THE ART OF SCIENCE

is making complexity simple

Philosophy noun
1. a particular set or system of beliefs resulting from the search for knowledge about life and the universe
2. a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour
The philosophy of our research is simple 
"a particular set or system of beliefs resulting from the search for knowledge about life and the universe"

When studying complex biological systems, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that they self-assemble from very simple beginnings. The blueprints for life are laid down by a beautifully simplistic 4-letter code that is somehow able to create unfathomable order out of chaos. How do thousands of molecular machines work together to build a cell, keep it alive and allow it to duplicate? How do these cells spontaneously assemble into a living structure that contains trillions of interconnected parts? How do these parts cooperate to keep the body alive and output higher-level behaviours, such as consciousness? By attempting to answer these questions we will be best placed to understand how this remarkable order breaks down to give rise to disease. The question is, how can we best attempt to answer these questions?

 

In the Saurin lab we are guided by one overarching principle – to understand complex biological phenomena we must search for their simplest governing rules. The origins of complexity. This may seem like a rather obvious point, considering this concept has guided scientists for thousands of years. However, science has changed dramatically in just the last few decades, and it is my belief that the technological innovation that has driven progress also comes at a cost.

The problem is that it is now relatively straightforward to go out and discover new facts about biology. Genomes, transcriptomes and proteomes have become routine and accessible for most labs. This means that it is easier than ever to start with simple questions and end with complex answers. It is important to stress that I do not mean that these answers will not be incredibly important. The human genome project was clearly transformational and the 100,000 genomes project will no doubt illuminate the path towards personalised medicine. I simply mean that the ability to discover more facts and uncover yet more questions risks eroding our desire to think simply and deeply about the problems at hand.

This is a relatively recent 21-century problem. A scarcity of data in the past meant that scientists were forced to just sit and contemplate. To muse over the evidence they had and to distil that into some very simple ideas. And what amazing things they discovered. Were these fruits the low-hanging variety that have long since dried up or were they they kind that hang high in the trees, concealed in a place that required patience and persistence to find? I suspect the latter. It would be doing a disservice to some of our greatest scientific minds to suggest that their discoveries were easy. The simplest ideas are often the hardest to find. Which is why we must be cautious now not to rush off too soon in search of new data and new questions. The technology-driven world undoubtedly has many exotic fruits to offer, but feast on these exclusively and risk losing sight of those simplest original varieties. The elusive types that hang high from the trees. The ones that we cherish the most. 

Below are 2-minute video clips that explain our main research questions in simple terms. We focus on a major mechanism of cell regulation: protein phosphorylation. This process has been exhaustively studied for decades and, as a result, over half a million phosphorylation sites have been mapped, across different species and different disease states. Many of these sites have been functionally characterised and together this data has helped reveal how our bodies work and why they fail in diseases such as cancer. ​However, in spite of this extensive knowledge, we still lack a fundamental understanding of some very simple rules that govern all phosphorylation events (see video clips 1 and 2). In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that until we understand this we will not truly appreciate how cells use binary logic to process complex biological information (this idea is explained fully in video clip 3). Have these concepts simply been forgotten, or perhaps missed or neglected in a rush to delve into the details and characterise this process fully? Whatever the reasons, I believe it is critical to readdress these issues if we are to uncover the true origins of complexity...

In 2 the science: Below are three 2-minute video clips that explain our research questions in simple terms.

(Click the arrows to scroll through and then single click to play - wait a few seconds for the video to start).

The philosophy of the lab is equality
"a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour"

A culture is critical because it is the framework in which everybody must live, work and perform. If we label others with preconceived ideas about what they can and will achieve then we place imaginary constraints, which nevertheless have very real consequences. How can we reach to the limits of knowledge if we are placed inside an imaginary box? The truth is, there are no bounds to our potential, and we are only limited by our own internal monologues which, sadly, provide very real constraints. And here is the critical point. It is incredibly difficult to free ourselves from these shackles if we live in a culture that judges, labels and then provides us with our "own" imaginary box. 

In the Saurin Lab we are guided by one main principle for behaviour - everybody starts from the same level and all opinions, ideas and beliefs are equally valued. It doesn't matter whether you are an undergraduate student, a senior postdoc or the PI. Only what you say and do matters, not who you are, where you come from or what you believe in. As part of this ethos, the PI tries (and hopes!) to be just like everybody else. All papers and grants are sent around everybody in the lab for feedback. All voices are worth listening to and everybody can have big ideas and make a difference from the start. That is the reality, and if anybody feels different then just remember this: it is society that creates this illusion, but it doesn't have to be that way.