Sunday, April 24, 2016

Feng Zhang's CRISPR "Miami Moment"

I've spent a bit of time this week trying to grok the ever-expanding frontier where biology meets chemistry. RNA therapeutics, chemical probes, synthetic biology, protein engineering...I could go on and on. Of course, this list would be woefully incomplete without the new cool kid: CRISPR.

If you've read a few of the stories surrounding this field's origins, you'll recognize the names Doudna, Charpentier, and Zhang. An interesting story arc emerges in the countless biographies surrounding Feng Zhang, now at MIT / Broad. Here, it's retold through the lens of WIRED author Amy Maxmen:
"Soon after starting [at the Broad], he heard a speaker at a scientific advisory board meeting mention Crispr. 'I was bored,' Zhang says, 'so as the researcher spoke, I just Googled it.' Then he went to Miami for an epigenetics conference, but he hardly left his hotel room. Instead, Zhang spent his time reading papers on Crispr and filling his notebook with sketches on ways to get Crispr and Cas9 into the human genome. “That was an extremely exciting weekend,” he says, smiling."
Have you ever had a point in your life like this?  Perhaps Zhang truly found the conference boring, and researching CRISPR was his best escape. However, since this story crops up so often, I'd like to think it's an attempt to capture the "flow" state as it applies to crystallization of a new field of research or career direction. Hopefully you recognize the feeling - total immersion, loss of time, tuning out all external concerns while your brain opens up to the vast possibilities of something truly new.

Clearly, a computer algorithm with a scientific sense of humor printed this lotto ticket. 

From my own experience, I can remember a handful of flow moments that I sustained for longer than a few hours. In the first, I spent two or three days reading everything I could about a competitor's catalysis research - hoping not to get scooped - and encountering multiple exciting ideas about monodentate ligand binding left unexplored. In another, I tried to track the entire Vinca metabolism from Tryp to the few hundred polycyclic alkaloids like vincristine and ajmaline. Plant metabolism turns out to be much more complex than I'd ever imagined.

Readers, I'm certainly not alone...can you recall when you've experienced a version of Feng's Miami moment? What was it like?


  1. I get into that state at least one or twice with each of my projects, often during the inception, or during trying to write it up into a story and then I go down a rabbit hole of old references and literature. Its one of the things I love about research.

  2. I can think of at least four such periods, each one associated with some Big Idea that I started working out in my head. It's an intense (and somewhat scary) feeling.

  3. Must be nice to go to a conference on the taxpayer's dime and spend all your time in your hotel room "googling" yourself. Wonder if those on-demand movies show up on the expense account too?

  4. When I was trying to create my research proposal for tenure-track job applications, I attended an ACS conference. I heard two talks on fairly different chemistry projects and thought, "Why haven't those been combined?" I spent the next few weeks trying to read everything I could find on both topics to see if they had been combined and to see where I might go from there. I haven't been in my current position long enough to see whether the ideas will work out but for me, that was the first time I really started to believe that I could come up with enough interesting projects to keep a small research group going.

  5. Yes, most recently last year. I realized that we had passed global peak agriculture and peak energy, and yet the population was still growing. No species has ever managed to keep their population count up despite shrinking resources, so it's unlikely that we will either. Billions of people will die in the next few decades, and I'm still coming to terms with that.

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