The Ride of a Lifetime: a Fulbright Experience

Posted by Mark W. Peczuh

 Note: This is the long-read version of a post that appeared in the UConn Today.

More photos from Barca on flickr.

It was an international roller coaster ride. There were ups and downs. The time went faster than I expected. I returned to the place where I started. I want to do it all again. My Fulbright experience during the spring and summer of 2013 in Barcelona played a transformative role in my life, both personally and professionally. I have returned to my “normal” life with a broader perspective on my research and with a profound appreciation of place, history and especially interpersonal relationships that I had previously dismissed. In much the same way I packed a bit of eastern Connecticut to share with Barcelona, I’ve returned with my story about Catalunya that must be told.

Initially it was a maelstrom of sensations, impressions, and emotions: new sights, new smells, city life, commuting as a contact sport, late lunch and later dinner, Catalan in my ears that was close to the familiar Castilian Spanish but not quite intelligible, the kindness of the locals, joyous solitude filled with reading, writing and thinking, wretched solitude away from my family. My host and his lab were one constant during this time. I had chosen to work at the Chemistry Institute of Sarria (Instituto Quimico de Sarria, or simply IQS) with Professor Antoni Planas. Science is inherently international. Chemical reactions follow the laws of Nature so the lab was a logical place to connect with something that was familiar to me. I had also rented an apartment before I arrived in Barcelona through a company on the internet. I lived in a furnished third floor apartment in a neighborhood called the Eixample near the Diagonal and Passage of San Joan. The Eixample, literally ‘extension’, covers a huge swath of Barcelona. It was created as part of a huge expansion of the physical layout of the city that occurred in the 19th century. As with similar urban expansions of the time (e.g. NYC) the Eixample was laid out in a very logical grid pattern. With the most important locations of the city – my lab and my apartment – organized, I began to fill in the corridor between the two. Within a couple of weeks I had established a daily routine and had the physical lay of the land in my head. I could traverse the route from apartment to lab (by train) without conscious effort. I had coffee at Mr. Pan on most mornings. I did Saturday morning shopping at several stalls in the Market of the Conception near my house. I knew to get to the Poll Bo before three o’clock on Sunday if I wanted a chicken for lunch. The most basic challenges of day-to-day living had been overcome; I was on top of it all. I began to feel like l was really a local.

Research Collaboration: Let’s get the proteins to do the work.

Toni Planas, my host at IQS, is the Chair of the Department of Bioengineering. Work in his lab ranges from fundamental enzymology to the engineering of algae to overproduce beneficial fish oils. He is world-famous for being amongst the original developers of glycosynthase technology. Glycosynthases are engineered proteins that have their origins in sugar metabolism. One type of carbohydrates, the cellulose that makes up paper, for example, are linear polymers of individual sugar monomers. An easy analogy is to beads on a string – the beads are the sugar monomers and the bits of string between are the bonds that link together the monomers. There are enzymes – an enzyme is a protein that lets a chemical reaction occur more rapidly – in all living organisms that break the bonds between those monomers. Enzymes that break down the bonds in sugar polymers are called glycosidases. As Toni was studying the atomic details of how glycosidases actually speed up the cleavage reaction, he realized that a specific amino acid in the protein was critical for activity. More importantly, he reasoned if that you switched that amino acid so it couldn’t break the bond, maybe the enzyme could form the bond rather than break the bond – the enzyme would run “in reverse”. Given the appropriate conditions, these enzymes are remarkably efficient at making the bonds between sugar monomers. In effect, you could build the string of beads rather than tear it apart. The term glycosynthase was coined to indicate that the enzymes could use sugars (“glyco”) to synthesize (“synthase”) polymers.

Glycosynthases caught my eye because my research group makes artificial sugar compounds that contain an extra atom in the monomer ring. We’ve investigated how to synthesize these sugars and characterized how they are bound by proteins. Before the Fulbright investigation, we used a different type of protein called a lectin whose regular function is simply to bind sugar molecules. Our expanded sugars compete with natural sugars for the binding pockets of lectins – this could have implications for preventing bacterial infections, among other applications. Our question was whether glycosynthases could utilize our expanded sugars in their reactions. This question is more complex because the protein must bind AND then perform the bond forming reaction (They “do chemistry.”).

Once in the lab, I felt like I was a post-doc again. I was quickly reunited with an envelop of sugar samples I had sent from my lab before my departure. With my graduate student mentor, Hugo Aragunde-Pazos, I expressed and purified both a glycosidase and glycosynthase we had identified as the first candidates for our investigation. Some of the techniques I learned were completely new; others were old-hat. Hugo and the rest of my labmates were remarkably helpful and patient. I had many many interactions with the students that introduced me to a different perspective on how to think about science and research. Dealing with language slowed me down relative to how quickly I may have worked in a lab where English was the primary language. My lab technique was a little rusty too, I must admit. Despite the fact that the students were happy to speak Castilian Spanish (and when really pressed, English) in place of Catalan, I spent significant mental energy on simple communication. Language barriers may have initially slowed my work, but it went away after a few weeks. Those weeks I felt stressed and apprehensive because of the challenges language presented. The experience made a strong impression on me that I will never forget. I have more respect for all the international students and post-docs I’ve ever known and I will understand and anticipate this emotion in others when they’re in the same position.

It’s not breaking news to report that the mid-day meal is the main meal of the day in Spain. Lunchtime brought a special opportunity to me in addition to nourishment. It was a relaxed, informal atmosphere to discuss just about anything. My regular lunch group was composed of the people with whom I shared desk space: two of the advanced graduate students Victoria Codera and Sergi Abad, and two of the scientists Teresa Pellicer and Patricia Torruella Barrios. This group instantly became my logistical, social and cultural advisors on Barcelona and all of Catalunya. They taught me some Catalan. They explained how things worked within IQS, within Barcelona/Catalunya and within Spain. They kept me up-to-date on Spanish current events, like a brief hubbub surrounding subsidized cocktails in the Spanish parliament. The most productive lunches were when we planned activities for me to do with my family when they eventually joined me in Barcelona. These conversations were a fertile ground for me to get to learn about Catalan food, history, geography, everything. We determined early on that we could easily plan a year’s worth of weekend excursions, but we would have to concentrate that down to a solid month of touring.

Life Outside the Lab: Diversions

I also did extensive “field work” – aka sight-seeing – in Barcelona and Catalunya to prepare for the arrival of my family. I spent a couple of hours waiting in line one Saturday night to see a landmark Gaudí building, “Casa Milà” better know as “La Pedrera”. Entrance was free because it was the “Night of the Museums,” an event sponsored by the Catalan government and local companies. The line wrapped around three sides of a city block; that alone was sight to see. In between occasional forays on the internet afforded by free wifi hotspots, I actually chatted with some of the people who were in line with me. They provided support for my decision on which museum to visit that night (We didn’t actually get into La Pedrera until about midnight.), but they were happy to show their pride in their city and try out a little English too. Once inside I was struck with the brilliance of Gaudí; the attic of the building collects maquettes of several of his other works to showcase his design philosophy. His ability to harness natural themes – even abstractions such as conic sections – into the design of objects is a hallmark. To Gaudí form had to follow function in a way that uplifts one’s human spirit. Occasionally, a one or two of my labmates would join me on an excursion. The most noteworthy of these was a day trip to the Costa Dorada beach town of Sitges. I joined Victoria and her boyfriend Frances along with Anabella, a group alumni from Guatemala who happened to be visiting. We went to Sitges on Corpus Christi, a Catholic holiday in the spring, to see the “carpets of flowers” that are laid out in the streets. The carpets are designed and executed by neighborhood groups and some are really sophisticated. It’s kind of a stationary Rose Parade. The most interesting part comes during the afternoon when series of 8-10 foot puppets “gigantes” dance through the streets while simultaneously destroying the carpets. Victoria and Frances couldn’t explain why the gigantes had to destroy the flower creations, but it seemed symbolic. Regardless, we, along with the other kids and adults watching, shrieked with delight as the gigantes passed by.

Once they arrived in Barcelona, my family and I roamed around Catalunya as unapologetic tourists. We visited the Gothic quarter, the Magic Fountain on Montjuic and all the Gaudí spots like Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera and Casa Batllo. All of these sights were in the city itself. We also went further afield in Catalunya to Montserrat, the Codorniu vineyards in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, the beach at Vilanova i la Geltru, and the town of Figueres which is Salvador Dali’s hometown. We would take “breaks” in between excursions that would allow me to catch up on work and let them catch up on sleep. My one-bedroom apartment seemed palatial for two months became cramped when the four of us were living there together. Throughout our journeys my appreciation of the history, culture and people of Catalunya deepened. I was proud to claim temporary residency there.

Food is an essential component of culture and relationships. The dish most often thought of as the national dish of Spain is paella. In its simplest form it is yellow rice colored by saffron with shellfish cooked in a tomato and seafood broth. There are many, many variations but I staunchly defend my mother-in-law’s version as the world’s best. Paella was both the food and the entertainment at a party in honor of my host Toni who had just received the Fischer Prize at the 2013 European Carbohydrate Symposium. It was also a fortunate coincidence that the party was held as my family arrived in Barcelona. It was a perfect opportunity to introduce them to my new friends and colleagues. Preparing the paella was one of the main activities at the party. Three teams cooked one paella each; this was sufficient to serve everyone at the party. My family and I were happily only spectators for the cooking but participants in the eating. There was drama, trash-talking, some minor sabotage and all-out fun afoot as the paella was being cooked. The noted Catalan “gastronomy as performance art” couldn’t hold a candle to Fischer Prize party. Afterward we consumed the mountains of paella, there was a premier viewing of a video prepared in honor of Toni as Fischer Prize winner. It was a music video parody “Planas Style” a Catalan rendition of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” that included some embarrassing singing and dancing by everyone in the lab. While paella may be the national dish of Spain, the staple of the Catalan diet is bread with tomato, pa amb tomaquet in Catalan. It is one of those foods that is deceptively simple. It is the simplicity that requires using the best possible ingredients: bread (often toasted but not always), ripe tomatoes, olive oil and salt. Raw garlic is also used in the most traditional version. At a restaurant, the ingredients are delivered to your table for you to assemble. Start with the toast and rub it with a clove of raw garlic. Add olive oil and salt. Then take a fresh tomato cut horizontally, not longitudinally, and rub it onto the toast leaving only the tomato skin behind. Part of the attraction to me is the ritualistic nature of the preparation. It brings out my inner alchemist.

The Heart of the Matter

In the spirit of the Fulbright program, I arranged interviews with a few scientists in Barcelona whose research interests are similar to mine. Interviews were extracurricular; they were done outside my lab schedule. I originally had high hopes of doing several interviews, but in the end was able to do only three. In hindsight I wish I had made time for more. I caught up with my friend Xavi Salvatella, who had returned to Barcelona from a post-doc in England since I last spent time with him. I also interviewed Ernest Giralt who was an informal advisor to me as a graduate student. I also met Lluis Ribas, a scientist and entrepreneur working on developing new antibiotics. All three of these researchers work at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) in Barcelona. In the he interviews I asked about their latest research results and I also asked how they got to the IRB and what it meant for them to be doing research in Barcelona. The latter part of the interviews revealed more about Catalunya than I had expected they would. A theme centered on the importance of relationships with family and friends emerged as they recounted their decision to live and work in Barcelona. Each one is emotionally connected to Catalunya. Their identity as Catalans was clearly distinct from their identity as Spaniards. It struck me that these things – identification with ‘home’ and close personal relationships – make any group unique but it also common to all groups. What makes us different makes us the same. For me this was both profound and bittersweet. Profound because I realized that these were the same reasons that my brothers would have cited if I had asked them why they chose to live and work in the town where we grew up. And bittersweet because I’ve underemphasized those factors in my own career choices. The realization has kindled a desire in me to remember the importance of people and place.

Looking back on my short residence in Barcelona, the ups and downs seem a little less dramatic now than they were along the ride. All of my experiences there have provided valuable lessons and memories. The scientific work was rewarding and productive. Beyond that, I now have a deeper understanding of how Catalans see the world and themselves. I am attached to both the specifics of this perspective – in terms of their uniqueness in the context of Spain – and the broader concept that emphasizes relationships. I hope that I have revealed some small insights of my Nutmegger’s perspective of the world to my new friends and colleagues in Barcelona. I eagerly anticipate my next ‘ride’ there.