Chapter 11

Departmental Seminar

Dr. Gordon Taylor paced back and forth like a drill sergeant. "An additional ground rule that you entry-level students must know about the seminar which will soon take place: The weekly research seminar is the most important intellectual function in the Department. Every one of us, from the Chairman on down to the lowliest graduate student (ha! ha!) is expected to present at least once per year."

     This surprised some of us, and Dr. Taylor sensed it.

     "The seminar brings us all on the same intellectual level. Ha! Ha! Ha! We are not some big corporation where the underlings are expected to sit silently, nodding their heads meekly. You are all expected to take an active part."

     We must listen carefully to the seminar, he admonished. Lowly graduate students weren’t expected to understand as much as a post-doctoral fellow. An assistant professor might not give as good a seminar as an associate professor or full professor. He digressed, saying, "Post-docs are something like knights errant who have to move from one kingdom to another in search of a regular tenure-earning academic job." (Ha, ha, ha.)

     Then he glanced at his watch. "It is but five minutes to the hour and the knowledge-thirsty hordes are at the gates."

     He waved his hand in dismissal and opened the door. As members of the department streamed in, professor and lowly graduate student alike, I moved up to claim a seat in the front row. Taylor joked with Dr. Fleischman about "having conducted an indoctrination session."

     The seminar room seemed to shrink as it filled with over 40 people. Several faculty took places and spread out their lunches on a large table dominating the left side of the room.

     My front row was curiously empty, although people were standing in the back of the room. At Swarthmore, we used to compete for front-row seats. A student a row behind me said that the seminar would be given by "Dr. Cooper’s right-hand man."

     Dr. Mary Pennington, the designated mistress of ceremonies, sat at the table, talking to the speaker, Dr. Pang Wong. She often looked nervously toward the crowd, as if responsible for attendance. Around five minutes after the hour, she muttered something about waiting long enough, and she stepped up to the floor-standing lectern.

     "I am sure that Pang needs no introduction for most of us," she said, nodding in his direction. He nodded back nervously, as if waiting for a cue to get up.

     "But for the new students and visitors, Dr. Wong came to us three years ago to work in Dr. Cooper’s lab. He received his Bachelor of Medicine at Taipei University in Taiwan, his Ph.D. at the University of California, San Francisco, working on parvalbumin structure, and after several years of post-doc’ing with Saul Goldfarb at Berkeley, he came here as a research assistant professor."

     She seemed to be asking the audience for approval as she searched nervously from face to face, nodding her head as she mentioned Saul Goldfarb, as if this would somehow strike a chord of agreement among us all.

     Looking down at a piece of paper, she said, "The title of Pang’s talk is ‘Molecular Genetic Studies of a New Calcium-Binding Protein from Barnacle Muscle’."

     She nodded to him, and he approached the lectern somewhat nervously, carrying a sheath of notes. Once behind the lectern, he glanced at the audience and touched his face.

     "Today . . . I am going to talk to you about chimera-construct experiments which we did on the protein ‘Calbarn’ in barnacle muscle," he read, his face buried in his notes. "As you know, this is a new calcium-binding protein with unknown function discovered in Dr. Cooper’s lab. These experiments were done in collaboration with Dr. Cooper, who was tragically lost to us a few weeks ago."

     Someone coughed in the back of the room. I sensed that people were reacting, but couldn’t turn my head to see. It was a bad mistake, not sitting farther back. What had Ashton done? These rapid, knee-jerk reactions could tell the whole story. Who nodded in agreement? Who raised an eyebrow? And who coughed?

     Wong attempted some extemporaneous words on Cooper’s work, and his presentation got weaker by the second, until he was holding onto the lectern like a life raft. Stiffly, he read long, complicated sentences, apparently lifted verbatim from the introduction of a scientific paper describing the molecule "Calbarn" from the barnacle muscle. His mispronunciation, mumbling and monotone flatness made it difficult to understand anything. I couldn’t have been the only person in the room who was embarrassed for him.

     "Can I have first slide?"

     Someone flicked on a 35-millimeter slide projector in the back of the room. Dr. Wong picked up a hand-held controller hanging by its cable from the lectern and punched the button. The screen lit up with one of those twisted-ribbon diagrams like what Dr. Kozinski showed us for hemoglobin. Wong showed us a ribbon structure with "five alpha helices" connected by four large loops and showed us where he thought calcium binds. When calcium binds, it is supposed to change the shape on the other side of the molecule so that it can activate different enzymes. He wasn’t clear about which enzymes were activated.

     "The evidence for this is still controversial," he said.

     He told us that the Calbarn from rabbit differs in "amino acid sequence" from barnacle Calbarn. He described experiments where he took Calbarn from the rabbit aorta and put it into barnacle muscle. And rabbit protein worked only half as well in barnacle. This was his test system.

     Then he played around, redesigning the rabbit and barnacle proteins, constructing Calbarn "chimeras" using molecular genetic tricks. After the seminar, I looked up the word chimera. It is the mythical she-monster of Greek mythology with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a snake’s tail. Biochemistry has a lot of snobby types like Westley who pride themselves on their classical education. Anyway, Wong had created a lot of monster Calbarn’s by grafting barnacle "heads" onto rabbit "tails."

     It was fascinating that big complicated molecules like this could be designed at will. I didn’t understand the technology, but it involved cutting and splicing the genes, and tricking bacterial cells into manufacturing the proteins. I recalled Margaret’s words: "It’s all so strangely wonderful." It was as strange and wonderful as cutting off the rear end of a horse and attaching it to the front end of a giraffe and testing how good it could run and eat leaves from trees. Wong made and tested 15 chimera hybrids.

     Ten minutes into the chimera stuff and Dr. Grant Johnson’s hand went up in the air.

     "You mean that you have only a factor of two difference in the activity of the barnacle and rabbit proteins?" he asked.

     "Yes, we have twofold difference," Wong answered.

     "Jees!" exclaimed Johnson in disbelief. His eyes shot to the ceiling and then slowly descended to the floor. Wong tried to go on but was immediately interrupted by Dr. Taylor, who was sitting close behind me.

     "I am not clear as to whether you are attributing this modest difference in activity to the calcium-binding site or to the protein-binding site."

     "We do not know at this point. We need further experiments," answered Wong.

     "It would seem to be more a question of which experiments than how many," Dr. Taylor persisted. Then he scathed Wong in one long, eloquent, seamless pronouncement, characterizing the hybridization process as "painfully tedious" and decrying Wong’s lack of "pivotal experiments." Dr. Westley would have been proud of his compatriot’s use of the Queen’s English. It was a blistering condemnation that translated roughly to "Your experiments were a fool’s errand."

     Dr. Wong defended himself recalcitrantly, citing Saul Goldfarb’s work as evidence. Dr. Taylor turned red in the face and growled, "That is just Goldfarb’s deduction of the probable calcium binding site, based on loose analogies with other proteins. You should have tested for differences in calcium binding first." So Goldfarb was just guessing.

     Dr. Wong defended himself stubbornly. Livid-faced and halfway out of his seat, Dr. Taylor renewed his scathing attack. He practically shouted when he came to phrases like "to a very modest degree." He ended saying, "Your experiments do not tell us anything more about Calbarn than we already knew. In fact, they raise more questions than they answer."

     "But isn’t that what scientific research supposed to do?" Wong’s rejoiner brought general laughter from the audience — students, post-docs and faculty alike.


     The answer was as cold as it was emphatic. During the last two exchanges, I had moved a couple of seats closer to the wall so I could look at people behind me without being too obvious.

     Pointing a finger at me, Stampawicz delivered a quip for all to hear. "Looks like an innocent bystander is trying to get out of the line of fire." The audience erupted in laughter.

     "Don’t shoot me, I’m only the graduate student," I answered cutely. This brought more laughter.

     Taylor was not amused by either of us. He drew in a deep breath and said, "As I have said before in this room, I find it ludicrous to be attempting such a roundabout proof when simple classical binding-and-activation studies would prove the point." Translation: You should have done the simpler experiment, you dumb klutz.

     Now I could see. Ashton, sitting in the back, seemed aloof. Kozinski, sitting in the middle, glanced from Taylor to Wong and back, with a look that said, "Let’s not have any more trouble." On the sidelines, Dr. Fleischman smiled as if to say "I told you so."

     As Taylor and Wong launched into another round of argument, Acting Chairman Peter Moore cleared his throat and announced, "Further discussion can be carried out later."

     Wong presented a few more inconclusive experiments, ended his seminar and received five seconds of lukewarm applause. Robert Sturtz and Robert Gunnison each asked a polite technical question about the molecular genetic techniques. Then Dr. Pennington announced the end of the session.

     My next session — ten times as exciting — started without warning a couple minutes later.

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