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Finding the right chemistry for proteins and scientific relationships

Dr Irene Coin applies chemical knowledge to biological problems, revealing structural information about proteins. At the MDC Alumni Talks and Career Pathways lecture series she spoke about her work and described how human elements can be the secret to the best scientific relationships.

Irene uses non-natural amino acids to get additional structural information about proteins that can’t be revealed using NMR or x-ray crystallography. Both methods are used to determine the molecular structures of proteins, but they have limitations, for example some proteins are too big for NMR or don’t crystallise easily.

Irene Coin. Image: Simone Schmid, Uni Leipzig.

“My work is complementary to these methods,” Irene explains, “but one of the advantages is that I can do experiments in living cells, where proteins are complete with post-translational modifications and interact with neighbouring proteins.”

After a PhD in peptide chemistry Irene wanted to learn techniques for getting cells to insert chemical moieties into proteins. She applied for a Marie Curie Fellowship to learn the method at the Salk Institute in the USA and then apply it to biological problems in the Scheidereit research group at the MDC.

Professor Claus Scheidereit was interested in Irene’s approach and provided advice on finalising her application, which was not only successful but got a very high score. Writing the grant together defined a strong working relationship between them. It gave Irene’s project a definite focus which remained very clear even after some minor adaptations when she arrived at the MDC in 2013 after two years at the Salk Institute.

“Irene is a real chemist and approaches problems as a chemist,” Claus says. The two scientists have complementary areas of expertise. From Irene’s perspective working with biologists is inspiring, “It’s useful to speak to people who have a very different approach to problems – it gives you new ideas.”

The biological questions in the Scheidereit lab focus on the NF-kappaB signalling pathway. This is a welcome change for Irene from her usual focus on G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs are important in multiple signalling pathways and about a third of drugs on the market target them. “But in 2016 we still don’t have a complete structure of a GPCR with a long N-terminus,” Irene says.

Irene came to the MDC from the Salk Institute in San Diego and quips, “While the weather’s not as nice and you can’t go surfing, San Diego can’t compete with Berlin as a city.” She says that the MDC is a great place to work if you want to work in Germany in an international environment, because it is so outward looking. The facilities, people and funding also facilitate good science, “At the MDC, if you want to do something, you just do it,” Irene says.

Now working at the University of Leipzig as an Emmy Noether group leader, Irene says that something Germany needs to fix is the availability of tenure-track positions for young principal investigators (PIs). For researchers who come back to Germany after an overseas postdoc, the two main options are junior professor positions or the Emmy Noether programme. While the programme has many benefits it doesn’t offer young scientists job security.

Irene understands that human aspects are vital to good scientific relationships. Her advice to students is to find the right PI for them and be choosy. “If you’re a very independent person, you don’t want to be micromanaged,” she says, “but if you need support you might consider joining a smaller group”. As a postdoc you might have a better chance to gain independence if you work with a more senior PI who can afford to let ideas go and doesn’t need to be corresponding author on every paper.

Being a PI gives you a different perspective on scientific relationships, but the human element remains important. Irene says that when you become a group leader you need to select students that suit your management style. “If you have a great student, everyone is a great supervisor,” she says “the challenge is getting the best from all of your staff.”

Although Irene says that science is 90% frustration and 10% excitement, she doesn’t mind that ratio. “Even on a beautiful sunny day I go to the lab because I want to see the results of an experiment,” she says, “and even if it’s dark when I come out, I’m still happy. When you discover something new, it pays off all the effort.”

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The MDC Network exists to help MDC Alumni stay connected to the research center and to the friends and colleagues they met there. Its aim is to support strong and mutually beneficial ties between the those currently at the MDC and its alumni, fostering scientific collaboration, supporting careers, and promoting goodwill in the community.

We present some of the MDC Alumni's stories in the Alumni series here at MDC Newsroom and an interactive PDF brochure. The brochure is an open end project, this first issue was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt foundation and focuses on international alumni.