The series continues with "3 Questions For" our academic sponsor Professor Birger Lindberg Møller. Professor Møller is Director of the Center for Synthetic Biology at the University of Copenhagen and Distinguished Professor at the Carlsberg Laboratory. Read more about his research in the area of Plant Biochemistry here and check out his TED talk on Plant power featured on our website.
How did you move into the field of synthetic biology?
Working with plant specialized metabolism for my entire career in science, the modular nature of the metabolic pathways became apparent. Bio-Engineering based on an understanding of how these modules interact became a key feature of our research and was fully aligned with and contributing to defining the concepts of synthetic biology and the underpinning share-your-parts principle and involvement of the do-it-yourself communities. Based on our research contributions, we were awarded a 16 million Euro grant from the Danish Government in 2009 to establish a Center for Synthetic Biology bridging plant biochemistry, bio-physics, nano-science, neuroscience, ethics, law and communication. This interdisciplinary approach to synthetic biology has enabled us to engage in and interlink basic as well as applied research within the natural sciences in parallel to maintaining vivid upfront positive and mutually highly awarding discussions within ethics, communication and law. These discussions have often guided the research of our synthetic biology center within natural sciences into entirely new directions. On example is our efforts always to obey the concept of working with nature instead of against nature in our engineering efforts e.g. within light-driven synthesis of structurally complex diterpenoids.
What is the single most important piece of advice that you would give to a current PhD student?
Follow your idea and pursue what excites you. When you are personally engaged, you accomplish a lot more. Choose to work in a research environment where people respect each other and want to and are able to collaborate. Choose a PhD advisor who understands how to manage to work under the radar of university administrators and a head of department who lack scientific competences and empathy, cannot manage to communicate difficult issues and who have to refer to figures in excel sheets based on simple metrics when they prioritize.
What are the major limiting factors to progress in the field of synthetic biology right now?
A basic understanding of the functions of modules in living cells. Lack of high impact journals who have established an editorial board and set of referees able to provide justified evaluations of highly interdisciplinary research contributions resulting from advances within synthetic biology. As a plant biochemist, I thought it was a timely and well thought out decision to establish the journal Nature Plants considering the importance of plants and plant research to offer science based solutions to the global challenges humanity is facing within climate change, food security and sustainably energy production. However, this mindset does not seem to have been the motive. Focus on crop plant research and on research topics e.g. elucidating the effects of climate change on food security and quality and pest resistance in natural environments is not apparent. But as a PhD or post doctoral fellow in a rich industrialized country, please realize that you should never let you influence or be directed by barriers set up by persons and systems who do not manage to adapt to current demands. There are no acceptable excuses if the limiting factors for your personal performance is not your personal intellectual capacity, ability to work hard, collaborate and be a trustworthy and generous person. Please keep in mind that synthetic biology sets no limits for your personal performance and ideas to be pursued. So go for it and good luck.