Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Fear of Scooping

All my hopes and dreams... gone in a flash. I wanted to be the first or at least be able to establish my thesis based on this line of work. Instead that hope has been reduced to nothing. What can I do now? How can I continue? I don't want to find a new research topic. I don't want to find a new field. I don't want to start all over again. I just don't want to...

These are the thoughts that went through my head as I glanced over a poster at the Biophysical Society Meeting. The poster described establishing a force profile of RNA Polymerase and studying how it affects nucleosome dissociation. The work was being done by a grad student in a competing lab. The lab was that of my PI's (Steve Koch) former graduate lab in Cornell, the Michelle Wang lab.

I decided to read the poster after Larry had pointed out that Dr. Wang had a student poster not too far from where I was standing. Larry didn't really care to read it. I walked over and glanced. I rapidly read the title. I don't remember gathering much information from the title, but after quickly scanning the poster an image of RNAP with the transcription bubble caught my eye and urged further reading. I walked closer and read a little more. I inched closer and read more. Each reading prodded me closer and to divulge further. Finally I decided to read the whole thing and ask the student questions.

The student (whose name escapes me as of this writing) was very friendly and nice. She discussed with me what they were doing and I told her that I would be doing the same thing (or so I thought). She was very interested in the technique I would apply and I told her it would be the same as hers. I then told her I worked for Koch and she immediately recognized the name. She shot me a smile as she realized that all her work was based on his prior work (the tweezers are courtesy of he and Richard Yeh, and their anchor construct is all Koch's doing).

In reality all the fears I had were premature. Sure they were warranted. A competing lab is working on the same topic and idea that we are. Turns out they are working with E. coli while KochLab is initially working with yeast (proof of principle stuff) and eventually will be upgrading to human genome studies.

As I gazed at every single section of the poster, I pondered in both wonder and fear. Wonder because the work done was very good and interesting. I was fearful because it was all the same work that I wanted to achieve. To feel like my project was being ripped out from right underneath me could quite possibly be the worst feeling in the world. I did have other endeavors I could follow, but the RNA Pol II studies are what I am most interested in, and I truly would like to be the first to carry out those experiments.

I have learned a very valuable lesson from that experience. The fear of scooping is a very real fear. Being an open scientist, I suppose now I could fear that even more, but I really don't have it in me. I want the whole world to know what I plan to do and share my experiences in real time instead of portraying the clean cut science at the very end of it with just a paper. I in fact would like to turn this experience into a positive. After seeing some of the work that my competitor is doing I would like to see if there is a way we could collaborate. Maybe that can never be, but at least by this offer I can put my fear aside and make it a strength.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ant, I loved reading this post and I'm glad many of those on friendfeed enjoyed it too. I think your honesty and description of what these things mean to you as a scientist will be very valuable to other people and I really appreciate you being open about it.

    I have a couple responses. One is that I truly do not think we are competing with Wang Lab, nor do I want us to. It was great that you could interact with a couple of the Wang Lab students at the meeting. As far as I can tell from what you saw at the meeting and from their recent publications (such as the recent Hall et al. excellent nucleosome unzipping paper in Nature Struct. Mol. Bio.) their lab is pursuing studies of in vitro chromatin and transcription complexes. That is, they are doing very detailed and interesting mapping of protein-DNA contacts on reconstituted chromatin and / or polymerases.

    In contrast, what we are trying to pursue is mapping of native chromatin -- not reconstituted, but extracted from once living cells. To some, these may seem very similar, due to the similar unzipping technique. However, biologists that I talk to understand that these are highly different. If we were both doing ensemble assays (as opposed to single-molecule), it would be clear that Wang Lab is doing excellent biochemistry and we are pursuing genetics. I'm going to try to make a blog post soon on my "Steve Koch Science" blog (click on my profile for a link to my blog) to explain this further. This is going to at first be our niche, but I also hope we lead many other people into the pursuit of single-molecule analysis of native chromatin, because I think there is so much that can be learned. Just like genetics and biochemistry are so complementary in ensemble assays.

    All that said, it is possible that there would be Pol II unzipping in common with someone in the Wang Lab. I hope not, but it's possible, since we just found out that they are unzipping E. coli RNAP, they may have that in mind. None of the students indicated that, but I know from once being in that lab that Wang Lab students are forbidden from telling people what they are working on. Or at least we were through 2003 -- maybe it's gotten better since then.

    Our initial reason for proposing unzipping of Pol II in vitro transcription complexes was so we could see what the baseline unzipping signal for elongating Pol II looks like. This is necessary for us to identify the locations of Pol II molecules on native chromatin fibers. If Wang Lab is doing this, I'd assume they'd want to pursue it for the purpose of high-resolution investigation of the Pol II complex and its interactions with reconstituted chromatin. That is: not native chromatin analysis. Of course, if you are the first to achieve unzipping through Pol II it will enable all sorts of awesome experiments, and we'll likely want to pursue more in vitro / reconstituted questions as well.

    The last thing I want us to do is to secretly scoop anyone, especially a student. So, hopefully if overlap arises that both labs know about, we will be able to work something out so that all the students can succeed. Like Jean-Claude Bradley said on friendfeed, it's extremely unlikely that our two groups would independently come up with the same exact thing. So working out how to publish papers in parallel should be very easy almost all of the time.

    I think it's safe to assume that Wang Lab knows exactly what we're working towards, since I've blogged about it, and posted my proposals in public. Not to mention that Wang is connected to people on the review panels where I've been submitting our proposals. Hopefully that means that they aren't planning the same experiments we are. You're our ambassador and I've placed no orders of secrecy on you...if someone from that regime contacts you via back channels, please do communicate :)


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