July 5, 2013

The 2013 Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates comes to a close: An awesome trip to Mainau Island to conclude an awesome trip of a lifetime

Young researchers and guests, Nobel Laureates and the media converged on Lindau Harbor at seven this morning. Our trip to Mainau Island would begin by boarding ship and setting sail. Jokes flew, “the only way to attend this meeting again is if you win the Nobel Prize!” While low on sleep, the sense that we participants were connected for life did not escape us. We smiled wide and thought deep; we’ve had incredible fun and we have made incredible connections. These past few days were an experience of a lifetime.

On Lake Constance, we soaked in the beauty of Swiss, Austrian, and German country. The scene seemed to smile back. Gelling our experience, we took pictures with new friends, chatted about new ideas, and gained new perspectives. The sun rose on our ship, as it rose on us.

Thank you for reading my blog. Thanks to Mars and Microsoft for helping fund my travel to the Lindau Meeting. Thanks to the Lindau Foundation for hosting me. Thanks to all my fellow young researchers for making this the experience of a lifetime. Thanks to Stony Brook University for providing substantial financial support for this meeting. And thanks to my advisor, Professor Carlos Simmerling, for being an awesome mentor and role-model.


...kevin eduard hauser

July 4, 2013

Part III: How proteins drive biological function through structural change and how scientists drive social change by communicating to the public

In 1988, the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Robert Huber,
“…for the determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction centre.” – Nobel Foundation 1988

Robert Huber delivered the penultimate Plenary Laureate Lecture, entitled “Proteases and their control in Health and Disease,” the take of a Nobel Laureate on the relationship between protein structure, protein dynamics (proclivity to change shape), and protein function. Understanding how to control the function of proteases is a huge problem in drug discovery. Since protein function depends on protein structure (and dynamics), which depends on its amino acid sequence, organisms use proteases to trim amino acids from proteins. By trimming off amino acids from a protein, function is toggled by the protease. With vast swaths of proteases, an organism’s massive menu of proteases acts like a massive switchboard for protein function. When this switchboard of proteases breaks down, cellular function breaks down, leading to disease. Therefore, understanding protease function is critical to developing a way to fix a cell’s broken switchboard.

While Huber’s x-ray crystallography of proteases provides detailed information of protease structure and functional assays yield a general structure-function relationship (needed to develop drugs to control protease function), we still don’t know exactly how to design drugs to regain control of proteases. The reasons for this are complex: protease function depends on the full network of chemistry in a cell. As more research is performed, with new methods driven by intrepid scientists and graduate students, the problem of proteases will be better understood.

Professor Sir Harold Kroto presented the final lecture of the Lindau meeting. Entitled, “Four Horsemen of the 21st Century Apocalypse,” his lecture was all about how profound the need is for science to communicate real knowledge to the public. Making you cringe, videos showed precisely how little the average citizen knows about science. While the lecture illuminated the depths of the problem and challenges science faces in educating the public, there is hope.

Why am I so hopeful? The Internet. It is now becoming easier – and advertisement free – to get information by Google-ing or bing-ing “news” or “what is…” Because you don’t need a TV to access this information, well, a new force driving society to a potentially smarter place is here! Of course, with this new technology come new problems. How will a teenager know an unbiased source of information from a biased source? How will the influence of people with strong beliefs affect these open sources? Questions like these, inspired by Kroto’s lecture, were discussed in the Panel Discussion that followed this lecture.

After lunch, we were off to the City Theatre to attend the “Panel Discussion: Why Communicate?” Moderated by Adam Smith (Editorial Director, Nobel Media AB), quite the group was on stage to discuss the importance of scientific communication: Ada Yonath, Brian Kobilka, Harold Kroto, Beatrice Lugger (Deputy Scientific Director, National Institute for Science Communication), and Simon Engelke. The discussion was very interesting because of the diversity of the panel: Yonath’s lovely liveliness contrasted Kobilka’s calm cool. They argued about the importance of intense competition versus ordered collaboration. Yonath and Kobilka’s view that a scientist’s job is to perform research and disseminate via the usual route, i.e. scientific journals, and let the professional communicators distill that down for the public argued against Engelke and Lugger’s view that distilled communication drives scientific progress by connecting fields to solve big problems. Kroto was on the fence of this research or communicate argument, expressing the need for communication to follow research, treating them as separate endeavors that the researcher herself should partake in. Of course, one would expect the balance of time spent researching then publishing and distilling then communicating depends on the research, the researcher, and the needs of society.

As the panel discussion concluded, young researchers filed out of the City Theatre abuzz with opinions and discussions of their own. From our seat in the balcony, George and I were soaking in the awesome. We began discussing the root question, “What good is knowledge if you can’t communicate?” Sitting behind us were two professional science journalists that overheard our argument and joined in the mini-debate. These two Cambridge men seemed to share quite a bit of interest in the importance of communicating science to the public, as they devoted their careers to bridging the gap between scientific communication and public communication. They both received PhDs in chemistry.

Finally making our way without the City Theatre, George and I ran into Countess Bettina standing at the doors (we didn’t literally run into her). I snapped a picture of George and the Countess, after which I was able to use my humble Deutsch to thank her for making the Lindau Meeting possible.

Grinning ear-to-ear, I made my way to the Evangelical Hospital where Professor Mario Molina was holding a small group discussion. Evening was falling, but no lights were on the room, so only the light of setting sun illuminated the young researchers and the Laureate. This natural setting complemented the theme of the discussion: what can we do to fix this climate change problem? As usual, my fellow young researchers were pointing some important questions at the Laureate. When my turn to question the laureate came, “given the importance of words to describe the severity and significance of climate change models’ predictions, and the statistical analysis of research results as a whole, should not a committee be made to standardize what words can be associated with what statistical numbers?” Interestingly, the answer Molina provided was the shortest of all his answers in that discussion, “actually we’re trying to do that right now.” I can’t wait to see how politicians, scientists, policy-makers, and the public react when relatable meaning is attached to complex statistical interpretation of data! As all good scientific discussions go, ours went way over time, and the group was off directly to the final Lindau Meeting event, the Bavarian Evening at Inselhalle.

At seven in the evening, upon invitation by the Elite Network of Bavaria and the Free State of Bavaria, we converged to an awesome send-off event. Wolfgang Heubisch (Bavarian Minister of Sciences, Research and the Arts) opened with welcoming remarks, Laureate Robert Huber took us on a virtual tour of “Bavaria – Land of Science and Research,” two young researchers presented their research, awards were presented, and a tasty Bavarian Buffet Dinner was eaten well. A Bavarian Music and Folk Dance ensued. The beer started flowing - the best I’ve ever had – to toast to a trip – the best I’ve ever had.

This was so awesome.


...kevin eduard hauser

Part II: Cells recycle old proteins; Redefining the unit of time; Superconductors are cool

2004 Nobel Laureate in chemistry Avram Hershko presented the history of his research resulting in…
“…the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.” - Nobel Foundation 2004
His work, along with fellow laureates Aaron Ciechanover and Irwin Rose, answered the following question. What happens to proteins as we age: do we keep the same proteins we’re born with or does biology break them down and recycle them throughout the course of our life?

Maybe to some this seems like a trivial question, of course cells are constantly breaking proteins down into their constituent components (amino acids) and building them back up. But before Hershko’s work, the question was non-trivial. To answer it, Hershko, Ciechanover, and Rose had to find the mechanism and show how it worked.

A big clue came from Schimke and Doyle in 1970 (Control of enzyme levels in animal tissue; Schimke, R.T. and Doyle, E.; Annu. Rev. Biochem;, 1970) where the rates of protein degradation were delineated. That is, proteins are not only broken down by cells, but the rate at which some proteins are recycled is different than for others.

The big discovery came when Hershko, Ciechanover, and Rose finally pinpointed the tag that cells use to mark proteins for degradation. This tag is actually a protein itself, ubiquitin. The authors discovered more than the tag, though. They discovered the whole pathway that can be taken by a protein during degradation. This discovery has immense implications for medicine and drug companies are really taking notice.


2005 Nobel Laureate in physics Theodor W. Hänsch presented a fun and informative lecture entitled, “What can we do with laser frequency combs?” based on his research…
“…contributions to the development of laser-based precision spectroscopy, including the optical frequency comb technique.” – Nobel Foundation 2005

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about laser frequency combs before Hänsch’s lecture and I was expecting to be blown to bits by a barrage of equations and jargon. But Hänsch totally nailed the lecture. I don’t recall seeing any equations, just really informative animations that conveyed a simple concept so you could understand something a bit more complex. Two slides stood out to me and luckily I was able to video them on my WinPhone.

So what are laser frequency combs good for? They deliver the awesome precision you need to understand why a clock on a satellite orbiting the earth is ticking a little bit slower than an identical one on earth. Why does time matter? When you’re a satellite moving at tens of thousands of miles per hour hundreds of miles above the earth, you experience weird phenomena called relativistic effects, and so the satellite needs to account for that. Without clever math and clever lasers those satellites that our GPSs talk to would be useless – miles and miles off. Of course it is way more complicated than just “clever math and clever lasers” and actually getting it all to work is so hard that you get a Nobel Prize for doing it. As Hänsch put it, you need a “passion for precision.” In fact Hänsch is so passionate about precision he proposed that the definition of “the unit of time” may soon be put to question!

Awesome!


1987 Nobel Laureate in Physics K. Alex Müller was the next presenter of the morning plenary lectures. His contributions to science are numerous but are popularly acknowledged to be for his… 
“…important breakthrough in the discovery of superconductivity in ceramic materials.” - Nobel Foundation 1987

You may have heard of superconductors and imagined a superhero using them to win the day. Superconducting is a quantum effect, meaning weird things happen for weird combinations of metals and oxygen (metal oxides).

Why should you care about superconductors? Well, scientific curiosity of nature and how it works, atom-by-atom, electron-by-electron (physicists takeover from chemists when you get smaller than electrons), can lead to unpredictably awesome advances in technology and thus society. If we can figure out how to make superconductors work efficiently at standard temperatures and pressures using relatively cheap materials, everything electrified will become much more efficient. Since they’re so expensive at the moment, you will probably only see a superconductor at a hospital or a big laboratory. But ten, twenty, thirty years from now, you may look up and see superconductors transporting electricity from a solar energy farm to your home, or in your cell phone, or in the sky driving an as yet not invented machine.

Three more Nobel Laureate Plenary Lectures are to come and sure to be awesome.

…kevin eduard hauser



Part I: How we understand life and climate change has changed, but have we?

At the Lindau Meeting, Nobel Laureates’ lectures have been a lot about the deepest principles of the science that won the Nobel Prizes. In the old but immaculately maintained lecture hall, whose walls have heard the voices of great scientists for decades, I experienced history happening. These are the people who actually changed the world we live in – for the better! So deep and profound an impact on mankind by these men and one woman (an entirely different but profound issue for another yet important day) that their once-new knowledge is now, well, mundanely obviously socially common knowledge.

Awesome.

In this hall I have come to realize my own story on this little blue planet can be an important one. As I myself research the basic principles of how DNA actually works, Professor Werner Arber delivered his lecture, “Cultural values of scientific endeavors,” where I relearned the history of the knowledge that DNA is the code of life. Somehow this was different; hearing the story from Nobel Laureate Arber at the Lindau Meeting with the incredible ensemble of people from around the world with me.

Professor Arber retold the experiment of Avery MacLeod and McCarty in the 1940s that showed DNA was the code of life, not proteins. The experiments that led to this one are largely less appreciated by society as the key step towards our current futuristic state of science and medicine. I reckon it’s the job of my peers and me to be the tellers of the history of science while remaining its sentinels.



1995 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Mario Molina presented next. He along with Paul J. Crutzen and F. Sherwood Rowland won the prize,
…for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.” –Nobel Foundation 1995

Climate change is real, climate change is serious, and climate change is fixable; if we care to fix it. If we don’t, our lifestyles, our way of life, and the lively state of our planet will perish. We have the technology to fix this potential global catastrophe. Unfortunately, a minute minority of people with great power do not share my view.

A twenty percent probability that sea levels will rise so high that nations and economies will crumble, is twenty percent higher than what I’m Ok with: zero. For only a zero percent probability do we do nothing. Anything above ZERO — well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s go time.

This is an awesome moment in the history of the world.

Let’s do this.


…kevin eduard hauser