Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Bloody Olive

Not really typical material for my blog, but here's a thriller even more convoluted than "Nobel Son" -- and only ten minutes long! It's a Belgian-made short film from 1996, given new life thanks to Youtube. Excellent reproduction/parody of 1940s film-noir.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The science in "Nobel Son"

Last night I saw Nobel Son, the new Alan Rickman movie where he plays an arrogant chemist who wins the Nobel prize. I don't want to talk about the actual plot, which is one of those "wheels within wheels" over-complicated thrillers that everyone has seen before at least once.

Instead, I want to discuss the Rickman character -- Professor Eli Michaelson. Granted, the plot didn't really require him to be anything else than successful and arrogant -- he could have equally been a CEO or something without changing the movie much, but let's see how well the movie captured science and its culture.
  1. Michaelson's  research. Apparently it has something to do with molecular fluorescence stimulated by lasers. Given that the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (which I'm sure was picked well after this movie was completed) , did deal with fluorescence, albeit created by Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) rather than lasers, kudos to the scriptwriters.
  2. Understanding of how grad school works. This the writers did not do so well. Early on in the movie Michaelson is established as unpleasant and unethical by showing him doing a quickie in his office with one of his grad students who is unhappy with her grade. I suspect the writers only have experience with undergraduate education. Grades just aren't a major issue in grad school. If the student were complaining about her project or authorship on a paper, this would have been more plausible.
  3. Choice of reading material for a chemist. During the above mentioned quickie, an issue of Cell is clearly shown on Michaelson's desk. Yes, Cell is a major journal -- but for biologists and not chemists. An issue of Science or Nature (which publish across all branches of science) or indeed a chemistry journal, would have been more plausible.
  4. Amount of Prize Money. The amount "$2 million" is a major plot factor in the movie. But would a Nobel Laureate actually get that much? The prize is currently $10 million SEK (US $1.2 million at present). Plus this amount is shared with the other winners in the category (The movie never says if Michaelson is sharing the award).

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

10th Anniversary of my Defense -- A Retrospective

On December 2, 1998 I defended my dissertation entitled "Exploration of microbial genomic sequences via comparative analysis", the somewhat vague title referring to a collection of projects that I worked on in Gary Olsen's (pictured) laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, most notably the CRITICA genefinder (which was, until a year or so ago, still in use at JGI), and one of the earliest genomic studies of thermostability.

My thesis committee consisted of Carl Woese, Tony Crofts, and Stan Maloy (now at SDSU; I run into him at seminars occasionally). 
I don't have any pictures of the defense or the lunch afterwords after owning to a sad accident -- my parents' camera had a broken lens, and in that pre-digital era, they didn't know anything was wrong until they tried to develop the film. Still, the day sticks with me in memory. I gave what was probably the best presentation of my career (probably because I had practiced ten times or so), and the questioning was very friendly (the serious questioning had been several years before at my prelim). 

I've worked a number of jobs moving to various cities in the name of science since those days -- a postdoc in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo,  a senior bioinformatics scientist at a now-defunct biotech firm in Montreal,  living in downtown DC while working in the microbial genomics departments of TIGR and its successor JCVI,  and now in San Diego, where I'm working at the west-coast campus of JCVI. Who knows where the next ten years will take me?