Young PIs in action: Interview with Stephen Wallace

In our next installment of our Young PI series, Jo Sadler interviews Stephen Wallace, group leader and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.


Jo Sadler: How did you find your transition to PI? Any unexpected challenges?

Stephen Wallace: Goodness…how long do we have?! The entire process was scary, but an amazing amount of fun at the same time. I think most of the challenges I faced were somewhat unexpected – you are, after all, suddenly required to adapt to a job that requires a completely new set of skills. However, research is all about venturing into the unknown so perhaps the transition to PI is simply another manifestation of this. I found the isolationism of the job quite challenging at first – going from working with a group of people in a lab to working on my own in an office was a big change.

Luckily for me, the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh runs a brilliant Research Leadership Program, which all new PIs are enrolled on. Also, I was fortunate to be selected for the 2017 Scottish Crucible, which was an invaluable opportunity for me to engage with the media, local government and to connect with other early-career researchers in Scotland. Both of these programs helped me tremendously during my first year as a PI.


Jo: Is E. coli the ideal environment to perform chemical reactions? What are the pros and cons of performing chemical synthesis within/associated with a cell?

Stephen: What an exciting question! To be honest, this is what we are exploring right now. One of the main challenges is their perceived incompatibility. Historically, the fields of chemical and biological synthesis have been considered as mutually incompatible – i.e. metal-based chemical catalysts are inactive under the conditions required to support a living organism and are toxic to cells. However, our research is showing that this is isn’t always true. For example, we’ve recently discovered a chemical reaction that is accelerated inside the membrane of living E. coli cells (it is, after all, similar to an organic solvent!). The potential for innovative research in this field is tremendously exciting and will continue to rely on the combined efforts of both synthetic biologists and synthetic chemists.

For now, all I can say for sure is that unexpected things keep happening when we try-out synthetic reactions in the presence of living cells, and these effects can often have a positive influence on the reaction outcome.


Jo:You have worked both in the UK and the US. Any striking cultural differences between the research environments? 

Stephen: Day-to-day life as a researcher in the UK/US is very similar. I’m always impressed by the “go get it!” attitude of American science, whereas I think British researchers tend to be more constrained and methodical (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). This really inspired me during my time in Boston and LA and has certainly influenced my ethos as a PI in Edinburgh. In the absence of empirical data, the phrase “this won’t work” is banned in our lab.


Jo: Is mobility important for a researcher?

Stephen: I get asked this question a lot. Many scientists seem to believe that international experience is a prerequisite to a successful career in research. I strongly disagree with this mentality, but I do encourage my students explore options abroad when thinking about their next career move. I think it ultimately comes down to science and strategy (in that order) – where are the experts in your field? Where are the emerging techniques being developed, and can you bring something new/complementary to this field? I can always spot the scientists who move abroad simply to work for “the big name” and there’s often a downstream mono-dimensionality to their research as a result.


Jo: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give to a synthetic biology early career researcher?

Stephen: Never let an unexpected result go unexplained!


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Stephen Wallace is originally from the small village of Thornhill in Dumfries and Galloway. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2008 with an MChem in Medicinal and Biological Chemistry. He then moved to the University of Oxford to pursue a DPhil in Organic Chemistry in the laboratory of Prof. Martin Smith. In 2012 he took up a MRC Postdoctoral Career Development Fellowship in the laboratory of Prof. Jason Chin at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. In 2014 Stephen moved to the U.S. as a Marie-Curie International Research Fellow, where he worked in the laboratory of Prof. Emily Balskus in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University. During this time, he was also a Visiting Associate Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT, hosted by Prof. Kristala Prather. In 2016, Stephen carried out the Return Phase of his Marie Curie Fellowship in the laboratory of Prof. Steve Ley in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, where he continued his work on combining synthetic and biological strategies for chemical synthesis. In 2017, Stephen returned to the University of Edinburgh as a Group Leader and Lecturer in Biotechnology in the School of Biological Sciences, where his lab explores scientific opportunities at the interface of organic chemistry and synthetic biology. Stephen is currently a Visiting Associate in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, hosted by Prof. Frances Arnold.

Young PIs in action: Interview with Amanda Jarvis

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.

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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).