Thursday, October 27, 2011

Remembering Fred Richards

Fred Richards, eminent protein biochemist, founder chair of the department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry (and later Sterling Professor Emeritus) at Yale was always bustling about in his office or lab. - at least this is how I remember him from my days as a graduate student. I was fortunate to work for a short while in the lab. adjoining his (headed by one of his former students) and to meet and interact with members of his lab. during this period. From time to time, memories of Fred fill my mind for the way he did science and the person that he was.

When I think of Fred, I always feel motivated and delighted by his ideas. He had an incredible, far-seeing mind, a knack of observing people and summing up situations in his frank and pleasantly energetic way. Today I was happy to lay my hands on an article of his that I had been looking for. Titled 'Whatever Happened to the Fun? An Autobiographical Investigation', it is written (not surprisingly) in 'Fred style' and was published when he was about 75 and still hard at work (reference: Annu. Rev. Biophys. Biomol. Struct. 1997.26:1-25).

The article is of general interest even though it is filled with scientific recollection because it also addresses pertinent issues faced by many of us in our varied professions. It discusses changing situations, polices, options and ends as it began - with a question. Asking questions was second nature to Fred - and the search for answers led him and his lab. to many wonderful discoveries in the field of protein structure, folding and packing, and how to view or measure aspects of these. I quote below a few (less technical) excerpts that I particularly enjoyed:

".. The following is the log of a day in the life of a typical 35-year old faculty member at one of today's research universities:

0730-breakfast meeting of the Committee on Revision of the Graduate Preliminary Examination; 0900-give today's lecture in the beginning course for premeds; 0950-put off student questions after the lecture because...; 1000-meeting of the Building Committee to discuss the color for repainting the 4th floor hall; 1100-meet with today's departmental seminar speaker to tell her all the wonderful things that "you" are doing in your laboratory; 1130-explain to your starting graduate student that you would like to discuss his thesis proposal, but that today is the deadline for a letter of recommendation for one of your other students who is applying for a postdoctoral fellowship; 1200-emergency Departmental lunch meeting to decide how to respond to a claim by unannounced EPA inspectors that a waste bottle for organic solvents in your hood was not stoppered; 1330-missed an appointment with a potential postdoc previously arranged for 1300, use the unexpected 30 minutes to scan and reply to your E mail; 1400-meeting of the University Junior Appointments Committee in the Humanities (you are the token scientist); 1530-call from the Provost asking you to serve on an Ad Hoc Committee to examine the claims of fudged data by a whistle blower; 1545-start the rewrite of a grant request that had already received rave reviews but got a priority of 1.28, which was .02 below the payline for this round; 1630-attend Departmental seminar; 1745-call your spouse and explain that Bill W. had called in sick and you had been asked to stand in at dinner for the seminar speaker-yes you remember that it is "concert night" but can't someone else go in your place-after all you just have to tend out.

This may seem a little exaggerated, but not by much. Is this really what research is all about, what you were trained for and looked forward to doing with your life? Where is the fun and excitement of discovery? Or, God forbid, is this the new definition of "fun"?

... This decision (to become a chemist) started with a Christmas toy, a chemistry set, when I was 10. At that time chemistry sets were allowed to actually do something; smoke, smells, even the occasional explosion, and always the possibilty of getting sick if you ate out of the wrong bottle. In other words, fun; no "consumer protection."

.. High school years were spent at Phillips Exeter Academy. The excellent science department even permitted certain students the unsupervised run of the laboratories outside of class hours. This attitude played a strong role for my roommate John King (destined to be a physicist) and me in cementing our commitment to scientific careers. (I believe that no such access would be permitted today in any school owing to fear of legal actions.) We learned many useful trades at that time with Strong's text on Procedures in Experimental Physics as a major resource: glassblowing to the level of a two-stage mercury diffusion pump, a differential thermometer to clock the hours of sunlight, an attempt to measure the universal gravitational constant. For the latter we made a torsion pendulum with a 20-min period in a vacuum chamber, and we used 100-pound cannonballs borrowed from the village green as moveable weights. This particular project was unsuccessful but very educational!

..After receiving a PhD, I spent an additional year working directly with Edwin Cohn. I did some team teaching with Frank Gurd in the first year of the then-new, all encompassing Medical Science program for first-year medical students. To indicate other applications for his protein separation procedures Cohn arranged that I share a stage in the auditorium of the Boston Museum of Science with a farmer and a cow. The latter was attached to a milking machine, which was attached to a milk separator, which fed the whey into a precipitation chamber, which transferred the suspended precipitate to a centrifuge, which delivered the dissolved precipitate to the automatic machinery developed for protein fractionation of blood plasma. I was supposed to explain to the lay audience what was going on! Both were interesting "experiences"!

..At this time in a career, the standard academic procedure takes hold; responsibilities pile up. Research is soon done only by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. My group has been run in the "disorganized mode." Each individual has usually ended up doing what they wanted, but with no particular relation or coordination between the different projects. For grant purposes, of course, we have written up the applications as though they there were one or more clearly achievable goals and a logical set of experiments by which to obtain the necessary data. The title of the grant was very general and has not changed in 35 years: "Study of Proteins in Solution, Interfaces and Solids."

..In the early 1970s I was called for jury duty in New Haven. This citizenly chore turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In each court case either the prosecution or the defense did not want an academic on the jury. Thus for two or three months I spent each day in the jury room with no phone or other disturbance. This time permitted the rapid coding of the Voronoi procedure for calculating atomic volumes, which I had been put onto by John Finney from his work with JD Bernal. Each lunch recess I ran up the street to the computer center and put the morning's effort on punch cards and started the debugging. It all went well and produced quantitative estimates of the packing quality in proteins.

..If more individuals recognized the mileage that one gets by leaning over backwards to acknowledge the work of one's colleagues, a good segment of the turmoil over scientific misconduct would disappear overnight. Much of the rest could be handled by listening without jumping to immediate conclusions. A major culprit seems to be ego."

This is just a glimpse into Fred's world - one that was filled not just with fun science but with many other interesting events and people, some of which he has alluded to here and elsewhere. For scientists working in the area of protein structure or for those interested in the history of the past few decades of scientific research, the article is a wonderful read.

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