What got you into doing this research?
It is amazing to me that life exists at all. It’s even more amazing that our lifespans are 80 years or so. I have always been fascinated by the complexity of our bodies, and that they most often work well for so many years. That complexity extends to most other forms of life, at least life as we know it. I find it astonishing that we humans are not so different from animals much “simpler” than us. Really, it’s the other way around; animals we consider to be much simpler are just as complex as we are, especially when we look at them at a microscopic level. Animals like jellyfish, squid, salmon, slugs and frogs for example have many of the same proteins we do, and that tells us something important about how very well those proteins work. And how badly things can turn out when the proteins don’t work as they should. This fascination led me to study some important proteins – ones that allow us (and other animals) to think, move, and pump blood.
Why is it important?
Without meaning to sound too grandiose, our work is important because it may save lives. When proteins aren’t made the way they are supposed to, they don’t work the way they’re supposed to, and – depending on the protein – that may be life threatening. We study changes in proteins and try to understand what might trigger one of these proteins to malfunction in ways that cause sickness, disease, and – in too many cases –death.
What do you love about it?
I love what we do because I feel like we are seeking answers about the nature of life. What makes our bodies work the way they do? And, when they don’t work the way they are supposed to, why? Those are the questions we try to answer. We are trying to solve one little piece of the puzzle. I also love what we do because it is such a big team effort. Many scientists all over the world are trying to solve different pieces of the puzzle of life. It’s a big community of scientists, working together (and sometimes racing each other), trying to solve these problems. Some of the best times are when we get together at conferences or workshops and share our stories. I also love to lure new students into science. I feel like I’m sharing a big secret with them, passing along to them the key that will unlock the mystery of life.
Any other stories?
Sometimes one chance meeting can change your life. I met one of the teachers who influenced mine in a strange and wonderful way. It happened at a workshop on an island off the coast of California. This guy came to talk about his research and I thought he was very cool so I invited him to go for a boat ride and a swim in the ocean at night. When you swim in the ocean at night, you often see bioluminescence – light emitted by tiny animals when they are disturbed. When we swam that night, it was like our bodies were lit up with Christmas lights, like a scene from the movie Avatar. A few years later, when we worked together, we used the fluorescent, light-producing proteins from those tiny animals as a tool in our experiments. Who knew that swimming in a sea of light could lead to scientific discoveries and, most importantly, a friendship that has lasted for almost 40 years! That, in a nutshell, is what science is all about.