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Thursday, July 26, 2012

A LinkedIn Conversation

Modern technology has provided us with the ability to offer up our opinions. If you want to get into an argument online just offer up your opinion and wait. If you are on LinkedIn however, you are engaged in a professional conversation, you are not anonymous and you don't want future potential employers to see you offer up an honest but surly opinion. You end up with a Cargo Cult-like conversation.

The topic is phage display ELISAs. The worker used up his protein target panning for binding phage. Now he wants to use suspension cells expressing his target as his target in the ELISA. The first question one has to ask is whether or not it would be easier to find more of the pure protein than to develop an ELISA with suspension cells as the target.

There are many suggestions that are at the level of solving the problem stated. Those who wish to be leaders will accept that problem. It allows them to make suggestions but still leave the final decision to the worker. The probability of failure is high, but the accountability is not on the leader. A true scientific leader however, is the one who asks the questions. The scientist asks the questions because the scientist best knows what the problem is.

I've stated often that our education system selects for the best question answerers. The question askers often come across as the students. They seem naive, in need of a teacher to answer them. A scientist is someone who has the intellectual confidence to ask questions that many might consider to already have an adequate answer, and that answer has been placed into the heads of the educated. As is the case in the above problem, the intelligent response on this public forum would be to answer the question. Be the teacher to the student. Yet I think there is another approach which would have a higher probability of getting to the heart of the matter. Ask why the question has been posed. Question the question. The worker is trying to verify binding of phage to target. Has he set up the best experiment to answer his question. 

Ultimately, this is not a phage display problem. It is an ELISA problem. There is no phage problem because we have a phage expert in our lab with all of the skills needed to do the job. He is missing a reagent and we need to get him a substitute. That is our job as leaders accountable for the successful completion of this task.

As leaders we must take into account time and resources. We must also ensure that we get the best answer to the question. The most  important part of developing any ELISA is knowing the difference between signal and noise. Phage ELISAs have less separation between signal and noise than ELISAs with purified proteins and antibodies. With this new twist of using suspension cells in place of purified protein, one has to wonder what the signal and noise will be once you fully saturate the surface of your ELISA plate with your cells. Will you be able to distinguish the difference between noise and signal with this system?

Verification of binding is the forest. Attaching these cells to a plate is the trees. Make a list of your ideas and the suggestions you get from colleagues, use design of experiment to most efficiently run a set or series of tests and knock it all out at once. If nothing works, quickly move on to trying to get more pure protein.

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