Bringing Structure to Biology
Laughing out loud with Stephen Curry
Structural biologist and Guardian blogger Stephen Curry visited EMBL-EBI to inspire our scientists and engineers to get writing. PDBe’s Maya Holmdahl reports.
On 19 April 2016, structural biologist and Guardian writer Stephen Curry visited EMBL-EBI to give a talk entitled, “On being a well-rounded scientist - LOL!” Sharing his own experiences of being a working scientist, teacher and science advocate, he acknowledged that writing about structural biology is no walk in the park, but encouraged the audience to give blogging/vlogging a try, without putting up barriers.
“Writing about neuroscience is easy, because everyone has a brain and they think they might get it. Writing about structural biology is difficult because, well, everyone has proteins and they all have structures, but it’s not quite the same,” he said. “There is nothing in people's everyday life that gives them any kind of connection to what is happening on the molecular level. But you can always talk about viruses because everybody has the experience of being sick. To know that this is caused by huge molecular actors and in your body, that’s fascinating to people.”
Stephen started writing a blog because he had something to share, and felt compelled to write about it. He didn’t make any promises that he would write every week, or start branching out into video and public-engagement activities like I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here. But he did.
“I put a disclaimer on the front page, just to make sure no one thought I’d be doing this on a regular basis.”
He recalled how his colleagues conveyed their distain for his blogging but, inevitably, began to take it up themselves – some believing that no one would notice. In fact, there is plenty of interest out there, and plenty of readers. But more scientists need to start writing in an engaging, comprehensible way about their work.
“Writing about science, making short videos about what you’re doing – it’s very worthwhile and, if it’s for you, can be immensely satisfying,” he said. Stephen started by writing a blog post or two in 2008, joined a high-profile blogging network and eventually became a regular writer for Occam's Corner on The Guardian website.
Open access and career advancement
Stephen’s talk touched on the role of scientific journals in communicating research, raising important issues relating to open access, credit and career advancement.
“The title of a journal has nothing to do with how good the research is,” he said, echoing a popular sentiment on the Genome Campus. “If a paper is good, people should be able to read it and use that knowledge – no matter what journal it’s in.”
Although open access is a complex matter, he posited, there is every reason for life scientists to embrace pre-prints in order to keep research moving.
“These days publication has two purposes: to present your work, and to earn career points to keep getting funded and promoted. So people sometimes delay publishing their article just in case they have a shot at having it accepted in a journal with a high Impact Factor. And Impact Factors are pretty much meaningless – an average of citations that are not even reported. Open citations are one way forward. I would wish for the journals to publish all the data, exactly like journalists are required to do.”
UK science and the EU
Speaking with me over a cup of coffee, Stephen shared his views on the international nature of Science, answering questions about the UK’s position in the EU.
“At first I thought I’d stay right out of it,” Stephen said, shaking his head. “But I just couldn’t stand it, hearing the really poor reasoning being put forward for leaving. The great thing about Europe is that it brings people together and facilitates collaboration between multiple scientists in a much more effective way than working with scientists from nations outside the union. A two-part collaboration between the UK and the US is easy, but when it comes to joining forces with more countries it starts to get complicated. To bring together funding for a multinational collaboration is very hard. You need to synchronise all the applications, and all of them need to be successful. In the European Union everybody puts money in the pot and then everybody can get together and apply.”
Research: inspiration for Stephen’s next Genome Campus talk
Stephen is a professor at Imperial College London, and runs a research group that works on RNA replication in viruses.
“I’ve been working on the foot and mouth disease virus since the 1990s,” he explains. “You couldn’t work on the whole particle because it would be too dangerous, so we were working with host cell proteins that interact with the virus. Now we’re more interested in the proteins themselves, for example the 3C protease and the 2C putative helicase.”
Over the past decade his group has also worked on the norovirus. They use X-ray crystallography to determine protein structures, but when crystallisation is not possible they use NMR or sometimes EM.
“It’s actually not a bad area to be working in if you want to communicate about it to people outside of science, because the vast majority have gone through the agony of the winter vomiting bug,” he says.
In addition to running a research group, Stephen is passionate about highlighting the role of science in society, and about the political responsibilities that come with being a scientist. He is enthusiastic about public engagement and in 2014 was awarded the Peter Wildy Prize for his work on Microbial Education.
Want to read or hear more from Stephen?
You can also hear Stephen on Alok Jha’s BBC radio broadcast, “Saving science from the scientists”, in which EMBL-EBI Director Ewan Birney also featured.
Pictured here: Matthew Conroy, who kindly arranged the visit, with Stephen Curry and Maya Holmdahl in front of Stephen’s structure of Human poliovirus 1 Mahoney, in PDBe.