Last post of the year, perhaps – I have a couple of others brewing, but they need some thought. This has been an unusual year in some ways. First, a big thanks to all my readers – I know a few of you and I hope that my occasional posts are of some interest to you.
To start at the end, I enjoyed this year’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures, though I have a whinge. Why was hyaluronic acid called a protein. It isn’t. It is a glycosaminoglycan, polysaccharide, sugar, carbohydrate, polymer, but NOT a protein. Crucially, it is a secondary gene product. Polysaccharide synthesis is the consequence of the activity of enzymes, primary gene products, but the regulation of polysaccharide synthesis is at the whim of cell and organism physiology and only indirectly by the genome. This, I think, makes the entire business of the mole rat living longer than equivalent rodents and being cancer free even more interesting. If one can have “p53” named in the lecture, why not define hyaluronic acid correctly? Or is there a fear amongst those working with the central dogma of the messiness of things beyond? Generally, where things are messy in science is where the most interesting stuff is. Glycobiology is certainly messy, sticky and most interesting and I recommend it strongly to all – it is likely also to contribute to getting us out of the mess of global warming.
I travelled a lot this year, which is unusual. For a good while, my business travel has been concentrated in even years, due in part to my two favourite Gordon Research Conferences (still places left), on “Fibroblast Growth Factors” and “Proteoglycans” being held on these years. As I entered 2013, just two European trips loomed, but this was soon to change. In early January, a request from Marco, the Facility Manager of our Centre for Cell Imaging to attend a Euro-Bioimaging meeting in Vienna. So off to Vienna, via Munich. I chose my flights well – with many airports under snow, Marco set out 8 h earlier via Frankfurt, but arrived 1 h before me, while a colleague from Dundee took over a day to travel. A useful meeting and we continue to work on building Euro-Bioimaging in 2014. There are as ever many hurdles, but the idea is sound and, from a UK perspective, entirely coherent with the recommendations regarding equipment usage in the Wakeham report. I had a great train ride to Innsbruck from Vienna to visit my colleague Lars Klimaschewski and his research group to discuss all things FGF. A great day of science, but sadly no time to go skiing, though the weather and snow were perfect.
Then in February, a trip to CIC biomaGUNE in San Sebastian to see if Ralf Richter and I could obtain funding for a joint PhD student. We did, so one success, though the allied, “bigger picture” applications to the European Commission and the Human Frontier Science Programme were to fail. Next, May to EMRS in Strasbourg. A most enjoyable Symposium Q on “Hybrid materials engineering in biology, chemistry and physics”, which was very welcoming to a biochemist. An excellent guest post by Elena Colangelo, Raphaël Lévy’s PhD student on her experiences at her first science conference (we send everyone out to meetings, not just the PIs). End of September, off to Kos to an excellent 4th FEBS Advanced Lecture Course on Matrix Pathobiology, Signaling and Molecular Targets, organised by Nikos Karamanos, this time with Changye Sun and Yong Li in tow – their first science meeting, though Changye’s guest post on Raphaël’s blog seems to be still outstanding here (nothing like a bit of pressure!).
A short follow up visit to Ralf’s lab at CIC biomagune with Aiseta Baradji to make sure her project, run across two labs, is truly integrated. I went home via Barcelona, to have a very stimulating discussion with Victor Puntes, a scientist who really understands the oneness of science and art, on all things nano.
Finally, an excellent trip to Malaysia, courtesy of Nina Suhaity, my former PhD student and now a Senior Lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Pahang A very stimulating meeting in the Cameron Highlands (CIA Biotech 2013), which went ahead despite the massive challenge posed by the flooding in the east and south of Malaysia. I had a great drive from the international airport with Prof Ramlan Abd Aziz from UTM as company – we clearly have a lot in common and the next time I am in SE Asia I hope to drop in on him to see his pilot plant. During the meeting I had great discussions in breaks and long into the evenings, including some long sessions with Nina and her first PhD student on all things sugary and heparinoid. Then I was back with the boys in their car to Kuantan on the east coast – luckily the flood waters had subsided, though the ground was still completely waterlogged. A quiet Sunday working in the hotel and Monday at UMP, seminar, discussions and topped by an excellent meal that evening with Nina and her husband.
A return via Singapore, which allowed a few hours of discussion with Vic Nurcombe, Jon Hobley and Paul Free.
In between, life was anything but normal. REF built up a head of steam, and should have become overwhelming from June, but the preparation of our Synthetic Biology Centre bid to BBSRC, with its late nights and huge number of discussions across campus, interrupted proceedings in a very constructive way for a month. The verdict on the SynBio bid was to be delivered either just before Christmas or early January 2014, so I guess it will be January.
REF took over completely from August and many jobs fell by the wayside. I was going to do these over the Christmas break, but decided I should take a break. This is important advice to all. Recall the winner of the first marathon of the modern Olympics in 1896, Spiridon Louis, he stopped to refuel, which certainly contributed to his victory.
Very thin on papers this year, just two, but both interesting, if I can blow my own trumpet and that of the students’ and collaborators who did much of the work. There is Ruoyan and Ed’s analysis of FGF interactions in FEBS Journal
at the start of the year and then Quentin’s paper on the heparin binding protein network of pancreas and pancreatic digestive diseases. I haven’t had the time to blog about this one – it demonstrates that heparin binding proteins are a very good place to look for biomarkers and therapeutic targets.
A lot of papers on the horizon for 2014, on a wide variety of subjects: nanoparticles, FGFs, glycosaminoglycans, extracellular matrix. In the past I have favoured learned society journals over those published by commercial concerns. In 2014, papers where I am senior author or where I have some influence on the selection of the journal will all be submitted to open access journals (PLOS, Peer J., BMC) or learned society journals.
My new year’s resolution: I will only referee papers from Open Access or Learned Society journals.