In our next interview of our “Young PI” series, I had the pleasure to talk to Ciarán Kelly from Northumbria. As you will reed below, Ciarán gives a detailed account of his endeavor, and he is now ready to tackle sustainability issues with his research.
Kostas Vavitsas: Probably the most important question of the day: how do I pronounce your name?
Ciarán Kelly: It’s pronounced keer-awn, an Irish Gaelic name. It translates to little dark one, which I interpreted as meaning mischievous one, which I think kinda describes me.
Kostas: You just started your new position in Northumbria University. What is this position and how did you end up there?
Ciarán: Yes, it is at Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK, and I am a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow. This is a three-year internally-funded university fellowship to start my own research group.
I am from Ireland, and I moved to the UK in 2002 to study genetics at the University of Glasgow. It was there that I was introduced to genetic circuits, while working on the circadian clockss of plants. At the same time, in 2007,Glasgow Uni participated in iGEM, and it was the first time I had heard the term synthetic biology. This really piqued my interest and I wanted to know more about this thing.
After finishing my honours degree and doing some travelling, I decided I wanted to do a PhD. I came back from sunny Australia to live in Dundee, in the north east of Scotland, where I worked on putting synthetic biohydrogen-producing pathways into microorganisms. The enzymes that produce hydrogen, hydrogenases, are generally ruined by oxygen and require complicated metal cofactors, so there was a lot to try to get right! After a few years of work I managed to produce tiny amounts of hydrogen from my synthetic pathway, a common problem for many metabolic engineers! This made me want to get a better understanding of the field, and in particular an interest in synthetic biology tools.
I then moved to Oxford for a one-year postdoc, which was not meant to last for only a year…
Kostas: What happened?
Ciarán: Well, the PI had recently moved to Oxford from Imperial, and after 6 months he announced he was leaving to go to the US.
After the initial shock the situation worked well for me. I was able to start some independent projects, I negotiated a research budget with the department and started some really fruitful collaborations, including one with Prof. Antonis Papachristodoulou in Engineering Science
As I was living in London and commuting daily, at the end of this year I moved to London and the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College. I joined the group of Dr. John Heap, a new PI who was interested in metabolic engineering of non-traditional microbes. He also wanted to focus on achieving high product yields. I worked on various projects in different organisms, including cyanobacteria (your organism of choice, right?). I dipped into the cyanobacterial world, and I found there was a lack of good tools. So I decided to work in that space and came up with a few useful tools to control gene expression in cyanobacteria, such as inducible promoters, terminators etc..
At this stage, I was encouraged to start applying for independent funding. I didn’t have a “superstar” paper, but I’m starting to get some solid first-author publications out. I took a short-term contract in Oxford to finish up some experiments for a paper with the engineering group. This involved engineering small RNAs for use in synthetic negative feedback circuits and working closely with modellers, which was a fun experience. I think when I started my PhD I was initially sceptical on how “engineerable” biology could be, but now I’m now a full convert! I then applied for a LOT of fellowships, which although they were rejected, got good reviews, encouraging me to keep going.
And then eventually this opportunity came up and now here I am!
Kostas: There you are. What is the theme of your current research?
Ciarán: That’s a good question, I ask it to myself all the time. My interests are quite varied, but in general my interests are in metabolic engineering of complicated pathways for sustainable biomanufacturing. I am interested in optimising metabolic routes that are, say, 15 catalytic steps long. Producing and maintaining all of those enzymes at the right levels in a non-native host is a big challenge, and I want to use new and existing synthetic biology tools to make it reliable.
Kostas: When is the right time to apply for a PI position?
Ciarán: I can’t say that there is an answer that fits everyone. In my case, I was a bit slow initially in getting publications. So even though I felt ready intellectually and experience-wise some time ago, I had to be realistic and take into account that you need good papers and an interesting research story. So it’s a trade-off between getting those papers and spending a substantial amount of time on putting together a strong application.
I learned a lot from applying for a postdoctoral fellowship. It makes you start to come up with a good proposal. We hear all the ways synthetic biology can and will change the world, but you need to think about what part you can play in this mission. The more proposals you write, the better they become, as you get feedback which you incorporate in later applications to tweak the ideas etc.
Kostas: But there are also differences between PI and fellowship applications, right?
Ciarán: There are similarities, but also notable differences. As PI positions usually have the title of lecturer, they give emphasis on teaching qualifications – something that some of us who have been in research-only roles tend to ignore. I would try to take up teaching duties whenever you can, for example, asking about doing some tutorials, lectures etc.
Kostas: Do you feel that your training as a PhD and postdoc prepare you adequately for independent positions?
Ciarán: I was very lucky with the mentors I had. They were great at sharing insights into how science is done and how a lab runs! I recommend to seek mentorship as much as possible. Your supervisor, other experienced postdocs, fellows and other friendly PIs.…scientists are never shy to give advice if you ask! Of course you will need to filter it and keep the bits that work for you. This will help get you there and prepare you for independence.
But there is another thing to keep in mind. I don’t expect to be suddenly transformed into the world’s best PI. And I think that’s okay! It’s just another stage in my career development, which will happen in any new role. I’m seeking feedback from colleagues and listening, I’ll try out a few things, I’ll make mistakes, and hopefully along the way I’ll become a better PI.
Kostas: A comment on mobility? You moved to quite a lot of places.
Ciarán: Not as far as you!
Kostas: That’s true, but I’m asking you…
Ciarán: Lots of it was due to circumstances, but I was always looking for good opportunities to go to new places, and I have benefitted from that. I have seen a few different work cultures. That said, I’m happy that I could stay for three good solid years at Imperial and get some things done.
Sometimes you have to move, like to do a particular piece of work or collaborate with a certain group, or live with your partner! It’s common and easier to do early in your career, as at some point you might want to set down some roots .
Kostas: Last question. How do you feel about your new role?
Ciarán: I’m really excited! I was offered this position in April and I feel great about it. Now it’s time to get some grants, recruit students and test out my own research ideas. I really want to be a good mentor for trainees, to offer them the support my mentors gave me.
I’m very passionate about tackling big challenges surrounding sustainability. It’s very inspiring to see so many like-minded young researchers, for example in your “Young PIs” series, who want to work on climate change and sustainability with their research. Let’s do it!
Ciarán was born in Dublin, Ireland. He graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 2007 with a BSc. (Hons) in Genetics. After a year of working at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, he went travelling for a year and a half before returning to start a PhD in the lab of Prof. Frank Sargent at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Following his PhD, he had postdoctoral positions at Oxford University, Imperial College London and Newcastle University. He recently started at Northumbria University in Newcastle as a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in Cellular and Molecular Biosciences. He’s a prolific tweeter and you can follow him and say hi @kellier13 on Twitter.