A parliamentary lab meeting
Each year scientists pair up with UK parliamentarians to gain an insight into each other’s worlds, as part of the Royal Society’s Parliamentary Pairing Scheme. Glenn Masson, a postdoc from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, shares his experience of welcoming an MP into his lab.
Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge, arrived on my doorstep at midday. My lab doorstep that is, at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). He was here to shadow my day and see what we researchers spend our days doing with public funding.
My week in Parliament – the first leg of our exchange – exposed me to the breadth of MP’s interests. As we briskly made our way around Westminster, national and European headlines ran alongside constituents’ concerns; Daniel’s attention was dragged from one issue to the next at an unrelenting pace.
But, today I had his undivided attention for the afternoon. It almost felt indulgent. I had a responsibility to make his visit worthwhile and to give him a reasonable insight into my research on structural mass spectrometry.
I use the technique to reveal the structure of big, unstable protein complexes, that play pivotal roles in how cells grow and divide. It records the tiny mass changes that occur when a protein changes shape, or interacts with something in the cell – often smaller than the mass of a single hydrogen atom.
Explaining my science
I’ve been exploring how small drug-like molecules bind to these large complexes, which are involved in tumour development and heart disease. The small molecules cause minor changes in the structure of the complexes. But these minor shifts have a large impact on their activities within the cell – and their potential as drug targets.
My technique has none of the pretty three-dimensional pictures of other image techniques like crystallography or electron microscopy, so explaining the technique is always a challenge.
Navigating noisy equipment
After a meeting with the new Director of the LMB, Jan Lowe, Daniel and I headed to a facility that many tours around the LMB skip – the mass spectrometry lab. The room is full of big instruments and vacuum pumps making lots of noise. Most tour guides would rather move on to save their voice.
But I find that pointing to the instruments, and explaining how they act as precise sets of scales for proteins, helps me introduce people to the technique. Even though I need to shout over the incessant and atonal drone of the equipment.
In Westminster, I had been full of questions. But here Daniel peppered me with them throughout the day – not only on my research, but also on how the actions of Parliament may impact on my ability to carry out that research. It felt quite a privilege (and slightly nerve-racking) to bend his ear about the rising cost of housing, Brexit and pay, on behalf of my colleagues.
After poking around the lab, Daniel joined us for our weekly lab meeting. This is a free-flowing exchange of ideas around a group of 10 scientists, typically with cake and biscuits, where I went into the specifics of my research.
It’s a challenge to explain your latest results to a complete stranger, along with the background to your project and the biochemistry involved. And it’s crucial to keep relaying how these piecemeal experiments are important in moving towards your long-term research goals.
It was an extremely rewarding experience hosting a non-specialist for the day. It forced me to take a step back and to see my work through different eyes. Daniel sampled some my of lemon drizzle cupcakes too, so he didn’t leave empty-handed.