The "3 Questions For" series (this time 3+1) changes continent to get the insights of Dr. Claudia Vickers. Dr. Claudia Vickers currently holds joint positions as Future Science Platform in Synthetic Biology Leader at CSIRO and Associate Group Leader at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, The University of Queensland. Read more about her and her research in her personal and her research group’s website, and follow her on Twitter.
When and why did you move into the field of synthetic biology?
Synthetic biology wasn’t really a ‘field’ when I did my PhD. Components of molecular biology and other fields segued into synthetic biology over time to become the interdisciplinary field that it now is. So it wasn’t so much moving into a new field, it was shifting the philosophical approach of my research to be more targeted on the design and construction of biological tools. This was something I was doing a lot anyway, so it wasn’t a major shift. I did my PhD in cereal plant engineering, targeting the endosperm of the seed as a bioreactor, but a got a bit dispirited about how long it took to engineer in plants. In the mid-nineties there was also a lot of anti-GMO activity, and I was concerned that it would be hard to translate the science I was doing to make a difference. So I did some more basic research over a couple of post-docs after that, in legume nodulation and in plant isoprenoids (specifically, isoprene emission). I was still using engineering tools, but was more focused on applying them to examine physiology and biochemistry of plant processes. When I came back to Australia in 2007, I was ready to try something new; that’s when I got into microbial metabolic engineering. Microbes grow much faster than plants, the engineering is much easier, and the potential is much higher. Also, the attitudes to GMOs have changed a lot over the last few decades. We use the tools we develop not just for engineering, but to understand basic metabolic processes, in particular, regulation of isoprenoid pathways. Isoprenoids are a really interesting class of natural products – heaps of diverse biological functions, and heaps of industrial applications. But that’s another story…
What is the single most important piece of advice that you would give to a current PhD student or a post-doc?
I do lots of career guidance, so I couldn’t possibly restrict myself to one single piece of advice – there’s too much you need to know to make your career work. But I can be (reasonably) concise and summarize in a rough order of priority:
1. Do what you love. This job doesn’t start and finish when you walk into the door of your building – it’s a part of you 24/7, it’s your personal brand, it forms part of your sense of identity. If you don’t love this job any more, then you need to move on and find something more satisfying. Research science isn’t an easy career path – publishing papers is hard, securing a position can be hard, and the funding cycle can be brutal. You have to love it a lot to do it!
2. Be a good writer. Writing is the most important skill that you need as a research scientist. You’ll be judged by two metrics in a classical research career: your publication record and your grant funding record. For both, you need to know how to communicate your science effectively, and how to target whatever program or journal you are writing for. The only way to get better is to write more – to write frequently and consistently. And ideally, find someone who knows how to teach you how to write – who can give you constructive and useful feedback. Likewise, be a good public speaker – that takes a lot of practice and constructive feedback too. Be willing to hear all feedback.
3. Find good mentors, and don’t stay in environments that are not providing you good support. This is especially important for women – and ideally, women need to find good female mentors. It doesn’t have to be your supervisor; I’ve benefitted enormously from career advice obtained during hallway chats and coffee meetings with people outside my line management. Good mentors make a huge difference.
4. Develop your transferrable skills portfolio. These are key skills both for a research career and for careers outside of research. Something like 0.5 % of people who graduate with a PhD will become a full professor. You are not a failure if you don’t make professor – you’re already highly successful when you start your PhD program. There are lots of great things to do outside the professorial career path – and many of them may be much more satisfying! You have many transferrable skills – writing, the ability to research effectively, communication skills, project management, time management, analytical skills, teamwork skills, etc. Your PhD and ECR career support programs at your institution should be helping you develop these skills. It’s unconscionable for any training system to focus on a career path that only 0.5 % of their constituency will follow.
In which areas do see the main challenges and opportunities for synthetic biology?
Synthetic biology aims to achieve predictable behavior using modular parts. And that’s a huge challenge. Typically we are reverse engineering and repurposing the components, and in many cases we don’t know enough about the biology to get it to behave the way we want it to. I think orthogonality may help solve some of these problems, because it allows relative isolation from confounding cellular interactions. Another issue is the price of DNA synthesis. It’s starting to come down and there are some new techs on the market, but broad-scale reliable and error-free synthesis is still a challenge for large synthesis projects. Finally, a key issue is making sure that we have social license to operate. We come up with all these amazing ideas but if we actually want to make a difference, and make the world a better place, we need to have the general public on board with us. That means it’s our responsibility to engage with the public and talk about our science in accessible ways. Most of the time we are spending tax payers’ money in any case, and that means we really have to take broad responsibility for the science that we want to do.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) decided to invest into making a new synthetic biology platform, of which you are currently the head of. What is the rationale behind this investment and what opportunities do you expect that it will create?
SynBio is the next transformative technology, and it’s moving phenomenally quickly. It’s likely that synbio will underpin innovation and advances in a wide variety of industries going into the future. Australia has many groups working in synbio areas, but unlike other key countries, we have not previously invested to reinforce and strengthen our capabilities. The CSIRO Future Science Platform in Synthetic Biology is a $13 M AUD program aimed at developing a collaborative research ecosystem in synbio across Australia and extending internationally, and fostering significant growth in this critical field. It’s also about building the next generation of science leaders in the field – and as part of that, we are investing in the CSIRO Future Science Fellowships in Synthetic Biology. The call is open now and the closing date is 27th March (see https://research.csiro.au/synthetic-biology-fsp/synbio-fellowships/). The CSIRO SynBio FSP is built on a philosophy of responsible development of synthetic biology technology; in addition to our experimental research program, and we will have a research program in social, ethical and regulatory aspects of synbio. We have four technical Science Domains: Integrative Biological Modelling, Engineering Novel Biological Components, Assembling Novel Biosystems, and Maximising Impact. Also, we are focusing in three priority Application Domains: Environment & Biocontrol, Chemicals & Fibres, and Organelles & Endosymbionts. We’re currently developing the research program and we are looking to work with all different stakeholders, from experimentalists to social scientists to industry partners. Take a look at the website https://synbioaustralasia.org/ and contact us (SynBioFSP@csiro.au) for more information.