Let’s face it: scientists aren’t in it for the money (except perhaps those with a more entrepreneurial bent). More often we are preening our egos and chasing a kind of immortality—the chance to create a legacy that will outlive us. Of course, this is an entirely irrational goal, coming oddly from a profession that often spouts its single-minded adherence to rationality!
But I guess many of us also hope that our work will improve our understanding of the world and perhaps enhance the quality of life for humankind, by producing treatments for disease or other kinds of technological advances. That at least is a more rational ambition.
In my work as a protein crystallographer I often find myself on the periphery of the most current mechanistic investigations because the long lead times needed to generate structural information by this technique make it difficult to produce results synchronously with the latest functional studies in the field. I had this sensation recently at a meeting in Sicily on foot-and-mouth disease where our work on the structure of one of the viral proteases was received with some interest but did not impact the major concern of most attendees, namely vaccine efficacy.
However, here in Japan I am attending a symposium* that is devoted to the function and properties of just one protein, human serum albumin (HSA), and I find myself in the happy position of leading a group that in the past 10 years has solved the structures of over 40 complexes of HSA with different small molecule ligands. This places us at the forefront of structural analysis in the albumin field and it is very gratifying to know that our results are widely read and have had a great impact on the work of many different laboratories around the world who also study this abundant and remarkable protein.
The structure helps us to understand many different aspects of the protein — its role in transporting fatty acids, in perturbing the pharmacokinetics of drugs, and how genetic variations may be associated with hereditary conditions — and to think about ways to exploit it’s transport properties in the development of novel therapeutics.
So, this time I find myself not at the periphery but in the very centre of things. I was invited to present the first talk of the day and have had many generous and stimulating comments from my international colleagues. I am extremely gratified that our work has been received so well – it is balm for my restless spirit. Such are the delicious but transient pleasures of scientific inquiry.
I hope you will forgive me for ‘bigging’ myself up in this outrageous manner. Please be assured that tomorrow my soul will return to the tortured hell of corrosive self-doubt.
*Symposium – the modern meaning is ‘conference’ but I prefer the original Greek definition: drinking party!