3 Questions

3 Questions for Dr. Alistair McCormick

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In our next “3 Questions for” post, we interview Dr Alistair McCormick, the group leader of the Plant Molecular Physiology and Synthetic Biology Lab at the University of Edinburgh. He holds an MSc from the University of Stellenbosch and a PhD from the University of KwaZulu Natal, which he gained while at the South African Sugarcane Research Institute. He worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and John Innes Centre before becoming a group leader in Edinburgh in 2013. Alistair's research interests have centered around photosynthesis and how it can be manipulated to produce novel products or improve plant productivity. 



When and why did you move into the field of synthetic biology?

I was fortunate as my postgrad degrees had a good mix of different disciplines, namely plant physiology and molecular biology. I’ve since had the opportunity to work with academics and industrial researchers from a variety of disciplines, including engineers and chemists, which has really helped me to get over any fears and really enjoy working with different kinds of scientists. I was beginning to work on building pathways from microalgae into higher plants around 2010, when the paradigm of synthetic biology was gaining traction, so I was well positioned to move into the field.

In which areas do see the main challenges and opportunities for synthetic biology?

I think a key challenge is having the capacity to build interdisciplinary relationships. Much of synthetic biology requires collaborative work, and this can be challenging for researchers  and from a funding perspective. A second challenge (that we are getting better at over time) is the management and sharing of data, plasmids and strains, including setting standards for storage, curation and public access. Regarding opportunities, synthetic biology has many, but for me it is the proliferation of available high-throughput tools that have significantly increased our capacity to build and test novel pathways and modify biological organisms.        

   

What is the most important piece of advice you would give to an early career researcher in synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology requires a good mix of experience in different disciplines (e.g. molecular biology, bioinformatics and modelling). However, it’s very challenging to get this from an undergrad degree or even a PhD. You don’t have to be able to do everything yourself, developing good collaborations and working with other experts is key. Also, always think twice as long about your controls as your experimental samples!

3 Questions for Dr. Yolanda Schaerli

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In our latest post in our “3 Questions for” series, we have the joy to Interview Dr. Yolanda Schaerli. Yolanda is an assistant professor of synthetic biology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Her research group uses synthetic biology to understand the mechanisms, properties, and evolution gene regulatory networks.

   

When and why did you move into the field of synthetic biology?

During my studies in biology, I became fascinated with engineering biological systems. The goal of my PhD project was to improve enzymes by directed evolution (performed in microfluidic water-in-oil droplets). When looking for a post-doc position, it was clear that I wanted to move into the emerging field of synthetic biology and decided to build synthetic gene regulatory networks. The research currently ongoing in my lab involves engineering synthetic constructs in E. coli that help us to understand underlying biological principles and fundamental properties of biological systems, with a focus on gene regulatory networks involved in pattern formation.

 

In which areas do see the main challenges and opportunities for synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology has the potential to fuel the next industrial revolution. Engineered biological systems have potential applications in almost every aspect of our lives, for example by providing novel approaches to detect and treat diseases and to produce fine chemicals, biofuels and smart materials, just to name a few. Synthetic biology will hopefully contribute to transition to a more sustainable society that avoids climate change and environmental degradation.

The big challenge is to realize this potential. This will require moving from “proof-of-principle” circuits to robust systems that reliable function in real-world settings. It will also require addressing ethical and regulatory issues.

 In basic science, synthetic biology provides us a complementary approach to study the mechanism, organization, function, and evolution of natural biological systems and processes. By building simplified versions of complex natural systems, we can focus on the elements of interest, while avoiding confounding factors. I hope that this approach will become more accepted and valued in the scientific community.

 

What is the most important piece of advice you would give to an early career researcher in synthetic biology?

I don’t think there is a single advice that applies to every early career researcher. I would like to mention three points that I think are important:

It is not enough to do great science; you also need to be able to communicate it. Good writing and presenting skills truly make a difference. If necessary, take some courses and practice as much as you can.

I often observe that PhD students and post-docs start too late thinking about what they would like to do next. If you only apply for post-doc positions after submitting your PhD thesis, you are likely to have an (unfinanced) gap, which might for example be problematic for your visa situation. Consider that it easily takes 10 months or more from applying to a fellowship or grant to starting the new position.

I would also like to point out that leaving academia is absolutely no failure and should be an option from the beginning. There are so many interesting jobs outside academia, why not considering them?

3 Questions for Prof. Barbara Di Ventura

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In our most recent iteration of the ‘3 Questions For’ interview format, we speak with Prof. Barbara Di Ventura at the BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany. Her group is pushing the boundaries of optogenetics and uses light-regulated methods to study cell division and chromosome segregation in bacteria. Herein, and in general, the Di Ventura lab has a strong focus on protein dynamics.

When and why did you move into the field of synthetic biology?

I would say 2002 is the year that marks my entry into the field of synthetic biology. After I graduated in Computer Engineering at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” I moved to Heidelberg to start my PhD at the EMBL in the group of Luis Serrano. At the beginning, the idea was for me to do only mathematical modeling of biological processes. After some months, however, Luis told me I should rather learn to do experiments on my own not to have to wait for others to give me data to model. That’s when I came into the field of synthetic biology, as the project I selected dealt with the transplantation of the p53-Mdm2 module into yeast to study its properties as an oscillator. I think that for someone like me who trained as an engineer, synthetic biology is the most natural way of entering into molecular biology. Eventually we are engineering cells instead of cars or buildings! And we do use computers a lot.


What is the single most important piece of advice that you would give to a current PhD student or a post-doc?

To those working in the field of synthetic biology I would say: take the chance to make the world a better place! To those not working in the field of synthetic biology I would say: what are you waiting for? Join synbio!!


In which areas do you see the main challenges and opportunities for synthetic biology?

The first area that comes into my mind is medicine. There is so much that synthetic biology can do here. The most intriguing to me is the transformation of the concept of treatment from “taking a drug” into “having a synthetic circuit monitor your state of health and react in case anything goes wrong”. Of course, the challenges are many since we need to break down the natural – and understandable – barrier of fear and skepticism that surrounds the idea of introducing something man-made (yet living!!) into our bodies. Moreover, we surely need to go down a long way to make sure that this method is safe and effective. Beyond medicine, synthetic biology can bring a revolution in so many other fields – energy, food production, environment, just to name a few.

3 Questions for Dr. Francesca Ceroni

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In our newest edition of the '3 Questions for' interview format, we spoke to Dr. Francesca Ceroni, located at the Department of Chemical Engineering of Imperial College London. As a Junior Research Fellow, she is making use of bacterial and mammalian synthetic biology to make a difference in bioproduction and biomedicine. Additionally, Dr. Ceroni is also active in the iGEM competition, both as a judge as well as a supervisor.

When and why did you move into the field of synthetic biology?

I had just graduated in Pharmaceutical Biotechnologies when I met a Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bologna
that was looking for an advisor for the Bologna iGEM team.
Synthetic Biology sounded so interesting to me that I decided to give it a try; I was also happy to work with other students in an interdisciplinary environment.
That was it: Synthetic Biology just captured my interest and passion from that moment on and I continued in the field for my PhD, post doc and ... the present.

What is the single most important piece of advice that you would give to a current PhD student or a post-doc?

I would suggest to try to work with people you like, that show vision... choose very well the environment, the people, the once you want to deal with.
That will make a difference in your career.


In which areas do you see the main challenges and opportunities for synthetic biology?

I think there are many challenges, but the one I consider the most difficult to tackle is the complexity of biological systems that impacts on the reliable engineering we want to achieve. We have gone a long way into the understanding and characterisation of the systems we work with, but there is a lot to do and so much diversity to take into account as well.

3 Questions for Prof. Hyun Youk

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Our newest instalment of the "3 Questions for" interview series features Prof. Hyun Youk from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. His research makes use of quantitative methods as well as models and theory to understand the interactions between molecules and cells and discover common design principles. Here, he speaks about his transition from physics to biology and his view on the field of synthetic biology.

 

When and why did you move into the field of synthetic biology?

I never considered myself as a full-fledged synthetic biologist and I certainly haven't done any significant work in synthetic biology. But I have used and my group routinely uses tools of synthetic biology to modify and complement endogenous signalling pathways with engineered signalling circuits, with the goal of better understanding those endogenous pathways or what cells can do. On the other hand, my group doesn't build synthetic circuits to create logic gates, devices, desired dynamics, and practical applications. That’s why I hesitate to call myself a synthetic biologist in the conventional sense.

Instead, I can say when and why I moved into biology from physics.  At the core, I'm a physicist who’s been very interested in understanding how inanimate molecules - the same ones that make up many non-living systems - give rise to features that we associate with life in one scenario but not so in another scenario. This tells us that dynamics, not the molecular content, are what determines whether something is living or not and that we don’t really understand the principles that underlie these dynamics (keep in mind that even a dead cell can contain DNA so “ all living things contain DNA and non-living things don't” is not the answer). This question of what distinguishes the living from the non-living has stayed with me since 2006 when I started learning and doing biology. In 2006, I enrolled in MIT’s physics graduate program. As a beginning PhD student, my original intention was to join a cold-atomic physics group there. But I had a year of fellowship money to try other fields before formally committing to a lab. At first, I did an internship in a nanotechnology lab that studied how electrons moved through quantum dots. But that group’s PI let me go after a month - this is a gentrified way of saying “I was fired” -  because he thought that I wasn’t good and that I kept messing up a senior PhD student’s experiments. That was a low point for me because I had just started the PhD program and I had never been fired before. My options then were to just finish taking the required courses (in the American PhD programs, you had to take courses) and eventually join the atomic physics group after 9 months or try my hands at a different field.

In my daily commute to the nanotechnology lab, I passed by the biophysics lab of Alexander van Oudenaarden. I had no idea what he was working on, and I didn’t even understand the words in the title of his group's papers and posters that were posted outside his lab. My last course in biology was more than six years ago in high school, which was mostly about Mendelian genetics and ecology and almost nothing about molecular biology. At this point, as physics student, I also didn’t know what a pipette was, how RNA was different from DNA, and what the central dogma of molecular biology was. But what struck me about my morning commute through the hallway of Alexander’s group was how happy people seemed in his group. I routinely heard laughters coming out of the lab as I walked by. Before approaching Alexander for an unpaid internship, I first borrowed Alberts' book on molecular biology from a library. I found the book (and I still do) very difficult to read because biology textbooks were and still are written in styles that are very distinct from those of the physics and math textbooks that I was used to.  Even though I barely made through a page in any of the chapters in Alberts’ book, I found that I could pose for myself very simple questions about living systems while reading the book and that these questions, posed by someone without any biology background, were largely meaningful and still weren’t answered yet. That really hooked me on biology. So I asked Alexander for an internship and he generously gave me the chance. Since then I fell in love with biology, questions about life which could border on philosophy, and doing experiments with my own hands. I never looked back since then and I’m very grateful to Alexander to this day for giving me a chance and keeping me in his lab for the next 4 years.

Aside from the positive lab culture and the fact that I could pose “simple" questions, such as “how does a cell ’know’ this and not that", to which deep answers didn’t exist yet, the final clincher for me was the revelation that I could quantitatively address those simple questions about living systems with my own hands at the lab bench. Through my internship in Alexander’s lab, I found that I could resolve these questions about cells by designing “simple” experiments, doing them, and then having the results of those experiments tell me the next steps. I have found and still find this process to be similar to the process one uses in proving mathematical theorems through a series of logic, which I also enjoy doing, or how a detective would narrow down the list of suspects. I very much enjoy this hard-to-describe “funnelling” process that narrows down a complex biological system or a grand question about life into concrete conclusions. Aside from these grander points, I also found myself enjoying even the little things like pouring agarose gels, running PCR, aliquoting media, making master mixes, pasting gel pictures into my lab notebooks, etc.  In retrospect, I find that this aspect - enjoying even the seemingly little things in day-to-day bench activities - were indispensable for whatever success I’ve had in research.

So that’s my non-linear path to biology. I've revealed these details here to remind readers who are students that some small event - in my case, being fired from an internship - can literally have a life-changing consequence and that like in research, serendipity and seemingly devastating failures can actually lead to a very positive outcome in a scientist's career. I also think that my story is just one of many like it and that it shows one should not be afraid to enter a field that one knows nothing about. If you’re really fascinated by the question, then I say you should go for it.

 

What is the single most important piece of advice that you would give to a current PhD student or a post-doc?

My first advice is to take anyone’s advice, including mine, with a grain of salt. There’s no one shoe that fits everyone. With this caveat, my advice for PhD students is different from one that I’d give to postdocs.

If you’re a PhD student, keep in mind that your goal is to learn how to develop a story backed by data and then tell that story through writings and talks. In many countries, you have four years to develop and tell a story. Be very critical of your own work. Learning this is also an important part of a PhD. Once you know how to develop and tell a story, then you’ll find these are useful skills in any other field of science as well as outside of science (keeping in mind that you don’t have to stay in academia or in science after a PhD - leaving academia is not a “failure”). You can keep a text document and slides that you constantly update with new results. The idea is that the text will evolve into a manuscript and the slides evolve into slides for a talk that you can give to anyone about your work. When you first start a project, the text and slides will be empty, contain vague items, and a messy outline. But as you get new results, they will evolve. You’ll find that you’ll need to delete some paragraphs or slides because the story has changed. You’ll rearrange some slides because their order no longer makes sense according to the evolving story that you want to tell. The process of rearranging, deleting, and as a result, planning the next experiments is the process of learning how to do science. I think this is what every PhD training should be about.

If you're a postdoc who’s looking to run your group one day, I think you need to think about if there are questions that your own group will want to pursue that are unrelated to your current postdoc work while, at the same time, having the postdoc work being helpful in pursuing those questions (e.g., same organism with similar techniques). What you do in your own lab does not have to be a natural extension of your postdoc work. Don’t let a decision that you made years ago on where to do a postdoc dictate the next 10-20 years of your life. A luxury that we have in systems and synthetic biology, while not exclusive to these fields, is that we’re often driven by abstract concepts and are not tied to a particular pathway, mechanism, biological process, or an organism. So you can chart a course for your lab that really is distinct from what you did during your postdoc. But I think you can be strategic about doing this. For example, doing follow-up studies of your postdoc work may let you publish soon (1-3 years) after beginning your lab. In the meantime, you can explore a new area that really excites your group and if that new direction works out, then your lab can start publishing in that field after 4-5 years and start shifting into that new area, if you’d like. I think this strategy can let your group avoid the publication draught of the first few years that starting labs often experience while also having the time to develop a new line of research if that’s what you’d really like to do. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with more gradually extending your postdoc work and having that be the focus of your own lab. Again, no one shoe fits everyone. The most important thing is to dream big about what your lab will have contributed after 5- 10 years.

 

In which areas do you see the main challenges and opportunities for synthetic biology?

I think the biggest challenge for me is understanding biology well enough to build systems that mimic or extend natural systems. In my experience, no circuit that I or my group has built ever worked out the way that we thought that it would. These apparent “failures” yielded surprising findings and formed the bases of projects and publications in my PhD, postdoc, and now in my group. Think of how the repressilator led to, unsuspectingly, a vivid demonstration of noise in gene expression. That study helped in launching the burgeoning field of stochastic gene expression. For me, I think the challenges and opportunities are the same: Not understanding biological systems well enough and trying to perturb them has and will lead to discoveries about how cellular processes work, whether they be evolved or hand-made. I think this will be an ever-lasting challenge and opportunity that will outlive the technological limitations that we have now (e.g., cost-effectively writing DNA of an arbitrary length letter by letter and integrating it anywhere inside a cell of any type).