In the next post of our young PI series, Jo interviews Amanda Jarvis from the University of Edinburgh.
Jo Sadler: You are working at the interface of biology and chemistry. Do these two disciplines talk well to each other?
Amanda Jarvis: I think that depends on which area of the interface you focus. There has been a long tradition of medicinal chemists collaborating with biologists, and I think that works well from what I see on the outside. In catalysis there is less history of talking across this interface, and there are language barriers – words such as ligand have different meanings and chemists talk in TON/TOF whereas enzymologists talk about kcat and Km. When you have scientists who are really interested in bridging the divide, the disciplines can talk well with each other, but mutual respect, interest and vision helps a lot.
Jo: How can we better integrate practices in interdisciplinary research?
Amanda: I think, for each discipline,having an awareness of what knowledge they assume is important, and making sure that acronyms, specialist techniques etc are explained when talking to an interdisciplinary audience would help a lot. This is also great for including younger members of the audience, or those from different subdisciplines, who may not have come across those techniques and terms. I think encouraging openness, curiosity, and creativity in teaching at all levels is vital for interdisciplinary research. As is creating an environment that brings people together (joint meetings, networks, places for informal meetings on campuses etc).
Jo: What can artificial enzymes do better than the ones found in nature?
Amanda: It is not so much they will be better, but that artificial metalloenzymes can do reactions that nature has never evolved to do. Introducing unnatural metal sites will, I believe, open up numerous possibilities for catalysis, biomaterials and novel healthcare approaches, that go beyond what just chemistry or biology can do alone.
Jo: How did you find your transition to PI?
Amanda: In some ways the transition to PI was very similar to what I had been doing as a senior postdoc, except with more grant writing. I had been coordinating a subgroup within my previous group, which involved group management, recruitment and finance decisions. For the last few months all this this was taking place after my supervisor moved to Germany.
However, this doesn't mean there haven’t been challenges. A big one has been how to divide my time between lab work and applying for funding, as well as teaching, and admin, and making sure I keep up with the literature! Another challenge has been recruitment – how to find PhD students and postdocs who are interested in interdisciplinary projects and have the skills and background needed. As a small group working at the interface of chemistry and biology there are a lot of skills I am looking for but it is hard to find that in just 1 or 2 people, so working out what is the most important skill needed now and trusting I will be able to hire more people later has been important.
Jo: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give to an early career researcher who aspires to become a group leader?
Amanda: If you have an idea, go for it, don’t feel you have to wait until you have 3 years’ experience or 10 papers. The process of writing a proposal really helps you focus on your ideas and what more experience\training you will need to get where you want to be. Conversely if you worry that you don’t have any ideas, start small and see where your reading takes you.
I would also say enjoy it and be curious, if there is a scientist who you admire and would like to go and work for, contact them. The time between PhD and PI is where you have the opportunity to explore and there are lots of fellowships that will allow you to work with the groups you want, regardless of what you might do in the future.
Dr Jarvis started her independent career at the University of Edinburgh as a Christina Miller Research Fellow in 2017, and has recently been awarded a UKRI Future Leaders FellowshipPrior to this she studied and worked in the UK, France and Canada. She graduated in 2007 from the University of St. Andrews with a Masters in Chemistry and then went on to receive a PhD from the University of York under the supervision of Professor Ian Fairlamb. Amanda then joined the group of Dr Philippe Dauban (ICSN, Gif-sur-Yvette) as a postdoctoral research fellow and worked on the development of Rh(II)-catalysed nitrene reactions. In 2013, she moved to Professor Paul Kamer’s group to work on sustainable catalysis, and subsequently received a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship to continue working in Professor Paul Kamer’s group on Artificial Metalloenzymes for the Oxidation of Alkanes (ArtOxiZymes).