What “big questions” are you pursuing now in your lab?
In the end what has continuously interested me is tool-making. I just like tools. I’ve always liked them and have the general feeling that tools enable things. The most exciting thing for me at the moment, and one thing I would like to do before I’m done is we’re trying to make a molecular microscope for the cell. The cell is a complex affair. It’s got lots of moving parts, and it’s very dynamic and microscopic so it’s tough, but there are lots of tools you can use. We’re trying to come up with an integrated way to get in effect a 4D microscope that can work at all scales. From the scale of the cell down to angstroms. That’s one of the sorts of dreams…You’ve got to dream in this thing.
Mass spectrometry for us is good and it’s come a long way. When I started you couldn’t even measure arginine. It was too polar. So, things have come along beautifully, and we’ve been along on this ride, this amazing adventure. Even today, these fantastic devices are still ridiculously inefficient. The biggest problem is you do everything sequentially. You do a scan and look at everything that is there, determine what is going to be interesting, then do MS/MS. It’s all sequential. We have a dream that we could go massively parallel. Parallelizing is really what propelled forward the fields of DNA sequencing and computing. We think that you should do the same thing with mass spectrometry. If you could look at everything and not waste any of the ions, you could greatly increase sensitivity. Who knows, maybe one day we’d get as good as genomics. Anyways, that’s a couple of things that get me up in the morning
What inspired you to pursue science? Have you always wanted to be a scientist?
This made me think back a bit. I realized I was always sort of interested in science, but I was interested in virtually everything. I thought at one time it would be nice to become an architect. My mother was an architect although, she was mainly an artist. I really got great advice from my mom. She was pretty wise and she knew me well. The advice she gave me was to really thin about becoming an architect, because she knew that the big part of it, the business side of things, would be very counter to what I was thinking about, and I’d be pretty unhappy. I took her advice, and I went into natural sciences. I wasn’t top student. I did ok. Only the year after my BSc, during my honors degree, did things start firing a bit. We did projects, and I started building stuff and researching stuff and I found I could do a little better. I was ready to quit to go look for a job, but I had made a couple of things in that last year of university, and the nuclear physics professor mut have seen something that I didn’t see because he encouraged me to think about doing a masters. Along came a guy named Udo von Wimmersperg who was a completely inspiring guy. He got me totally interested in his project, and this got me into physics and doing a graduate degree. The crazy thing was, he went off to England to do some work, and he never came back. My girlfriend was doing a year in London and decided not to come back, so I wrote and got a graduate position at Oxford, and I did my PhD there. The only rule I’ve really learned is it’s not a straight line. You find little things deflect you. And sometimes things go quite badly and you think it’s terrible but in the long run it works out quite well.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced during your time in science?
I don’t think I’m different from anybody. I think we all sort of get frustrated by the slow pace. Sometimes things go very slowly and you meet mountains but that’s the nature of the thing. The answer to that in a way is to believe in yourself and what you’re doing because quite often other people don’t know what you’re doing or understand or appreciate what you’re up to. There were times when I’d done something fairly nice, and people said “so what?” We had built a first kind of machine, a time-of-flight device to measure things like biomolecules, and it was really quite nice. But no one truly appreciated it. In fact, we couldn’t get funding, so I had to leave. There was a professor in New York trying to do the same thing and was struggling a bit, and I had already done it. So, I came to do it again, and I never left. I came here for one year just because the bottom had fallen out and I stayed for 44 years. Somehow it worked out. You’ve got to have faith in yourself at least.
How do you enjoy spending your free time outside of lab?
I have almost infinite interests. I climb, I ocean kayak, in fact I’ll take any excuse to get to where the land meets the sea. I love the edge of the sea. I always have. I do quite a bit of photography. Mostly I realized, I’m not terribly worried that they are prize winning photographs. I’m more using it more as an excuse just to hang out and look at stuff whether that’s birds, insects, or water.
Do you have any advice for scientists just starting out in their careers?
For me, the advice I gave myself was to choose the path that really excited me. And I’d say that’s not a bad rule. The path that excites you may not look like the path to security, but it does get you up every morning with a bit of anticipation and excitement. That seems terribly important to. There’s going to be tough stuff and you’ve got to deal with it, and to me, the way you deal with it is to be excited about something. I give that advice with trepidation because I know that no everyone will be as lucky as I have been somehow. Things have really worked out. The bottom fell out in my postdoc in Canada but the position opened up in New York, following my passions along the way. It wasn’t always easy. There were tough times which is sort of part of the excitement in a way.
How do you see the scientific landscape in 10 years?
Predicting things is tough. The one sort of theme that comes up in what most people are studying is one of complexity. These are quite complex systems, but you kind of have faith that under this complexity there are nice uniform principles. Maybe this is true maybe it isn’t. I don’t know, but you get these complex systems and these amazing emergent properties evolve. Take the 2 of us talking together. We’re essentially just a bunch of cells sitting here talking. I really think in the near future a deeper understanding of these complex systems will emerge. I am not one of those people who thinks that science is done. I really think there are vast amounts of interesting things to do. I think it’s a really exciting time for science. Tools have gotten much better and are getting better at a terrific rate. I think there’s a bright future for science, and we desperately need more understanding and good science to get this planet through the strains and stresses. I’d encourage people to go into science.
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- Caroline Brown