Interview with Dr. Roderick MacKinnon

2009-08-24 1,387

Nobel Laureate conferred first POSTECH Honorary Doctorate
Dr. Roderick MacKinnon

POSTECH, in celebrating 20th Anniversary on December, awarded the first honorary doctorate to Dr. Roderick MacKinnon of the Rockefeller University. Dr. MacKinnon received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003 for his work on the structure and operation of ion channels. He is currently the head of Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology and Biophysics which studies the structure and function of ion channels and associated regulatory proteins.

International Affairs Office (IAO): First, congratulations on your honorary doctorate degree. What were your first thoughts when POSTECH invited you as the first honorary doctorate?

RM: I was very honored and for a special reason. I visited POSTECH early in 2003 to give a scientific talk. The audience at the talk was probably the most interdisciplinary and interactive that I had ever experienced. There were physicist, chemists, engineers and biologists and they all seemed interested in hearing about the electrical system of living organisms. Many very good discussions with the audience occurred during the lecture. I could feel the enthusiasm coming from the audience. It was a very good experience for me. I decided that POSTECH is pure unadulterated science ? the real thing – just the kind of place I really like. Thus, when I was invited to receive the first honorary doctorate I was truly honored.

IAO: What is your relationship with POSTECH?

RM: This is answered pretty well in the above question. I should add one little personal experience that also occurred during my first visit to POSTECH. A professor told me that I would soon win a Nobel Prize because my visit brought rain. He told me the same thing happened to E.J. Corey. It rained on his visit to POSTECH and later that year he received the Nobel Prize. Well, later in 2003 I received the Nobel Prize. Now when people tell me they have been invited to give a lecture at POSTECH I tell them to hope for rain!

IAO: Could you tell us a little bit about ion channels and your area of research?

RM: Ion channels are membrane proteins that allow ions ? charged atoms ? to cross the membrane of cells. The cell membrane is a bilayer made out of lipid molecules. Because its interior is hydrophobic it does not conduct ions very well, in fact it is quite a good insulator. The membrane is embedded with proteins that allow ions and other substrates to cross. In living cells some of these proteins are called pumps because they pump ions across the membrane against an electrochemical gradient. To do this pumps utilize energy from another source such as the hydrolysis of ATP and thereby build up ion gradients across the membrane. The channels on the other hand are passive, which means when they open ions rush back down their electrochemical gradient. Because ions carry electrical charge the flow of ions separates charge across the membrane. An electrophysiologist, elecrtrical engineer or physicist would say the ion flow charges the capacitance of the membrane. The electrical signals produced by living cells are a result of properly timed charging of the membrane capacitance. Proper means the channels must open in response to the correct signals and then once open they must allow only the correct ions to pass. My contribution to this understanding relates to the generation of the first atomic level description of ion channels, particularly K+ channels. The atomic structures are helping us and other scientists to understand how channels open and how they select the correct ion.

IAO: Could you tell us about how you started your scientific career? How you first became interested in science and who were your influences?

RM: I have always liked science ever since I was a small boy. I guess I am just curious about how things work. It is not that someone introduced me to science one day and I said okay that’s it. I simply can’t help wondering how things work. It makes me feel happy to figure something out even if that something is small and unimportant.

IAO: You gave up being a physician and became a scientist. What were some factors which influenced this decision for change?

RM: I prefer the kind of problem solving you find in science. You see some phenomenon and try to figure out how it works by identifying the relevant components and seeing how they interact. If you are lucky you might be able to deduce some rules about nature. That is very satisfying.

IAO: What are your long-term goals? Will you continue to work on ion channels or perhaps into some other area?

RM: For the moment I will stick with ion channels because there are some processes, which I do not yet understand, that interest me very much. Maybe after a while, perhaps before too long, I will make a change of subject. We will see.

IAO: What are the qualities, as a Nobel Prize recipient, do you think that an individual needs in order to win a Nobel Prize?

RM: I do not know. Pursue a good problem in science for the sake of the problem, not to win a Nobel Prize.

IAO: What are your thoughts on the Korean education system and / or of the level of Korean science compared to the rest of world? (and of Korean students from experience)

RM: I do not know the details of the Korean education system but it must be very good because so many of the students I have met in Korea are so advanced in their knowledge. When I delivered the high school student talk in Seoul during my recent visit I was amazed by the very good questions asked by high school students. Their questions were extremely sophisticated. When I spoke with students at POSTECH I was very impressed not only by their level of knowledge, but perhaps more importantly, by their passion for learning. A group of students invited my wife and I to the log cabin on campus. There we talked about science and life. These students were simply wonderful ? filled with passion and drive to do great things. I was very impressed by these students.

IAO: What do you do in your free time?

RM: Among other things, I very much enjoy being out on the sea in my kayak.

IAO: Any last comments?

RM: I hope to visit Korea again sometime soon!

IAO: Thank you Dr. MacKinnon for taking your precious time away from your busy schedule for this interview. I hope that the readers will find it interesting and informative.