Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Talking Nobel Prizes

I've always had an interest in the Nobel Prize, particularly in the field of Physiology/Medicine, Chemistry and Physics - probably due to my academic background. These awards have been made every year since 1901. Even polar explorer, Fridtjof Nansen (one of my favourite polar explorers), won a Nobel prize - Peace (in 1922).

The one thing that really gets me about the people who win the Nobel Prize, especially in the sciences (medicine/physiology, physics &chemistry; I'm conveniently ignoring literature and peace), is their commitment, dedication and single-minded focus to their subject - for decades!

Take this year's Medicine winners (Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak) for their work on the little bits of DNA (telomeres), that protects the ends of chromosomes, and the associated enzyme (telomerase).  Previous prize winners (1930 and 1984) had observed telomeres and theorised that they had a protective function.

Enter Blackburn, in the 1970's. She worked on mapping these DNA sequences, presenting her findings at a conference in 1980. And she continued from there (Greider was her graduate student; Szostak worked in a similar area - he and Blackburn collaborated).

Now, way more than 25 years after she got started in this field (she got her PhD in 1975), Blackburn's work, and that of her colleagues, is publically (in the most scientifically public way possible) acknowledged.

The Nobel Prize Chemistry winners (Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath) have had their PhDs for 35 - 45 years and you can be assured that for much of this time they've focused on the molecule that got them this award.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2009 awards studies of one of life's core processes: the ribosome's translation of DNA information into life. Ribosomes produce proteins, which in turn control the chemistry in all living organisms. As ribosomes are crucial to life, they are also a major target for new antibiotics.
Although the ribosome seems to fit more under medicine than chemistry, their work is more chemical in nature.

I can remember sitting in post-grad and departmental focus group meetings where profs would discuss things they've been studying and analysing for 20 or 30 years! I just knew that I couldn't do it. I like change and variety and instant gratification. To work on something for 30 years and MAYBE get results...

I think that's what I like about writing; I write an article, send it off and a month or two later it is out in full-colour print. Online event reporting (or blogging) is almost better - what I write is published immediately.

Some people like long races, others like short; some people like yellow, others like blue. Our preferences and focuses - personal, work, play - are different. And while I had little inclination, nor aptitude, to labour for 30 years in a lab, I'm glad that there are people who are not like me because their contributions to science, and to the World, are important and impactful.

No comments: