‘I can type because there are proteins that help me do it.’ That’s what I wrote several days ago. Then I took you on a journey that included workstations, screensavers and medical research. What I didn’t do was explain why I was writing about proteins in the first place. And I never mentioned actin nor myosin.
‘… proteins are a marvel of efficient organization over emotional compromise and social politics.’
This was not something I thought about when I was part of an office team that went through a Birkman personality assessment several years ago. But it’s what Dr Camilla Pang realised. So mapped protein behaviour onto the Myers Briggs personality assessment system to learn how the antics of proteins could help her better understand humans.
The analysis of the proteins using Myers Briggs makes a weird kind of sense to me. Pang made an extraordinary lateral leap to the insight and such a leap is probably only possible by someone with an ‘Aspergic, ADHD brain’, as Pang describes herself.
I think my employer used the rival Birkman technique because it also suggests steps that can be followed rather than the analysis and classification that Myers Briggs provides. As a company, my corporate employer maintained an engineering mindset for most things, including us. We used Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely goals drive ourselves. Each of us was continually assessed and rated annually on the so-called SMART basis. People as widgets, proteins as people and people as the proteins of a corporation. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
‘It’s hard for me to express how much love I have for proteins. They are these beautifully chaotic modules of evolution, whose interwoven network of functions brings biology to life. In the same way that some children ascribe personalities to the pets and imaginary friends, and use them to start learning about human behaviour, I saw the personality in proteins. Like people, they behave in an unpredictable and non-linear way. They are dynamic, versatile and susceptible to changing conditions and interactions with others like them.’
Making my own non-linear jump, from Myers Briggs back to a Birkman analysis on myself, it seems that I was (or am) selectively sociable, imaginative, reflective, subjective and insightful. My stress behaviours were seen as complementary to my team peers, a good thing. I was more likely to become hypersensitive and ignore social convention than those that might resist new ideas or get impatient. It also determined could I become indecisive under duress, potentially a bad thing. I agreed with that and thought it a positive trait after I’d seen some ‘decisive’ people make some really bad calls. And I don’t mean Blair or Bush, I mean people in my circles that made uninformed decisions.
I was found to be impatient with social demands and group dynamics. A hormone regimen during cancer treatment had already brought this home to me but my empathic streak inly lasted for a few months. I was also exposed as rebellious and not enough concerned with the perspectives of others. My retirement a few years later helped put that observation into perspective. In some ways, the most interesting thing I recall was that some of my team were likely to act without thinking, become busy for the sake of it and very likely to generate restless tension. Interesting. I had long recognised these traits in the people that this analysis revealed. Doubtless they say that the Birkman analysis was probably 95% right about me too.
But the analysis and exposure of my unknown me wasn’t yet complete. Next, I was subjected to Kilmann Diagnostics and found to be ‘avoiding ‘ and ‘uncooperative’ and therefore not likely to be effective as a manager. Which might explain why I was primarily an advisor for the last decade of my career. Of course, none of these were true when I was on that hormone therapy. As I’ve often said, I discovered empathy and spent a copacetic few months in the office, carefree and achieving almost nothing at all.
Hormones are proteins and as Pang writes, ‘proteins are a marvel’. Let’s name their main categories just so we’re all on the same page.
The immunoglobulin protein is an antibody that binds to invaders to protect us. Enzymes are proteins that enable all sorts of functions from reading DNA to digesting food. Hormone messengers you know about already. Cooperation between proteins such as troponin and tropomyosin help regulate muscle contraction by controlling when and how proteins like myosin binds to the protein actin. You can type because there are proteins that help you do it.
And then there’s a protein present in nearly all living organisms from archaea to bacteria to algae to plants and you. That’s the marvellous ferritin and it helps buffer iron to prevent deficiency or overload. You’d be lifeless without it. Indeed, you’d be utterly lifeless without any one of these tiny ingredients in the recipe of your life.
And now I’ve been folding mathematical models of proteins at home for a week after a hiatus of a more than a decade. Points are awarded for each activity completed and I recall having the ambition and being on track to reach a million points all those years ago. We folded for years but never quite made the million. Computing has moved on and as long as the method of measuring points has remained consistent, I’m aghast that my idle time screensaver has earned more than 120,000 points in the first week. Today my desktop machine was helping with ‘understanding the folding mechanism of alpha-helical hairpins’ and then ‘understanding the mechanistic basis of drugs that might be used to treat defects in myosin’ when not helping me post journals, develop photographs and publish photozines. Or talk with you.
If you have the time, and want to know why autism has advantages, I strongly recommend a read of Explaining Humans by Camilla Pang. It deservedly won the Royal Society Science Book of Year in 2020.
To download the Folding@home software and start contributing to COVID-19 research, visit https://foldingathome.org/start-folding/.