Sunday, February 24, 2013

Science or Art?

Two days ago, one of my graduate students posted this in our data blog. It looked pretty impressive and really got my attention. This simple array of green bands tells a pretty complex story. On one hand, it tells the sequence of a region of DNA. It does so by producing a small fragment of DNA that ends when a dideoxynucfleotide is incorporated by DNA polymerase,  therefore preventing the incorporation of any other nucleotide in the DNA. There are four lanes for each DNA segment, one for each nucleotide, and when you combine the four lanes you get the full sequence of that segment of DNA. The big green bands are PCR products. The other story told by this picture is the one I like the most: the story of the graduate student who one day indicated his interest in studying one very complex process that was likely to be taking place during influenza infection. He chose to study the effect of SUMO on the viral RNA polymerase. And during the execution of those studies, he has faced the need to develop new experimental approaches, including the one represented in this figure. So, this figure shows the persistence and resourcefulness of a graduate student who hasn't given up, who has persisted, and who now is finally set to start collecting data that will reveal, for the first time in human history, to what degree the cellular SUMOylation system affects the activity of the viral RNA-dependent RNA-polymerase. That second story is one that I'm proud to say is possible in my laboratory. And that second story is likely to open up unforeseen paths of subsequent exploration for my lab, and unexpected possibilities for the student responsible for the discoveries to follow.
The data shown is beautiful. Not only because of the harmony of the colors and their distribution in space, but most importantly because of the stories it tells. Science and art  converge frequently in unexpected ways. I am frequently awed by both. One of the greatest things about directing a lab is to know that you are providing the environment where human creativity and scientific exploration converge to foster human knowledge and human lives. From this perspective, a lab is a place where you can generate data that may change the way we treat and combat disease. But it is also the place where the careers of the new generation of scientists get started. And it is a pleasure and an honor to be a part of both processes.
Overall mood: highly optimistic, looking forward for the data to follow.
Forecast: my student will sometime soon post the actual data that follows the standardization presented in this image and we'll have a good excuse to have another party.


  1. What's dideoxynucfleotide :P This data looks awesome!

  2. It's what you get when you cross a dideoxynucleotide with an over-worked assistant professor who is overdosed on Colombian coffee :)