Mariana Cook’s book, “Faces of Science,” portrays 77 scientists who have made many of the most important discoveries of our time. Each photograph is accompanied by a personal essay written by the scientists. The portraits in this online series are accompanied by excerpts from those essays. For more information, please visit Mariana Cook’s website: www.cookstudio.com.
My father was a doctor. He did research on antibodies for a short time, differentiating human and animal blood. He was bright. I’m not one of these intellectual geniuses. I didn’t get scholarships. When I first came up to Cambridge, I had to think about the what subjects I was going to take. I had planned to take chemistry and physics but had heard about a new discipline of explaining biology in terms of chemistry. I had an enthusiastic supervisor who persuaded me to study it.
I started working on proteins. They are long chains of smaller units called amino acids. My initial work was to develop methods for working out the arrangement or sequence of amino acids in the protein. The function and activity of proteins depends on this order. The proteins have up to 1,000 amino acids. The insulin molecule is a small protein, having only 50 amino acids. It was the first protein whose structure I determined, and it is for essentially this work that I was awarded my first Nobel Prize. The sequence of proteins is determined by the sequence of the DNA, which is build up of four units, the nucleotides.
I like messing about in the lab, doing experiments, thinking them out, working things out for myself. It’s absorbing work because you’re always thinking about it. It’s exciting. It can also be fairly frustrating because you’re doing things that haven’t been done before. Most things you try don’t work out and some people get frustrated. I found the best thing to do when an experiment didn’t work was to forget about it and start the next experiment. It keeps you on your toes.
The work you do depends on more than just how bright you are. Some people are too bright and know all the answers. They’re impatient. I was fascinated by what we’re made of and didn’t need much motivation beyond that. I spent most of my time thinking about going from one experiment to the next. I like using my hands. I wasn’t working on a grand design. I had a medical interest behind my work. I wanted to see if I could help.