May 5, 2010

A Conversation with George Locke

by Heather Falconer

We all know how beneficial it can be to hear about the journey famous scientists have traveled. Seeing the more human (and less glamorous) side reminds us of how much dedication and diligence comes into success. But hearing from folks just starting out can also be extremely helpful.

Here, Visionlearning sits down for a conversation with George Locke, a PhD candidate in Biological Physics at Rutgers University, for a brief chat about his experiences, and the advice he would offer young folks interested in the sciences. Locke’s current research is on the DNA sequence-specificity of nucleosome formation and transcription factor binding. His first publication is currently under review with Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Visionlearning: George, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Locke: Sure. I was born in Medford, Massachusetts in June of 1982 to two loving parents.  Both had PhDs in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan, but my mother chose to work in insurance to support the family while my father pursued an academic career.  I benefited from a private school education in middle school and high school and went on to college at Tufts where my father is a professor.  I took piano lessons from a young age and began to write music on the computer in junior high.  I maintain a passion for making music, and I also continue the visual arts I picked up in high school.  I have always been good at math and science and had a knack for abstract reasoning, so I naturally gravitated toward physics, with the help of a gifted teacher in high school.  I continued in all these pursuits in college, focusing on physics.  I spent the two years in between my undergraduate and graduate education working for my senior thesis advisors in a supporting role in a neutrino physics experiment.  In this time, I came to feel that physics would provide an exciting and rewarding career, and now I am studying for my PhD.  I married my longtime girlfriend 15 months ago.  I love her more every day. 
VL: How long have you been studying and working in your physics?
Locke: If you start with my first research project, that was in 2004.  My first course in basic physics was as a junior in high school, 1998–89, and I have been working in and studying physics since then.
VL: You’ve described your current research to be about DNA sequence-specificity of nucleosome formation and transcription factor binding. Can you translate that into layman’s terms?
Locke: Sure. If you were to take all of the DNA in one of your cells and lay it out in a straight line, it would be more than six feet long.  However, the cell nucleus where all of that DNA lives has a diameter one millionth of that length.  In order to put so much DNA in such a small space, eukaryotic organisms (everything but bacteria) do a great deal of work to compact the size of their genomes.  The collection of DNA and the architectural elements that pack it so tightly is called chromatin.  The structure of chromatin has implications for how the cell operates, since the more tightly a particular gene is packed, the harder it is to use (transcribe).  My work is a study of the fundamental unit of chromatin: the nucleosome.  Nucleosomes are tiny bundles of DNA wrapped around a core of stiff proteins called histones.  Nucleosomes cover about 80% of the genome in every living animal, plant, and fungus, and they form the basis of larger chromatin structures.  I and my collaborators seek to predict what DNA sequences are more or less likely to form nucleosomes, using statistical physics to analyze experimental data.  (Statistical physics is the branch of physics which describes the aggregate behavior of systems with many particles, e.g. molecules in a gas.) We are currently extending our methods to study the general case of protein-DNA binding.
VL: Was studying physics something you always knew you wanted to do, or did you start out on a different path?
Locke: In college, I considered a music major but found that writing about music was impossible for me, at least the sort of analysis my teachers expected.  Prior to college I considered pursuing a BFA in visual art after my BA, but by the time I finished my Bachelor’s that seemed like an unrealistic career path.
VL: What is it about physics that you find exciting and/or inspiring?
Locke: Science as a project is something I find very exciting in general.  I want to know about the world, and I like the idea that I can contribute to the body of human understanding, producing knowledge that will be valuable after I am dead and gone.  Physics in particular is a way of looking at the world.  Physicists like to see the world in the simplest terms possible, reducing a physical system to its essence.  Sometimes this means ignoring fine points, but the goal is to arrive at fundamental parameters controlling large-scale behavior.  Explaining the collective in terms of the participant is fun, elegant, beautiful, and exciting. 
Biological physics involves the application of ideas in physics to biological problems.  It is fun to see how theories designed to explain the behavior of gases and particles can describe the behavior of living things.  This historical moment seems to be the perfect time to enter the broader field of quantitative biology, now that we understand enough of the basic physical mechanisms and we have the computing power to apply this understanding.  In particular, the idea that biological physics can contribute to medical applications down the line is exciting, and the idea of improving quality of life through basic research is very attractive.  
The whole business seems like it’s worth doing in terms of ethics – science is a valuable contribution to culture and the technology deriving from it can solve human problems (it can create them too, but on balance it’s a win).  I’m happiest when I exercise my faculties in the service of a goal that I find worthwhile.  Summing up: I value the product, and the process is rewarding in itself.
VL: When you first started out, what did you find was the most surprising about conducting research? Did you have any misconceptions going into it?
Locke: I can’t think of any big surprises.  One thing that I guess surprised me is how much factors besides science influenced my choice of field.  Factors such as duration of experiment/project (in high energy physics one begins planning an experiment 10 years in advance of getting data), size of research group, the kinds of analysis one does (using pre-made computational tools vs. making your own, data analysis versus simulation, etc).  Each sub-field has its own culture.
VL: How does creativity come into play with your work? How would you describe your process of discovery?
To be honest, I am having a lot of trouble finding my own creativity in my work.  At least in the large scale of choosing projects and choosing analytical tools, I feel more like I’m picking through a tool-box rather than creating anything new.  This isn’t so bad, it just doesn’t feel very creative.  I find myself dissatisfied with my creative output vis a vis my research, but I’m still relatively early in my career so I’m not too exasperated just yet.  It’s not unlikely that I’m just being too hard on myself and fail to see my own strengths.
VL: How did you end up studying and working at Rutgers?
Locke: Well, I wanted to move away from Boston, where I had spent my whole life, and learn what it was like to make my own space.  I chose Rutgers for several reasons: it was well located, highly regarded, had an excellent student-faculty ratio (about 1.5:1 !), and the department was large, which was important to me since I wasn’t sure what sub-field I was going into as an entering student.  Plus, I knew a member of the department who could support me, which was nice since it allowed me to avoid being a Teacher’s Assistant during the first year of classes, which is very demanding.
VL: Do your hobbies and interests outside of work influence your research?
Locke: It’s hard to say.  I have diverse interests (drawing and painting, experimental music, cooking, philosophy).  I think my interest in philosophy is helpful in making and analyzing scientific arguments.  Whatever influence there is, and there must be significant influence, is more or less out of my awareness.  To a certain extent, my interest in matters outside of physics distracts me from my research – many academic researchers seem to be single-minded in their devotion to their work, and that is not for me.
VL: What do you think is the most exciting recent development or discovery in science?
Locke: Oh, gee…maybe mapping the human genome?  I see a lot of developments in biology that show great potential for medicine but the applications are still a ways out of reach.  Our dramatically increasing understanding of genetic networks may create a paradigm shift in terms of drug design: if we know which genetic pathways are messed up in a certain disease then we should, in principle, be able to set them right. 
I also see huge potential for nanomaterials.  There was a recent publication of a way to extend the life of a battery 10-fold or something by putting carbon nanotubes inside the battery.
VL: In the last decade, we’ve seen a lot of advancements in science and technology. With this in mind, what do you think the future is for physics? Is technology changing the way you think about and conduct research?
Locke: 100%.  Computational power opens up so many doors in research, at least the sort of research I do – bigger simulations, more data, etc.  Astrophysics benefits a lot from computational power – the first simulations of galaxy mergers involved ~30 particles per galaxy and more recently this explodes into the hundreds of thousands, with more and more complex physics included.  Same for particle and solid state physics, or any other sub-field you care to mention.  Experimental particle physics may be hitting a barrier in terms of the size of their accelerators.
VL: We really appreciate your taking the time to chat with us, George. My last question is this: What advice would you give to students or young people thinking about a career in the sciences?
Locke: If you know you want to go into science and you’re considering what specific area you want to go into, consider what kinds of activities someone in that field engages in on a day-to-day level.  You have to be passionate about the science, but you also have to enjoy the practicum.  Pick a school that fits your personality.  Your relationship with your grad advisor is of prime importance.  If you’re in undergrad, don’t forget to have fun!!  If you’re in high-school, try your best to find good teachers, as basically every scientist I know decided what area of science to pursue based on their high school experiences.
Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.

The views expressed above do not necessarily represent those of Visionlearning or our funding agencies.