Not your average cell signalling talk

Welcome, welcome,
Old friends and new.
I’m happy to be here,
I hope you are too!

(That started off as a normal sentence, but then I noticed that it would (kinda) work as a verse, too! Woohoo, I’m a poet and I didn’t realise it!)

Right, that’s set the tone nicely for this new incarnation of VWXYNot?. And seeing as blogging is all about communication, it seems fitting to kick things off with a post about one of the more entertaining research seminars I’ve ever been to.


My awesome colleague Cristina recently initiated a monthly department-wide “Work in Progress” seminar, distinct from each lab’s own nitty-gritty-detail-driven lab meetings. The aim of the WIP sessions is to give more of a big-picture overview of each person’s research topic; participants are welcome to practice their chalk-talk skills, try out a presentation that would be suitable for a lay audience, or use any other style of their choosing.

Cristina kicked off the proceedings with a talk on her own work, which focuses on the mechanism of action of an oncogenic fusion protein. However, inspired by a TEDtalk (unfortunately I didn’t think to write down which one), she decided to deviate ever so slightly from the standard acronym-heavy cell signalling seminar.

I’m sure we’ve all sat through several examples of said standard seminar, struggling to remember which acronyms match which proteins, and which proteins act as the ligands, receptors, kinases, and transcription factors in the signalling pathway. Hell, some of us might even be guilty of giving such talks ourselves – which you can get away when presenting to your own lab or other specialised audiences, but not when talking to a department that includes clinicians, statisticians, bioinformaticians, chemists, and radiophysicists as well as molecular biologists.

Well, like I said, this talk was different.

Cristina started off by describing how things work in a normal cell.

Here’s a factory, which makes proteins that promote cell growth and division. Within the locked factory gates (nuclear membrane), the security guard (transcription factor) stands on a big red button (gene promoter) that needs to be held down to keep the factory running.

Holding down the fort

And here are some bathing beauties (kinase receptors) at the beach, lying half in and half out of the ocean (spanning the cell membrane). When they manage to catch a beach ball (ligand), they get so excited that they wriggle their toes in the sand, which attracts the attention of the crab (kinase).

Crabs and balls, oh my!

The security guard’s dog (another kinase) spots the crab moving around, and runs to the waterline to check out the action. The crab, inevitably, nips (phosphorylates) the dog. The poor injured pooch then runs back to the factory, where the security guard runs to the fence to comfort him, which releases the big red button the guard was standing on. The factory therefore shuts down and the cells can’t grow or divide.

Worn out from the exertion of it all, the security guard wanders out of the factory gates (into the cytoplasm) and is eaten by a shark (the proteasome). (I’m not sure what the shark is doing on land, right outside the factory, but I guess sharks just make for cooler visuals than land predators). The nommed security guard then gets ripped off the whiteboard and is ceremoniously destroyed by the presenter’s handy electric coffee grinder.

Cristina threatens delinquent proteins with "the grinder"

The fusion oncoprotein is represented by a somewhat confused person who has the security guard’s top half, but the bathing beauty’s legs. Well, maybe he/she (but let’s just say “he”) is confused, maybe the factory just has a more relaxed dress code than most. He can’t catch beach balls, but he does like to kick his legs around at the water’s edge, and the crab (who is admirably non-discriminatory about alternative lifestyles) is just as attracted to this activity as when the bathing beauties do it. Meanwhile, the hybrid guard’s identical twin has retained his security credentials from the factory, and can therefore continue to control the big red button.

As you can imagine, this situation confuses the local wildlife no end. The crab nips the beach-going security guard, who freaks out; the un-nipped dog wanders off and falls victim to the lurking shark (and coffee grinder) instead; and the hybrid security guard who’s still at the factory can’t see his dog, so he has no reason to get off the big red button, and just stands there. This causes the factory to add extra shifts, make too many growth-promoting proteins, and ultimately cause cancer.

Sexy security and confused wildlife

This was all very entertaining, especially the coffee grinder, and even the molecular biologists in the audience appreciated the way the introduction to this signalling pathway was presented. It was so much easier to follow the rest of the seminar when the speaker could say things like “we’ve found that there are too many crabs at the beach” or “if you add this drug, the sharks now ignore the dogs”, rather than “PROTEIN1” (audience thinks: “is that the first or the second kinase?”) “binds inappropriately to PROTEIN2” (audience: “I think that’s the transcription factor, but then again it might be the receptor”).

I wouldn’t recommend this approach at a specialist conference or at your next job interview seminar, but hey, if you’re going into a high school or a community group or something of that nature, it’s a great approach that can work very well indeed.

Just – as I told Cristina – consider how your images will look from a distance before making all your figures. The bathing beauty on the left of the second photo is in fact wearing a bathing suit, but from the back of the room, my first thought was “nekkid ladies? Now this really is a unique presentation style…”


(Just a note about commenting, before I sign off on this post. As you can see in our (really rather sensible) community guidelines, “Your first comment will be held for moderation—after that you’re free to comment as you like. This is managed on a per-blog basis in the network. If you put more than two URLs in any comment, your comment will again be held for moderation, even if you’ve already been cleared”. I’ll do my best to approve new users’ comments as soon as I see them, but, hey, I do have a day job, too!)

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in career, communication, meta, photos, science, silliness. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Not your average cell signalling talk

  1. cromercrox says:

    Brilliant! I guess Cristina could replace the shark with a tyrannosaurus. I wonder if there’s room for a girrafe on a unicycle? Maybe some ligand-receptpr pairing ?

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Yeah, maybe a T Rex will appear in Version 2.0 (although there could be some confusion with T Regs, i.e. regulatory T cells – I’ve heard someone mistake one for the other before, with much ensuing hilarity).

    I’m sure that a unicycling girrafe would fit at least one signalling pathway!

  3. Something certainly needs doing about those brain-grindingly tedious, acronym-laden,monotone-delivery kinase talks that we’ve all (well, perhaps except Henry) had to sit through. I’m afraid I just don’t go to them much now. Or I sit at the back…

    That way if the speaker shows a hideously complicated receptor/signal complex/multiple downstream pathways slide first up and then says:

    “And this shows a really, really simplified scheme…”

    – I can just sneak out as quietly as possible and save myself 50 minutes of torment.

  4. Kyrsten says:

    But where is the button for easy RSS feed? you mean I have to type it into Google Reader? blah.

    great talk though! would’ve made biochem so ooooo much more interesting.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Austin, but what’s the solution? We’d probably get sick of sharks and even T Rexes soon enough, if they became too popular!

    Kyrsten, the RSS symbol is at the far right of the URL address bar 🙂

    or else copy & paste!

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  7. Stephen says:

    What a great idea for a talk – especially on a topic as byzantine as signalling pathways. This approach should be mandatory!

  8. Hermitage says:

    I know a lot of engineering buddies that would be Thrilled to have had that rather than listen to the standard pathway talk. Wiggling your toes attracts the crabs, brilliant!

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  10. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Stephen, it really was great! Lots of grins during the presentation, and a huge round of applause afterwards.

    Hermitage, great to see you over here! Thanks for commenting!

    Yeah, the physicists and statisticians in particular seemed very into the whole presentation style!

  11. New place looks good, I might add this to the regular waters that I like to troll.

  12. Nina says:

    Hi Cath! Good to see the actual new place after the rumours … Let’s say it’s good you put in DON’T PANIC in the first deleted post too. I decided not too panic and wait…

    Unfortunately this post is too much about cells for me, but don’t worry I’m not put off.
    Happy blogging

  13. Frank says:

    Brilliant idea. Speaking as a non-biologist who regularly has to edit some of this stuff to make it vaguely intelligible, I have to say that it is the cryptic and unpronounceable names (plus the sheer number of entities) that makes it hard to read and comprehend modern molecular/cell biology.

    Perhaps someone should set their mind to rewriting Alberts in this style…

  14. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Welcome all!

    Genomic Repairman, I hope you do!

    Nina, yeah, I’m an eejit sometimes, I really am, but thanks for not panicking!

    Sorry about the cells, but I had to launch with at least some scientific content, eh?!

    Frank, that sounds like a fun project!

  15. Massimo says:

    Nice new home (I still remember what a nightmare it was for me to migrate from LiveJournal two years ago). I hope this works well for you !

  16. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks, Massimo! So far so good. I <3 WordPress.

  17. hhm, nice new digs. Couch is comfy. Where’s the beer? I’m only staying if there is beer….mmmhhh beer…..

  18. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Is there beer?!

    Are you serious?!

    Of course there’s beer!

  19. Well you know, I figured there would be, but a girl has to cover all her bases. And since I am kicking you but in the hockey pool, you may decide to not share 🙂

  20. Bob O'H says:

    The security guard really needs to get a cat. Then he can put a soft blanket on the big red button. The cat will sleep on the button whilst he goes off for a fag with the shark. Much safer all round, until the smoke sets off the fire alarm and the sprinklers, which send the bathers inside for cocktails.

    The crab is then left in peace to get on with it’s cancerous activities.

  21. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    SM, yeah, bad week for me. And now Ehrhoff is out for a while. Booooo, how selfish of him to take a puck to the head just when I needed his points the most!

    Bob, that is an excellent idea. As long as the factory gates are kept locked so the dog can’t come in. We don’t need the factory to be actually destroyed; senescence can be just as dangerous as malignancy.

  22. Amelie says:

    That is such a cool idea! Let’s see if I can try that anytime soon…

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