Thursday, January 17, 2008

Portrait of a scientist

Judah Folkman's passing this week was a sad event. I got to hear the great man speak -- at Millennium's spectacular internal seminar series 'Innovators in Medicine' -- and he was great -- inspiring, friendly, insightful. He will be missed.

Folkman was well known for having enduring brutal ridicule around his angiogenesis hypothesis. In his talk, he mentioned that he kept a room at his lab wallpapered with the years of rejection notices for grant applications and journal submission, using it to remind his students and staff that such difficulties could be overcome. One of the obits even published the crack that angiogenic factors exist 'only in the mind of the principal investigator'.

It was good to see the Globe reprint, although buried inside a section (the lead on the obituary did make the bottom of the front page) a wonderful portrait of Folkman. I don't know how long the article will remain free, but a smaller image shows up with the search. Folkman is shown framed by a lab bench with a face mixing weariness and thought. He did have quite a face! Not a movie star face, but one rich in features and details.

It isn't easy to think of good scientific portraits. Most departmental shots are straight formal shots, if not near mugshots. A few sterotyped poses predominate: for example, googling on Folkman yields some standards: hand on chin thoughtful, looking up from a microscope, teaching in front of a blackboard, listening to a colleague.

One classic is the shot of Watson & Crick with their model, though the photographer had Crick point with a slide rule, a tool utterly alien to the work. Any favorites out there? What are the best photos which illustrate the character and nature of a scientist?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Watching the returns

I'm probably going to stay up later than I should tonight watching the returns. Yep, I'm a junkie for the stuff -- it's just so exciting seeing history being made. The multitude have spoken, and now it is just time to watch.

However, I don't mean paying attention to my ex-governor and former first lady in a bipartite Midwestern state. I was a serious political junkie as a youth, but that has cooled -- not that it isn't important. No, these are the really important returns: new sequence data.

I've been involved with one project here for a long time, with a leading role. The project has been interesting -- as in the bittersweet toast "May you live in interesting times". Ups & downs, trials & tribulations, lights at the ends of tunnels that turned out to be oncoming freights. All sorts of traps I laid for myself & walked into.

But now, after all that, the thing is actually WORKING! Well, maybe. 'Cause the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is made of BigDye. In Sanger we trust.

So, I have my little database query set up & every so often I ping for an update. Now, the great sequencing system runs autonomously & in batches, and I don't have the wherewithal from home to see where each of my precious plates is in the stacker (the only sure way is to examine the apparatus & we don't have a webcam installed), so an element of suspense is present. I know how many reads were called up for each clone, so I'll know when it's done.

So I sit here, trying to resist pinging again. It's unlikely that another plate has loaded & processed since the last ping. Just hold out one more minute. NOW! Nope, no new data. I can wait. Sure I can. Just another minute...