Practicing the art of science

July 08, 2004, vol. 30, no. 6
By Howard Fluxgold

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Assistant chemistry professor David Vocadlo initially wanted to become an architect. Instead, he decided to study science because “science allows for that creative aspect - that is the fun part of science.

“There is also the excitement of discovery and the opportunity to make lasting fundamental contributions that drew me to science.”

Vocadlo joined the chemistry department in March as a tier 2 Canada Research Chair coming from the University of California at Berkeley where he was a postdoctoral fellow. He also holds a chair in proteomics in the Protein Engineering networks of centres of excellence (PENCE).

Vocadlo studies the interaction and modification of proteins. “Proteins are products of genes. I am looking at how a certain set of proteins interact and are modified and how, in turn, those modifications affect protein behaviour,” he explains. “I'm interested in one particular set of modifications in which a sugar is added onto particular proteins.” This research is particularly relevant to understanding diabetes.

“If your body isn't responding in the appropriate manner to these modifications, problems can occur that can result in diabetes,” say Vocadlo, who earned his doctorate at UBC.

When he isn't studying proteins, Vocadlo, an avid rock climber, finds relaxation hanging from a rock face or producing acrylic paintings. Not at the same time of course.

“I love the outdoors and I love to paint. I do impressionist landscapes in acrylics,” he notes. “I find it really relaxing. It's very meditative because you can't think of anything else. You can only think about what you are doing.”

It's obvious that Vocadlo feels fortunate to be a scientist rather than a struggling artist.

“In science there is so much room for making contributions to which society attributes high value, whereas emerging artists have a hard time. I feel badly about how artists are treated because art is something that is extremely important for society.”

In the meantime, Vocadlo strives to make beautiful contributions to the body of scientific literature - what he calls “probably one of the greatest endeavours that humans have undertaken. The whole body of scientific literature is something that has been established by a process of peer review and publications. It is a tremendous implicit international agreement on how scientific results are accepted, governing what constitutes an advance and what is worthy of entering into the body of scientific literature.”

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