Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan, PhD
protein folding and stability
Ann Arbor, Michigan (briefly)

Tottered on: 4 September 2010
Temperature: 61F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: porch deck
Wind: WNW at 15 mph

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TT with HD: Gareth Morgan

[Ed. note: Part of the conversation below cocerns the Dec. 11, 2009 edition of the scientific journal Molecular Cell, which includes an article called "Optimizing Protein Stability In Vivo."

The edition of the journal Nature, mentioned int he conversation can be found here: Nature.

And the online protein folding game mentioned in the conversation can be found here: FoldIt.]

HD: Okay ready to go? Just to stress sort of the ground rules, this is not a competition.

GM: Um hm.

HD: Alright?

GM: Okay.

HD: So you've been here for one week, this past week you were here in Ann Arbor?

GM: Two weeks.

HD: Two weeks, okay. So you're leaving today but you're coming back in October?

GM: For probably a month or so, yeah.

HD: So is there some sense in which this trip now is sort of a reconnaissance mission, just to get the lay of the land?

GM: Yeah, certainly in terms of paperwork. I've been attempting to get all of my immigration stuff and get contracts set up ... so that hopefully I won't have to worry about that next time.

HD: So you didn't get any real science done on this trip?

GM: We did something quite good, actually. Which meant that effectively, I've been working quite hard this week. I have been working with another postdoc in the lab. [Inaudible due to planes flying over pulling banners for UM football game day.]

HD: Was that unanticipated? Did it just happen to work out that you were able to get some research done or was that planned for?

GM: The idea was we'd try get something done, but it's one of those things where if everything works and with a bit of reasonable luck without something or other falling over.

HD: So you actually got got a result you could say, Now we know this thing.

GM: Yes. We got a preliminary result. We haven't analyzed the data yet. But the actual physical process of doing the experiment is done.

HD: Is it possible in like a sentence to summarize what you accomplished for a layman?

GM: It's a continuation of a lot of previous work. So what we've done is made a series of new enzymes. And what we've done in just the last two weeks is purify those enzymes and looked their activity and we've shown that they all have a similar kind of activity, which is what we wanted to see.

HD: So are you going to take these purified enzymes and use them to do something else with, or is it enough to know that you could make more anytime you wanted to?

GM: It's more to make sure that the other experiments that we've done with these systems that they work in the way that we think that they are working. So it's a control experiment. We've got a whole load load of results, and we want to check that what we've done is valid and behaving in the way we predict they're behaving.

HD: Is this the first time you've visited a U.S. lab?

GM: It's the first time working in a U.S. lab, yeah. I've visited a couple of of places, but it's the first time I've worked in one.

HD: Have you noticed any differences in actual equipment, gadgets, gizmos?

GM: Not really. There are definitely differences. The basic equipment is the same everywhere. We use the same pieces of equipment more or less, different models but the same manufacturers. There's as much variation between labs in my building in England as there is between England and here.

HD: So nothing shocking?

GM: No, no. Nothing equipment-wise. What is different are the various health and safety regulations, and the procedures for doing different things are different between the two places. So here I can drink a cup of coffee in the lab, which is absolutely banned in England.

HD: Really?

GM: Yeah.

HD: Is it rigorously enforced?

GM: Fairly rigorously, yeah. The health and safety culture in England is quite strong. Employers need to be seen to be doing everything they can to look after their employees and employees themselves have a duty to do things in the correct way ...

HD: ... so according to protocol. So there's some sense in which they don't want you drinking coffee in the lab because they're afraid that you might spill hot coffee on yourself and burn yourself??

GM: No, it's more that you might drop something in your coffee and poison yourself.

HD: Oh, okay!

GM: The idea behind the health and safety culture in England is to try to minimize any risk that is there and to remove it if possible. You want to try to minimize the opportunity that you'd do terrible things to yourself. It seems much more relaxed here in terms of what you can and can't do.

HD: On the culture level, then outside the lab, anything you noticed about Ann Arbor that you found shocking, stunning, or mildly different?

GM: I wouldn't say shocking. I didn't really have an idea of what Ann Arbor was like before I came. I visited two years ago and basically saw the lab and some bars and that's about it. So this summer I'm actually seeing a bit of the city and looking around a bit.

HD: Is there anything that you can think of that you found out during this visit where you think, Oh, now that I know that, I can make sure I bring my XYZ, when I return, or I don't need to bring that--anything in the way of planning for when you return?

GM: A little bit. The ideal thing to bring would be a car!

HD: A car??

GM: I've managed to survive without a car for two weeks more effectively than I thought I would do.

HD: Where have you been living?

GM: Out near the junction of Stadium and Washtenaw.

HD: Stadium and Washtenaw ...

GM: Near Trader Joe's.

HD: Oh, yeah.

GM: Everyone seems to know where Trader Joe's is!

HD: Yeah, yeah.

GM: It's out there, it's only two miles to the lab.

HD: So you've been covering that ...

GM: ... I get the bus in.

HD: One of the big U of M buses?

GM: No, just the regular ...

HD: ... so an AATA bus.

GM: And as I'm a member of the university, then it's free ...

HD: ... I think the AATA would stress that it's not free, it's just that you "don't pay a fare on boarding," they make a huge distinction there. There's an actual arrangement where the U of M pays the fares of its riders.

So it's game day today, did you encouter any of that in making your way over here?

GM: I noticed there were a bunch of people out. I didn't know it was game day. And so I've seen that there's a lot of people out wearing U of M shirts and things. And lots of blue and yellow shirts, but I haven't really registered that it was a game day. I've notice somewhere about the middle of this week, it got an awful lot busier in town, ...

HD: ... you have to sort of plan on game day, it's worth being aware of it, even if you don't care about it, so that you can navigate around it. So your flight out is not until much later, so you bugeted time for that?

GM: Um hm.

HD: One think I wanted to ask you--back to the science part--I looked up one of the papers you wrote with one of your collaborators here in the lab your working, it's you and the other lead other from what I gather, is Linda ...

GM: ... Linda Foit.

HD: And there's a footnote that tells people that, these are the lead authors and these authors' contribution was equal, actually it doesn't say you were the two lead authors, ...

GM: ... no, it just says we were equal.

HD: So I'm familiar with the convention of authors being listed in order of primacy, but I'd never seen a footnote like, that--but I'm not a scientist, so it's not like a read a lot of these papers.

GM: The important positions are first and last. The first authors is generally the junior scientist who's done the actual work. And the last author is the head of the lab, the principal investigator, the PI. So on that paper, me and Linda, we're joint first authors. And there are four or so names, or five or six names in the middle, they are various technicians and students who've had smaller input into it, and then the two names at the end, Jim [C.A. Bardwell] and Sheena [E. Radford], who are the two PIs--the two professors who've organized the course of research. Basically you're awarded advancement in science based on papers, you're basically judged on your research record and your publication record, and if your named first on the paper, that has more of an impact. So the more first-authored papers you have, the better. And so that's why the paper was split between the two of us, kind of a formal recognition that we both worked really hard.

HD: So that neither of you would have to explain to a future prospective employer that, Oh, for that paper really I was a first author, even though you can't tell.

GM: Yeah, that's the idea. And that one there was whole lot of genetic work, and more sort of chemistry work and that kind of split nicely between Linda and me. Modern science is inherently collaborative. With the kinds of things that we do, it's very difficult to do entirely in isolation. So there tend to be more and more names on papers.

HD: Have you seen a paper in, say the last decade, that had just a single name on it?

GM: I've seen one or two primary research papers like that. You get a lot of review papers that are written just by one person.

HD: So like a research summary.

GM: Yeah. But an actual primary research paper, there are very few. You do see them occasionally, but not very often. They're very much the exception.

HD: So speaking of collaboration, I downloaded this protein folding game, FoldIt.

GM: Oh yeah!

HD: And I wasted a good afternoon playing with it. I never got very good, because I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be doing. I would manipulate this thing and it would say, Hooray and extra 2,300 points, or it would subtract several thousand points. But my general understanding is that there's some sort of distributed network arrangement, where people are actually working on the problem of protein folding through some sort of game-like deal. So thinking about how to allocated credit, should a major breakthrough arise out of that ...

GM: ... that work was actually published a couple of weeks ago in Nature, which is one of the most respected science journals, and that was credited to the people in David Bakers's lab in Washington, who wrote the software and did all the research, but also in the list of authors it says FoldIt players, so they're specifically mentioned ...

HD: ... so this has already happened??

GM: Yeah. It's only last month. It's very timely actually, it was only last month. It was in early August when it was published, I think.

HD: Oh, so the issue has come up and it's been resolved.

GM: It's interesting when taking on something like the ... large Hadron collider ...

HD: ... the what??

GM: The large Hadron collider, the big Hadron collider in France, it's the giant atom smasher ...

HD: ... oh, I thought that was in Switzerland.

GM: I'm sorry, it's on the border between France and Switzerland, directly underneath the border. So that is such an enormous kit, that the effort of building it, has taken up the careers of an awful lot of people.

So some of the papers on that have several hundred authors listed on them. And at that point it becomes a little difficult. Certainly difficult to say who are the lead authors on that. But again, the people who are interested in these things tend to understand how the system works, so to say you're 740th author out of 1,200 on a paper about particle physics does actually mean something. You might have spent two years of your life working. But yeah, you do get credit for it.

HD: Listen, thanks for coming over and riding the teeter totter. I know that you guys call them see saws.

GM: [laugh] yeah! It took me a while to remember what they are, so when you said you had one I said Oh, I do know what it is.