Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize and Fuzziness Between Chemistry and Biology

“When you get into University, you learn that Biology is really Chemistry, Chemistry is really Physics, Physics is really Math.”*

Many years ago, a friend sent me a version of that quote among a whole host of other quotes that he’d collected over the years. When I first read it as a chemistry undergraduate, I liked the way it broke down barriers. Because even though I studying chemistry, I secretly wanted to understand how life worked.
But even though biology motivated me, I never took a single undergraduate biology course. That choice haunted me, particularly when I chose to go to graduate school and work in a biochemistry lab. During my first year of graduate school, I struggled understand the nuts and bolts of gene transcription, while still memorizing nucleic acid and amino acid structures. My note to readers out there: If you’re interested in life, you’d be well served to take some biology even if you don’t want to major in it.

But during Nobel Prize season, chemists sometimes get cranky when a biological topic gets the prize, like this year with the award for G-protein coupled receptors to Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University. Derek Lowe described the work and his own take on this divide on his blog. “Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry.

Even the field I studied in graduate school, then known as bioorganic chemistry, has evolved into chemical biology. As I tried to synthesize my understanding of molecules with an understanding of how cells worked, I hated those shape pathway diagrams in cell biology papers. I didn’t want to understand biology in the context of red circles, blue squares, or green triangles– I wanted to know what that meant chemically. When I was in high school, the last formal biology course I took, I frustrated my mother as I tried to learn glycolysis because I couldn’t just memorize the steps, I wanted to learn something about what was actually going on. A nurse, she dug through her old textbooks to find information that might satisfy me. I soon forgot what we found, but it was the foundation for my chemical curiosity about biology.

Science has to move where the questions are, and some of the greatest questions out there come down to the fundamentals of how life came to be and how it works.  From one perspective, you might say that chemistry could (or even has) become a toolkit for biology. But really it’s more than that. Chemistry has to be part of the biological question, and the GPCR discovery helped to make that fundamental connection between the two.

The names of the prizes are part of the problem, but I really hate the walls that some scientists like to put up around their work. Creativity and innovation can be messy, and it often happens at those  fringes of a field rather than within the safety of the center. Drawing lines in the sand provides some organization and context. Categories are useful, and researchers can easily cross them. But organizational lines sometimes grow into concrete barriers, and the minute that scientists have to pull out heavy machinery to scale those walls, we’ve all lost out.

*Some versions of this also include “and Math is really Hard.” The Math=Hard stereotype has always bugged me.

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MotW: Nobel Prizes all about the carbon

Carbon is the big star among the science Nobel Prizes this week. Sure, IVF is a big deal, too. But, today, I’m all about the element that ruled my life as an organic chemist. Carbon more than math is the universal common denominator of ‘O-chem. “As my undergraduate professor once quipped , “You just have to be able to count to four: four bonds to carbon.”

, from Wikimedia Commons”]But otherwise the two prizes aren’t all that similar. The physics prize for the discovery of graphene– sheets of carbon the thickness of a single atom– recognizes a discovery just a handful of years old. It’s superstrong, transparent, incredibly dense– fascinating properties that have scientists excited about what we might be able to do with it. But what has it done for the world lately? Not much, at least not yet. Some scientists think the award is premature.

The chemistry prize was awarded for classic organic synthesis: using palladium, a matchmaker metal with the remarkable ability to help chemists link together complicated patterns of carbon atoms. Although the enzymes between living cells are gifted at making these types of connections,  stringing carbon atoms together in precise ways  within a flask in a traditional chemistry lab is both art and science (and often an exercise in frustration).

But this is one elegant solution. The scientists discovered the reactions in the 1970s, but the chemistry that had come into its own by the time I started graduate school in the late 1990s.  As a result, my chemist mind thought, “oh, really, they haven’t awarded a Nobel for this yet?” But there’s no question that this science has touched people all over the world.  The pain reliever I took yesterday (Naproxen, the active compound in Aleve), cancer drugs, plastics,  compounds in TVs and other displays and flexible screens all result from chemists using these techniques on an industrial scale.

Naproxen structure via Wikimedia Commons
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Chemistry Nobel, women, and the "choice"

A chocolate Nobel Prize
A chocolate Nobel Prize

On Monday, I mentioned that it was a good week for women in science. Well, it got even better today with the announcement of the chemistry prize.  Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science becomes the fourth woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (sharing the prize with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology  and Thomas Steitz of Yale University).

The science is essential for life, understanding the structure and workings of ribosomes. These packets within living cells that take the master plans encoded within geness and manufacture the working parts, proteins.

For an upcoming story, I’ve been thinking a lot about research careers, work-life balance, and the “choice” that’s often drawn in the sand, particularly for women, between work and family. Some of that comes out in Yonath’s interview on the Nobel website:

[AS] Yes. And perhaps particularly special to be a woman who receives it?

[AY] I’m sorry that I can’t, I can’t think this is because of my gender. And, I don’t think that I did something that is specially for women, or the opposite. During my time I had some very difficult years and I had very pronounced competition, all by men. But I don’t think that this is because I was a woman. I’m pretty sure that if I was a man too they would compete, if the men would get to where I was at that time. I think that it doesn’t help to be a woman in science. Maybe now, but not when I was progressing. But I don’t think that it disturbs, in my opinion. I may be wrong. I may be wrong: women try to explain me all types of things. And I think that women can make … women need, actually, they’re fortunate because if they don’t want to do science they can say, “I want to be with my kids.” And this is understandable, whereas a man cannot do this. So if we look at it from the other point, but this means also stopping science.

The Nobel recognition is about Yonath’s science, not her gender. But I find this quote fascinating, and it skirts around the main issue. She’s of a different generation (born in 1939), and I see one point: motherhood was  considered a socially acceptable– maybe even socially sanctioned– reason for a female scientist to leave the laboratory. A man would probably get more backlash for making a choice to leave the laboratory to raise his children.

But that choice, by a scientist of either gender, comes with consequences. I doubt that many of today’s women  use motherhood as a smokescreen for a waning interest in research. They leave for many reasons: because they decide to apply their knowledge in new ways, because they don’t see enough opportunities, and maybe even because they want to make more money. Some of them discover that the research lifestyle isn’t compatible with the family life that they’d like to have, particularly in the early years of their children’s lives.

Working on this upcoming story already had me thinking about my own decision to leave the laboratory. My choice didn’t come down to a line in the sand between career and family. I was single throughout graduate school and defended my dissertation shortly before my 30th birthday. But those issues colored my decision. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I sensed a culture of inflexibility.  I realized that I didn’t want to feel locked into lab work, and I wanted to be able to pursue other creative interests, and, yes, eventually have a family. Did those desires make me a less capable scientist? Absolutely not, but conventional wisdom would say that I didn’t want it “bad enough.” If I had sensed more flexibility– an environment more compatible with my personal goals–  would I have considered staying in research? I don’t know.

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Nobel Prize for telomeres: focusing on the ends of DNA

It’s Nobel Prize season again, and the science behind this particular award for Medicine feels like a familiar friend. I got my crash course in telomeres and telomerase from a group meeting talk that one of my lab colleagues gave almost exactly a decade ago.

The science recognized was done a quarter century ago. DNA sequences have protective caps called telomeres that are maintained by a riboenzyme, telomerase, but the implications for the scientific understanding of aging, cancer and stem cells remain active research areas. Telomeres get shorter as we age, and maintenance of telomeres in cancer cells may help them continue to survive and divide. Part of the understanding of stem cells and their capacity for regeneration (or to cause cancer) will come from a better understanding of their telomeres.

This Nobel Prize story has many of the plot points associated with great discoveries, particularly the discovery of the telomerase enzyme, by Carol Greider in Elizabeth Blackburn’s laboratory on Christmas Day 1984. But notably, this award goes to two women: Blackburn of UCSF and Greider of Johns Hopkins University (They share the award with Jack Szostak of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School).

Though I wish that there were enough female Nobelists to make a double double-X chromosome Prize in Medicine less notable, it’s definitely a good day for women in science.

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