Interview with David Agard by Alexa Rocourt

Q:In a couple sentences, tell me about what you do in your work.

A:Our work focuses on trying to understand the molecular basis of how complex machinery in the cell functions. Our particular take on it is to try to resolve the atomic structures of key molecules and to figure out how they work from that. We also look at where they go wrong in disease.

So we try to understand the fundamental ways in which cells function in health and disease, and that gives us insights in trying to correct problems when they go wrong. In particular, a good part of our work is related to what’s known as protein folding (the machinery inside cells is made up of proteins) and there’s another set of cellular components that help those proteins fold and function. Most of the neurodegenerative diseases that we know about are protein folding diseases, and so trying to understand how capitalize on this folding machinery to facilitate treatment of neurodegenerative disease is one long term goal. 

Another is that many cancers are absolutely dependent on this protein folding machinery for their function, and by appropriately interfering with that, we may have new strategies to try to target whole pathways in cancer and not just in individual molecules. It could be a good way to avoid developing drug resistance, which is a common problem in cancer therapies these days. 

Q:What’s your favorite part about being a scientist?

A:The discovery. Uncovering the concepts of how biology works. We’re really just scratching the surface of biology, and there are so many deep interconnections between different parts of cells and organisms, and uncovering new concepts of how that works is what I really care about. So, not so much the factoids, but really understanding the principles involved. 

It’s a process that requires patience and dedication. Much of what one thinks about are ramifications of previous discoveries. That opens up new pathways and then you pursue those for a while, and then something completely unexpected pops up and makes you rethink about everything in a new light. Those kinds of completely unexpected things happen once every five or ten years, and then the rest of the time is spent trying to assimilate it, understand it, and figure out what it means.

Q:What have you created or discovered that you are most proud of?

A:I’m exciting about everything we do in the lab. The one that occupies me the most is related to this protein folding machinery and how that functions. We just made an exciting, new discovery about how it connects with protein kinases in a completely unexpected way. Now we’re trying to follow up on that really understand it more deeply to exploit it in beneficial ways.

Q:At the end of the day, why does your work matter?

A: At one level, I feel the biggest mystery that exists is how biology works. Trying to reveal the inner workings of the cell or organism is one of the most important things that we can pursue. That said, I also feel that making connections between that and disease is clearly something of utmost importance. 

Q:Outside of work, what do you do to relax?

A:Self-taught pottery!! It’s something I enjoy quite a lot. I’ve been trying to explore different textures and different kinds of coloring. I put on a glaze with a spray gun instead of painting it. Other pieces have grooves, and for that I first put something on to fill the grooves, wipe it off, that way you get much more interesting textures visually. Some are better than others, but they are all kind of works in progress.

Q: Do you find your pottery and science to be related?

I think of science as being very very artistic. The same kind of creativity goes into science as the kind that goes into a piece of art, and I take the same kind of satisfaction in it. Also, because something like pottery is physically involved, you can really focus your mind entirely on that and forget about grants and all the other problems that might exist. 

Q:What situation do you think you’d feel the most out-of-place in?

A: Probably being surrounded by money and people that are really focused on money as opposed to other things. Also say being in a room of politicians. There are just some situations where you can’t connect with people because their motivations and philosophies of existence are so very different. 

Q:In 100 years, what do you want to be remembered for?

A: I certainly hope I’m remembered for the pioneering work we’ve done in protein folding. I also hope I’m remembered for wanting to pioneer efforts at the university like QB3. I was very proud of having started that and making it the beginning of a very good institute. I would love to be remembered as a great teacher and mentor, but I’m not sure about that *laughs*.

To maximize my time out of work, I want to find something as compelling as the pottery to fill free time, especially thinking forward a decade or two.