Reactions: Bryan Dickinson

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Bryan Dickinson is in the Department of Chemistry at The University of Chicago, and works on developing both small molecule and synthetic biology technologies to measure and control chemistry in living cells. Bryan recently published a paper entitled “A fluorescent probe for cysteine depalmitoylation reveals dynamic APT signaling” in Nature Chemical Biology.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

As I explored different types of science through courses and research experiences in college, I found chemistry approaches science with what I believe is a perfect balance of molecular understanding and real-world applicability. Our ability as chemists and bioengineers to build molecules that actually do something continues to fascinate me, and is the ultimate motivation behind every project I pursue.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be — and why?

One of my current hobbies is woodworking, both art pieces and furniture. If I could build all day I think I would be pretty happy. I like crafting something with my hands that never existed before and would not have except for my hard work. In that regard, research in my lab is quite similar. Whether your building a table, synthesizing a small molecule, or engineering a protein, success comes from focus, persistence, and creativity. The latter is especially important to me, because in design and art, as well as technology, I find beauty in creative approaches that impart functionality.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

Two project areas in the group just had some nice breakthroughs. In one area, we came up with a very general small molecule strategy to measure cysteine PTM “eraser” enzymes in live cells and used it to discover that cysteine lipidation status is dynamically regulated. We hope these tools will lead to a better understanding of how cysteine PTMs are regulated, and how alterations in that regulation effect cell physiology. In a second project area, we just developed a split RNAP-based biosensor engineering platform. This approach is opening up a variety of new directions in my group, including new evolution systems, mammalian synthetic biology tools, and new ways to measure endogenous biochemistry.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?

I would love to have dinner with Rosalind Franklin, who was actually my current age (32) when she gathered the first X-ray diffraction image of DNA. That single image lead to the elucidation of the double helix structure of DNA and the discovery of the biophysical basis for the central dogma. She of course tragically passed away just five years after gathering that data. I imagine a dinner with Rosalind would be immensely interesting, during which she could explain what it was like to be a scientist during the beginnings of modern molecular biology, and maybe reveal how she was able to be so successful at such a young age while facing so many challenges. Moreover, I would really enjoy explaining to her what we can do with DNA today in terms of synthetic biology, which I imagine would sound like science fiction.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab — and what was it?

I actually really enjoy being in lab and try to help with experiments as much as possible. Most of the time I do the stuff in lab that no one else wants to do, like making cell media and molecular biology reagents. Last week I assisted with a confocal imaging experiment, which was lots of fun. When I have a few extra minutes, I enjoy designing primers for new cloning projects, which I am still quite good at. I refer to members of my team that surpass me in their cloning abilities as “cloning ninjas”, of which I have a few now, but I am still the “cloning sensei” and work hard to keep that rank.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

The Great Gatsby is the one book I can read over and over again and still enjoy. Music is a tough one to choose. I think if I were exiled to an island by society for some reason that I’d be feeling pretty angsty, and Green Day’s Dookie has been one of my go-to soundtracks for that mood since I was in third grade.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions — and why?

I would like to see Carolyn Bertozzi interviewed. She has a great perspective on the field of chemistry and is always full of excellent advice, especially for young scientists.