Friday, April 27, 2007

Friday Library: 'Science Is Hard.'

I once attended a talk given by Paul Nurse. Who's Paul Nurse, you ask? Well, he won a Nobel Prize with Tim Hunt for discovering cyclin-dependent kinases. In other words, he figured out the architect's plan of how cells grow and divide, in the very most fundamental way, and made possible a lot of research to find the nuts and bolts of exactly how cell division is put together and what part talks to what.

He's done a few other things over the years, too.

Here's a new edition of Friday Library: Reports and Interviews. Not literally transcribed, but I assure you that the substance is more or less accurate.

Everyone else comes and gives seminars and they show you all their lovely results and they make it seem so easy. But we all know that's not true. So I'm not going to tell you about any of that. I'm going to tell you how hard it was and how I discovered things by accident. Not that I wasn't paying attention, mind you.

When I was a graduate student, I had to use this machine. It was the bane of my existence, I spent hours upon hours in front of it. The problem with it was, it had a pressure sensor and whenever it went over pressure, which was quite often, it would shut itself off and the experiment would be ruined. It shut itself off about one in three times, and the runs were hours and hours long, so it was awful. So one day I took a screwdriver to it and disabled the safety sensor, you see, and then it only went over pressure one of ten times, so I could do my experiments twice as fast. The only problem was that if it went over pressure, it would explode. So I used to sit on this stool in front of it, holding up an article to read with one hand and the other hand over a large red button so that the moment it started to get dangerous I would stop it. I spent years of my life in front of that machine, but I got a lot of reading done.

So I was in Edinburgh, doing a screen for cells that had gotten too big. And one day I mixed up the fractions from the centrifuge and took the wrong one, and it had very small cells in it. So I said 'That's funny', and set them aside for a while. Eventually I started to wonder if the same things that made cells big could do the opposite too, and it turned out that they were wee1 mutants [a cell cycle-kinase; part of the Nobel-winning work].

One night in Sussex, it was quite late and I was in lab and utterly nothing was working. And I had plates that had become contaminated with fungus and other things and I was utterly disgusted. Finally I threw my plates in the bin in disgust and got my bicycle and started cycling home to my family. It was raining, of course. And about halfway home, in the rain, cycling along, I thought, 'Wait... maybe I shouldn't...' So I turned around, and cycled back in the rain, and fished my plates out of the bin and started restreaking them. It took me a month or two to get them clean again. And it turned out that led me to cdc2 [the other thing that won the Nobel].
One strange thing: he didn't say a word about his wife or children, even in lunch-with-students or private meetings, which is relatively uncommon around here. In fact, I thought he was divorced. He's not.