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