Question: what scientific breakthroughs have you made in your career?
Stephen Curry answered on 13 Jun 2010:
Funny enough, most of the work of most scientists doesn’t produce breakthroughs. Not on the scale of Newton’s theory of gravity or the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Mostly we are doing experiments to test existing ideas and check that they are good ones. The breakthroughs usually happen when you start to get unexpected results that your theory doesn’t explain. Then, if you are lucky enough and clever enough, you might come up with a blockbuster theory that wins a Nobel prize.
I don’t fancy my chances of doing that. But I have had my moments. This was one of the special ones (which I’ve already mentioned in an answer to a similar question):
One of my most exciting experiments was done about 15 years ago when I was working in a lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston in the USA. I was working on poliovirus* and trying to understand how the virus particle gets into the cell. The virus is basically a 3D jigsaw of protein molecules that make a shell surrounding an RNA molecule (that carries the virus genes). It is the job of the virus to deliver the genes to the inside of the cell.
First the virus sticks to a molecule on the outside of the cell. After that, my work showed that the jigsaw of proteins changes shape. It becomes a bit looser. This allows it to stick to the cell membrane and punch a hole in it that lets the RNA molecule to leak into the cell. Once that happens, the cell is infected.
Until my work nobody really believe that the change in shape of the protein shell of the virus was important. But now it is in all the textbook on virology, so I am quite proud!
*Poliovirus is a germ that usually causes ‘flu like symptoms but in some people can result in paralysis. Fortunately it has almost disappeared from the world now because there is a very effective vaccine – usually given to children on a sugar cube. You will almost certainly have been given it as a small child.
Tom Hartley answered on 13 Jun 2010:
I wouldn’t call it a breakthrough but one important finding I had a hand in was that we (i.e., humans) use different parts of our brain to navigate around the world: one system is critical when we need to find a new path (for example, imagine your normal route home is blocked, how would you get back as directly as possible without taking a massive detour), but a different system is more important when following a very familiar route (if you’ve gone the same way every day for a month – you may feel as if you are on autopilot). To find this out we used an MRI scanner to record brain activity as people explored a virtual town (using a modified video game). The more accurate the routes they took the greater the activity the first system (the hippocampus) when they were finding new routes. But more accurate navigators activated another part of the brain (the caudate nucleus) when following familiar routes – perhaps (it’s just a guess) this corresponds to the “autopilot” feeling.
It might not seem important, but it helps us understand what these two different parts of the brain do. One is damaged in the early stages of Alzheimers Disease, the other in Huntingtons Disease. By understanding how these systems interact in everyday behaviour, we get an insight into problems caused by these illnesses, which I hope will one day feed into new methods of diagnosis and treatment.
BTW, I think most scientists would be sceptical about the idea of breakthroughs – most progress in science is made through gradual steps where we systematically rule out some of the possible answers, till only a few really good ones remain.
Marieke Navin answered on 14 Jun 2010:
Oh my god, none unfortunately!! I think you have to be really lucky to make a major scientific breakthrough. However…when you do a PhD you do solve a problem. In my PhD I worked out how to build a special water-based detector…it didn’t get built at the moment due to funding, but if that changed in the future i’ve done the research which someone could use to get it done. That’s quite cool.
Steve Roser answered on 15 Jun 2010:
They’ve not been great breakthroughs, they’ve been small personal triumphs, and this is how science is for 99% of us I’d guess. I did quite a lot of work on teh structure of thin films early on, which I am proud of, and I like my recent work on artificial membranes, which is used by lots of other groups as well.
Pete Edwards answered on 15 Jun 2010:
Not everybody can make really important breakthroughs in their scientific careers, there aren’t many Einstein’s in physics! Most science progresses slowly with many people carrying out research and slowly chipping away at a problem. Occasionally this work will help somebody special to make a giant leap in our understanding, but you have to be pretty smart and lucky to be that person.
That doesn’t mean that doing science isn’t fun.