Phil McFadden is an Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University. His ten-week lecture course in biochemistry opens the year-long sequence offered to undergraduate and graduate students seeking degrees in biochemistry and biophysics, American Chemical Society-certified chemistry degrees, and professional pharmacy degrees. He has conducted research in protein chemistry and biological sensory systems, and is currently working on the biology and phenomenology of shells with equal footing in Darwin, Schrodinger and Heidegger. Among his most prized possessions is his autographed copy of Albert Lehninger's 1975 edition of Biochemistry.
Undergraduate Course: Protein Portraits by Phil McFadden, Ph.D.
Protein Portraits is a nontraditional college course developed around the question of what it might be like to shrink to the nanometer realm for a direct encounter with a protein
molecule. Since this question invites artistic interpretation, the course is recommended to students whose tastes include both art and science.
The course has been offered in various versions around the Oregon State University (OSU) campus. In recent years it has found a home in our Honors College where the atmosphere is enriched by high-performing students from all academic majors. This spring, with nothing to lose and two credit-hours to gain, eleven Honors College students enrolled in Protein Portraits to boldly go where only their imagination could take them. These are the portraits of their ten-week voyage.
The instructor of the course, Phil McFadden, is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. He teaches the course out of the belief that chemical modeling sets are one of the best toys for kids of all ages. The following interview is distilled from the Protein Portraits course blog at blogs.oregonstate.edu/psquared.
Q: Dr. McFadden, how does a student taking your course decide which protein to portray?
A: Easy. I show the students how to use the RCSB Protein Data Bank. David Goodsell’s Molecule of the Month is an inspiring starting point. From there, the students are soon able to go off on their own, using the RCSB PDB’s search and 3D visualization tools to find a protein structure that fits their personal interests. By the third or fourth week of the class, most students have made a firm choice of a protein. They know its name, its domain structure, what it does for the organism.
Q: What kind of scientific guidance do you give your students for portraying a protein molecule?
A: It is true that to understand the structures in the PDB archive, students need at least a basic understanding of how amino acids are connected into chains and how those chains fold according to the hierarchy of secondary, tertiary and quaternary structure. Many students have learned these essentials by high school, so all I generally need to do is throw more light on the subject by spinning PDB structures before their eyes. For this course I also feel fortunate that protein scientists have used a good deal of whimsy in the naming systems for various
protein structures–what could be more visually affirming than zinc fingers, leucine zippers, and jelly roll domains as proof positive of the utility of depicting proteins as everyday forms?
Q: What artistic advice do you offer?
A: I advise them to make an allusion to the biological function of the protein in their artwork. Then I show them inspiring examples of the world’s heritage of protein art: Irving Geiss’s portrayal of sperm whale myoglobin, Roger Hayward’s pastel illustrations of proteins for Scientific American, Jane Richardson’s revolutionary depictions of the structural
elements of proteins, and various other masterful illustrations from books and journals published since the 1960s. I also point to the works of contemporary artistic-scientists and
scientific-artists such as David Goodsell’s exciting graphics and Julian Voss-Andreae’s wonderful sculptures. Finally, we are lucky on this campus to be able to stroll across the campus quad to visit the OSU library where Linus Pauling’s many chemical models built out of many sorts of materials (including his earliest models of the alpha helix built from folded paper) are held as historical treasures along with the rest of his archived effects.
Q: How did the students’ public art show turn out at the end of the term?
A: It was a lot of fun. Included here are photos of each student’s work along with their authored caption. I should mention that the cost of artistic materials was capped at around $10 per portrait, so you did not see bronze castings or cut crystal at the show. Aside from cost, any artistic medium was permitted.
Now, if you have strong scientific credentials, it may be obvious that most of the portraits deviate from the precise 3D coordinates deposited in the PDB. Indeed, I gave the students artistic license to adjust the pose of a protein chain if it helped their art come together. As I explained to them, all of the structures deposited in the PDB have been determined as instrumental averages measured over large populations of protein molecules, so why not give a little extra flexibility to a particular molecule coming to life in the art studio?
Our end-of-term show attracted around a hundred visitors. Ballots were provided to collect votes for the Most Artistic, Most Scientific, and Overall Awesome, as noted.
based on PDB ID: 1qlx
Artist: Dan Cheung
The human prion protein is found throughout the body, but its function is a mystery. The biggest mystery is how in the misfolded state, a prion can act like a cult figure–it converts normal prions into pathogenic forms, causing deadly neural diseases, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and the notorious mad cow disease.