The battle for my eternal soul

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.

HSA crystals, à la Warhol
HSA crystals, à la Warhol

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!

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12 Responses to The battle for my eternal soul

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    We’ll make a Yank out of you yet, Stephen.

  2. Henry Gee says:

    From one resident of the tortured hell of corrosive self-doubt to another, your post struck a chord with me. For many years I was always on the periphery of things. Wherever I was, I always found myself doing, believing and thinking things that were different from those favoured by those around me. It’s only in the past couple of years, during which I have discovered the blogosphere, that I have felt any sense of belonging to anything at all, such that my merest effluvia effusions actually resonated with other people. The SciBlog08 meeting was wonderfully empowering egosurferating stimulating in that regard.

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    Aw, shucks. I figure you’re referring to the ever-so-british tendency for ultra-modesty and self-deprecation? My feeling is that some kind of mid-Atlantic compromise is best…

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    My previous comment was of course in answer to Jenny!
    Gosh Henry, I simply can’t imagine you being on the periphery of anything (except perhaps geographically speaking — where is Cromer?). But I know what you mean and that’s why I think it is so important to have social contact with your peers, whoever they may be. That’s one of the most important aspects of attending conferences: we can acknowledge each others’ successes but also share the pain of failure and frustration (which I’m pretty sure is universally felt!).

  5. Graham Steel says:

    where is Cromer?

    View Larger Map

  6. Heather Etchevers says:

    You’re quite right to share your glorious moments, Stephen. And the rest of you. It’s readable and inspiring.
    Such are the delicious but transient pleasures of scientific inquiry.
    Right on the money.

  7. Ian Brooks says:

    Congratulations Prof! You big geek.

  8. Anna Kushnir says:

    Lovely post, Stephen! I worked in a field that never generated much buzz (HSV transcription – not miRNA, sadly), so it’s very nice to get a glimpse of what life is like on the other side 🙂 I guess that’s what really keeps researchers engaged and working – the feeling of contribution, belonging, and relevance. That’s also what makes it difficult – not everyone and every field can be equally in the spot light.

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    @Graham – thanks for that (!), though the question was, um, like, you know, rhetorical
    Cheers Heather – I do believe we need to cherish the good days since that is what will help to get us through the bad ones (of which there are plenty in this game!)
    Well Anna – it’s all relative. The albumin field is not the largest in the world and certainly not really at the cutting edge of modern molecular biology. And I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of working on a major viral pathogen. I’m frankly astonished, given your work with GFP, that you weren’t included in the Nobel citations the other week! 😉

  10. Kristi Vogel says:

    Congratulations, Stephen! I think it’s important for the perspectives and insights of top researchers in various fields to be presented in the context of science blogs, and I only wish that there were more voices such as yours. The direct, personal perspective is often very different from the one obtained or reported on after listening to presentations at meetings, or from reading several journal articles.
    Beautiful crystals, btw! 😉

  11. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks Kristi – nice to know that the blog is reaching the parts that other reports tend to gloss over (though I’m not entirely sure that the ‘top researcher’ moniker fits comfortably – that’s my British modesty, and a reality check (!), kicking in again). Hopefully I’ll have the courage to report candidly on the days when things don’t go so well and I am seething with frustration.
    Oh, and Ian – I’m not a geek (according to Richard) – I’m a nerd.
    And I would like to emphasise that the results I reported to the conference were mostly generated by the people in my group who have worked on this project over the years – Ali, Patricia, Jamie, Isabelle, Ananyo, Tim and Hendrik – along with our many collaborators. It’s a team game.
    Oh, and Ian – I’m not a geek apparently (according to Richard) – I’m a nerd. And proud of it!

  12. Stephen Curry says:

    Oops – that messed up (too early in the morning here). My reply to Ian should only have appeared at the end. You see how mortal I am?

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