Chu Wai Liew is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, in Sydney, Australia. Her current research as part of the Molecular Motors Laboratory is focused on the artificial assembly of the bacterial flagella motor. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Sydney in structural biology, and has explored the molecular structures of proteins such as transcription factors and superantigens using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography and small angle X-ray scattering.
She is also passionate about cycle touring and also enjoys writing and illustrating books for her niece and nephew. My Little Alphabet Book of Proteins was a spontaneous and enjoyable learning experience. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having spent more than nine years researching in the field of structural biology, I still find myself struggling to explain to family and friends what it is that I do for a job, which in a nutshell is studying the structure and function of proteins.
Usually my biggest hurdle is describing what proteins are. Most people would know that proteins can come from food sources such as chicken, eggs or potatoes, or that proteins can be drunk in the form of milk or a protein shake. But tell them that there are different types of proteins found in your body, such as zinc fingers, which function as transcription factors involved in forming specific complexes that activate or repress genes, their eyes start to glaze over. Further efforts to describe that proteins are made up of specific amino acid sequences that fold into unique shapes which contain certain secondary structures such as alpha helices and beta sheets usually results in puzzled looks and distracted nodding. It was clear that I just did not have the ability to describe simply and clearly what proteins are, let alone why they are important and why I spend so much time doing research to understand their structure and function.
Then along came my niece and nephew. Just like most children know what a fireman or chef of dentist does, was it asking too much for them to learn what a structural biologist does? Furthermore, if people can learn that there are many different fruits or animals or flags of countries, surely they could learn what some of the many different proteins look like?
One day my brother (also a structural biologist) told me that he had taught his then three-year old daughter to say 'alpha one adrenergic receptor', Then it struck me that I could write an alphabet book of with the pictures of a selection of topical protein structures with a simple explanation describing their function. I thought that if a 3-year old can say 'alpha one adrenergic receptor, then hemoglobin or insulin would easily roll off the tongue!
Needless to say, writing an alphabet book of proteins in the hope of introducing children, parents or non-scientists to the wonderful world of science through proteins turned out to be a tough task, for how was I to chose only 26 interesting structures when at the time, there were over 90,000 structures out there in the Protein Data Bank? In addition, I wanted to simplify technical terms, and as if this wasn't enough of a challenge, I decided the book should take the form of a descriptive rhyming verse. This is where the RCSB PDB Molecule of the Month by David S. Goodsell proved invaluable with a fantastic list of proteins with a simple description for each molecule and also highlighting many of the important and significant discoveries that have been made over the years. If any budding young scientist wanted to learn about proteins, surely they should be first exposed to pioneering discoveries and those that made a big impact in science research.
The result was My Little Alphabet Book of Proteins, a book containing the wonderful structures of 26 proteins complete with rhythmic descriptions, some of them familiar, some of them strange but all of them equally fascinating.
Writing this book was a humbling experience as I was reminded that there was still so much more to be learned and discovered even after having spent nine years exploring protein structure and function.
A video version of the book, inspired by excellent tutorials found on PDB-101, is also available.