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Thirty-Year Scientific Collaboration Helps in Fight Against Viruses





Poland-U.S. Science Award recipients Ryszard Kierzek and Douglas H. Turner began working together on RNA research more than 30 years ago.  | One HD

In 1985, biophysicist Doug Turner was working on a way to understand the thermodynamics of sequences of RNA in order to predict their structure. Such an understanding would help demonstrate the inner workings of human cells and ultimately to help combat pathogenic viruses like the flu more effectively.

There was just one problem, though. Turner needed many different RNA oligonucleotides, or fragments, in order to carry out his research. His lab at the University of Rochester could synthesize only one of these oligonucleotides every three to four weeks.

Luckily, Turner took a sabbatical at the University of Colorado, and down the hall was another young scientist, a Polish researcher by the name of Ryszard Kierzek, who was using organic chemistry to produce four oligonucleotides at a time, and as many as two sets of four in a day.



Kierzek | One HD

The two met, discussed their research, and “started work together basically the next day,” said Kierzek, in a recent interview.

Just over 30 years, and 60 publications, later, Turner and Kierzek are being honored with the Poland-U.S. Science Award. Granted jointly by the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP), the biggest private institution supporting science in Poland, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific association, the award recognizes the best examples of cooperation between individual scientists from the two nations.

Congratulating Kierzek and Turner at a recent award ceremony in Warsaw, Poland’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Robert Grey referred to them as “the best ambassadors of Poland and the United States — and of successful American-Polish cooperation.”

William Colglazier, senior scholar in the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and editor-in-chief of Science & Diplomacy, said the two awardees provide an excellent example of how nations should encourage scientists to proceed in the 21st century.

“There are smart people in every part of the world, and if you want to stay at the forefront of science and technology in order to have a chance at being competitive, prosperous, and secure in the 21st century, you have to find the best people wherever they are and engage them, interact with them, and collaborate with them,” Colglazier said at the ceremony.

Meanwhile, the Warsaw event also gave AAAS an opportunity to engage at a more general level with the Polish scientific community. AAAS Director of International Relations Julia MacKenzie and Colglazier attended meetings at the Polish Ministry of Science and Education, the Polish Academy of Sciences, and Uniwersytet SWPS, Poland’s first private university, which is focused on the social sciences and the humanities.

“Even though the United States is a very large country, I’ve always found in all my international trips that you can learn from what others are doing in creative ways,” said Colglazier, who was the science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State between 2011 and 2014. “I’m thinking back on a number of lessons learned here that I hope to use to help the U.S. scientific enterprise.”

For his part, Grey, of Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Poland admires the United States’ ability to move “quickly” from an idea to a product or service. “The American experience of building innovation systems is clearly of importance to us,” he said.



Turner | One HD

At the ceremony in Warsaw, Turner — who is a chemistry professor at the University of Rochester known for the “Turner Rules” for predicting RNA structure — said the main goal of his and Kierzek’s research has been to move as quickly as possible from “genome sequence to drugs that can help cure somebody.” Thirty years ago, when the two met, they moved fast, publishing about ten articles based on six months of research. “I worked over 12 hours a day and lost weight — around one kilogram each month,” said Kierzek —who is now the director of the RNA Chemistry and Biology Laboratory at the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences, in Poznan — in an interview with Poland’s news and information portal

Andrzej Legocki, former director of the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry in Poznan, who nominated the two for the Poland-U.S. Science Award, said at the award ceremony that he wanted to congratulate them, not only on their successful scientific collaboration, but also on their enduring friendship. 

“Looking at you,” Legocki said at the award ceremony, “I must say you look like you are starting this collaboration right now, not 30 years ago.”

[Associated image credit: One HD]