Terra Sigillata

So, as a Sb newbie, I’m just figuring out the scheduling around here and saw that tomorrow’s new ‘Ask A ScienceBlogger’ question has already been posted. Hence, I figured I should probably answer last week’s question:

Assuming that time and money were not obstacles, what area of scientific research, outside of your own discipline, would you most like to explore? Why?

My SiBlings all took different approaches on this one, with some finding it a poor question because we already probably put a lot of thought into what we’re working on now and stay in that area because we love it so much.

I took the question a little differently since it came from a reader. I felt that the reader’s intention was to ask us what research areas we find exciting knowing what we know now.

So, if I had to leave cancer research, I’d probably work on some aspect of infectious diseases and public health. When I was in school, I never quite understood all of the excitement about this transcription factor from that virus, etc. But what I’ve learned is that viruses and bacteria learn how to hijack our most important machinery and overcome the immune system. I also feel that much more can be done therapeutically for infectious diseases than for some types of cancer, although many infectious diseases are fatal. But my bottom line is that having read books by Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague, Betrayal of Trust) as leisure reading, I’ve become fascinated with bacterial, fungal, and viral infections. Studying these organisms not only shows us neat tricks about how they manage, say, with a RNA-only genome, but their interaction with our host processes can be so revealing about how we work.

I’ll go a little astray here and add that I wish I had a little more broad expertise in my research area. First, I would like to know more about chemistry and, in particular, synthetic organic chemistry. As a pharmacologist, 90% of the drugs we use therapeutically and experimentally are small organic molecules, not peptides or proteins (although the proportion of the latter is growing rapidly). If you read about an interesting molecule, you can’t just order primers and PCR it up. Instead, you have to find a way to get it or have it made.

I recently reviewed a postdoctoral grant proposal for a molecular biology project in cancer. The mentor had some chemistry experience and noted that he/she would teach the fellow some basic synthetic chemistry for some compounds that are in public domain, but difficult to procure. The aim was not to make the fellow a synthetic chemist but to give an appreciation for the fact that biologists should have the wherewithal to do some simple organic chemistry. In doing so, the fellow would also learn some mass spectrometry and NMR spectroscopy. A great training program, I thought.

Another area I’d learn more about is the amorphous thing called bioinformatics. I’m not enamored with huge computational capacity like people were with molecular biology when I was training originally. I view bioinformatics as a powerful tool and a powerful hypothesis-generator. Take a look at the work of Arul Chinnaiyan at the University of Michigan to get an idea of how bioinformatics can be best applied to the study of human cancer. His group has used microarrays and proteomics on human tissues to reveal new causatic biomarkers in prostate and breast cancer. But where he is different than the average computer jock is that he takes the information and applies it to the mechanistic study of cancer.

I’d also like to learn more about bioinformatics to simply learn how not to be taken for a ride by those selling the technology, whether it is someone from a company, or an internal investigative group competing for limited institutional funds. What can it really deliver and how much is hype?

I hope to get to this week’s question over the weekend.