendipity actually made it look like Cks30A had reduced expression causing me to go back and realise my mistake (the fact it was my grant number also made me look more closely).
Experimentally there are too many to pick from. Trying to run a DNA gel in water as opposed to buffer was a spectacular one as my solution was to increase the voltage and notice the tank getting increasingly warmer. Another gem was switching on a light as I said “is it ok to switch the light on” in a dark room. My colleague must literally have reflexes faster than the speed of light for it not to have ruined the entire packet of film.

Favourite scientific discovery/Scientist
There are a lot but i think the most impressive and beautiful discovery/revelation is the periodic table. That’s maybe sacrilege for a biologist to say but there is just so much information and predictive power from the arrangement of elements into a certain set of rows/columns. It’s really all you need to work out pretty much any chemical reaction. The genius of Mendeleev (and Meyer) who not only began creating the periodic table but also predicted where the missing elements would occur and what chemical properties they would have was absolutely staggering. The guy was easily a century ahead of mankind and his impact on all of chemistry (and by extension biochemistry) is staggering when you stop to think about it. I proudly have a “big bang” style periodic table shower curtain. It reminds me that there's nothing we can't understand if we put our mind to it and more importantly test it.

Best thing about being a scientist? 
Finding out things that (you hope and pray) no-one else ever has before. Working in an environment where there’s no real hierarchy and you’re as good as your ideas/science is something I suspect I vastly underestimate the importance of. The international environment is also something I wouldn’t like to give up. Before I trained as a PhD student my exposure to different nationalities was embarrassingly limited. Now I have a collection of friends/colleagues from all over the world and I think I'm a richer person for that. It also provides more opportunities to go drink whenever an international sporting event is taking place.
I recently gave an impromptu speech at my leaving party in which i said "science is fun and if it's not you may as well do something else". I think that's very true, at least for me.

Worst thing about being a scientist? 
Job security without a doubt.  It’s generally accepted that you can do 2 postdocs and then you have two options; become a group leader or leave. That sounds a bit of a pyramid scheme to me, yet too many of us just blindly go into an academic career thinking it will “work out”. To make matters worse your success is largely measured by your paper output which essentially means your career is predicated on a huge gamble. It doesn’t matter how good a scientist you are, someone else may still scoop you, through no fault of your own. In that sense it seems absolutely insane to be in academia unless you are a) really good or b) think you're really good. The worst thing is when I see PhD students who should/will become great group leaders consider leaving academia after their PhD because of the job security issue. That’s when I realise something needs to change about the current career structure specifically in the UK. 
The notion that you need/have to move around in science is great, if you are single, but a massive constraint or strain if you are in a relationship with someone. Sometimes science feels like it should be a vocation where celibacy/lack of family is a prerequisite.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a scientist? 
Based on recent experience - unemployed. Otherwise I'd probably something less rewarding in terms of job satisfaction but far more rewarding in terms of pay. My younger brothers can’t quite understand how I spent so much time and money to get a PhD only to be paid substantially less than they are having learnt a trade straight out of school. I still wouldn't swap with them though. 
A job where I don’t need to prove things would be nice! Maybe writing fiction; an even sillier notion in terms of job security than academia!

What do you see (or want to be) the next big thing in science? 
It’s not really biology but I wish the space program would resurrect. I completely understand why robots are the way to go but it’s so sad that it’s been 40 years since anyone set foot on the moon. The human race has to get out there if we want to continue as a species (or become multiple alien species) so I’d like to see a moon base and people get to mars just to say that we can. Otherwise we never would have colonised the planet and would be sitting around in a cave/some trees still.
Biology wise, personalised genomes and the amazing/scary amount of information that will give us is the most tangible next big thing. There's obvious things like personalised medicine and finding out so much more about the underlying genetics of disease but there's all kinds of weird and wonderful things that can spin out of it.
Pie in the sky, for me, is the day when we can grow bio organic machinery through a thorough understanding of biochemistry/protein folding. Imagine a program where you design the shape/function of a molecule and a machine then prints out the DNA that would encode the design and you grow it up in a yeast /bacteria vat. That’s what I’d like to see in my lifetime and I think it’s perfectly possible as long as we still have science and innovation.

So that's the first attempt. I will try and make this a regular feature but that all depends on how eager people are to join in with it. Contact me if you want to take part.


  1. Hmmm interviewing yourself it seems to scream psycho to me. Like in some tv show where you'd hear the person talking to someone and then the camera would pull back to reveal there was no one else there & then scooby doo would go 'ruh roh'. Wall of shame - I seem to remember you telling me how you repeatedly put the bits of card from the film box through the developer machine during your undergrad project. A good piece though. Feel free to moderate this post. Doug

    1. More crazy would be the revelation that all the "anonynous" posts are from me too!. They're really not. Honest.

      I developed so many pieces of cardboard as an undergrad I could have wallpapered the "wall of shame"!

      Would you be up for an interview?

    2. sure, an anonymous interview?