Academic Life and the Art of Cloning

Starting out as a lecturer ages ago, I discovered on day one of my very first semester that my timetable had somehow double-booked me to supervise two completely different sets of undergraduate labs in separate locations at the exact same time. Verging on panic, I turned to a senior academic colleague to ask how I should handle this, in the sweetly naive hope that he would offer some practical assistance. The advice I received was quite prophetic. “Learn how to clone yourself,” he replied sagely without batting an eyelid, before motioning me to promptly close the door to his office and just get on with it (which I duly did, but that’s another story). I say prophetic because all these years later I’ve learned that for any young scientist intending to pursue an academic career, you really do need to learn how to conjure up multiple versions of yourself to function effectively as a lecturer, administrator and principal investigator all rolled up into one persona. And it is to those scientists-in-training I now say, read on.

Take a snapshot of any typical month for example. I prepare and deliver lectures, conduct tutorials, supervise labs, correct lab reports, set exams, correct assessments, upload results, and give student feedback. I meet with students to help them prepare their coursework and advise them on everything from academic issues to personal problems. I field calls from worried parents and enquiring school teachers. I review and edit an incessant torrent of documents and advise younger members of staff on operating protocols and procedures. I dispense copious amounts of career advice and draft dazzling letters of recommendation. I sit on interview panels and I prepare a bewildering number of frequently bewildering reports on everything from course structures to strategic planning. I spend an unseemly amount of time twittering and tweeting the School of Biotechnology's many activities and successes into the digital firmament. And in the laughably improbable event that I might actually have spare time on my hands, I attend countless meetings, working groups and committees – sometimes interesting, often soul-sappingly dreary, but ultimately all necessary to keep our great academic wheel of fortune spinning in the right direction.

Now, in an ideal world, all of this hardcore academic graft constitutes about 60% of my official job descriptor, and here my colleagues in the School of Biotechnology will squawk, “But Phil, you’ve left out so many other teaching and admin tasks!,” …and how true it is, how true… but in my defence, I have a word limit to adhere to. So, the other 40% of what I do is devoted to research, the independent PI bit. Notwithstanding the seemingly bottomless pit of paperwork and bureaucracy that inevitably accompanies any research programme, this for me is still the best part of my academic life, the creative hit if you like. “Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. It is a process. It is not random.” so sayeth Sir Ken Robinson, the renowned human creativity guru. I tend to agree. My particular area of expertise is vascular health and disease – deciphering how blood vessels function and how debilitating vascular complications might be treated or even reversed in different disease states. As you can imagine, this is an exceedingly crowded field, so making any kind of impact requires creative thinking. Helping my researchers to transform their findings into published papers and protocols that contribute to human knowledge is, hands down, my favourite part of the job. Unfortunately, I don’t get to do actual lab work anymore because I’m constantly bedeviled by hordes of duties and paperwork, so here’s where the cloning tool comes in rather handy. Enter the intrepid young researchers to save the day, the postdocs and postgrads.

Academic PIs are typically hatched from postdocs, and in my experience, the best postdocs are fundamentally curious, fearless, and focused. They love research, the seduction of deduction, the figuring out of things. Their job is to translate the scientific notions of their oft-times cranky and demanding PI mentors into experimental reality, approaching their projects from a multidisciplinary perspective, challenging their hypotheses from every angle, and regularly defending their findings and conclusions to a highly critical audience. They greedily embrace the most advanced research tools and technologies available and tailor them to suit their research needs. Good postdocs inspire confidence and trust, essential qualities to the smooth running of any research laboratory, all the while bringing reliable and timely data to the PIs door. And the really good ones identify new questions to ask and new lines of research and collaboration to pursue. They are ambitious, and they accept that, career-wise, research is a long game spanning several years. So the clever ones dig in and evolve their academic skills in a highly selective way, gradually padding out their CVs with academic training courses, lecturing experience, student mentoring and the like, in addition to the standard postdoctoral grind of papers, grants, and experiments at all hours of the day and night. I’ve heard it joked upon that, “A postdoc earned is a postdoc slaved,”, and indeed it can feel like a slavishly unending stage of one’s scientific career at times. But somewhere along the way, with a helpful push from their PIs, some of them finally carve out a niche for themselves, their own personal slice of research real estate, and stick a flag on it.

A senior postdoc of nearly five years standing, Dr. Keith Rochfort is driving a major research initiative within our group that entails development of a new therapeutic for the treatment of diabetic retinopathy. Diabetes levels across the globe, already distressingly high, are expected to soar in the coming decades. Retinopathy is one of the more unpleasant microvascular complications that can afflict diabetics, wherein the delicate embroidery of capillaries lining the retina at the back of the eye becomes damaged and leaky as a result of poor glucose regulation, leading to gradual vision loss. Indeed, diabetic retinopathy is now regarded as the biggest global cause of new blindness cases in working-age individuals. The drug in question is a modified human angiopoietin growth factor called COMP.Ang1, which has been shown in various preliminary tests to have highly beneficial effects on blood vessels. Keith’s mission can be summed up in two incredibly challenging objectives: (i) to develop complex multicellular models for delineating the myriad ways in which COMP.Ang1 may improve the functioning of diabetic retinal capillaries and; (ii) to improve viral-mediated delivery of the COMP.Ang1 gene into the diabetic retina through crafty re-engineering of the capsid properties of the adeno-associated virus (AAV) vector that we are using for just this purpose. This work, funded through the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) US-Ireland R&D Partnership Programme, involves collaborators in University College Dublin (Prof. Niall Barron), Queens’ University Belfast (Prof. Tim Curtis, Prof. Alan Stitt) and The University of Utah Moran Eye Centre (Prof. Balamurali Ambati), with each partner investigating the usefulness of COMP.Ang1 to treat retinopathy from a unique, yet complimentary angle. I must say that rubbing shoulders with such accomplished scientists and their incredibly talented teams has reinforced my belief in the truism that good collaboration is indisputably the secret sauce of good science.

This Autumn, Keith’s latest findings will be put through their paces at three major conferences – The International Society for Eye Research (ISER) in Belfast, the European Association for Studies in Diabetes (EASD) in Berlin, and the Irish Endocrine Society (IES) in Cork, all superb fora for the dissemination of data linked to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. With work now sailing along on both objectives, I’m confident that it will be well received. When he’s not too busy trying to complete the ridiculously impossible tasks and timelines I’ve set for him, Keith has also found time to develop his own collaborative interests in microvascular complications linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and the blood-brain barrier (BBB). With a cartload of academic skill-sets under his belt, added to a stellar CV boasting nearly 25 papers, I suspect he’ll be lacing up his independent PI boots in the not-too-distant future.

Dr. Keith Rochfort presenting his work on COMP.Ang1 and diabetic retinopathy at the recent ISER meeting in Belfast

But of course, postdocs started out life as postgrads once upon a time, didn't they. So, what defines a good postgrad you might ask. Well, good results (2.1 or higher) and nice references are obviously important, but definitely only half the battle. For me, a strong personal career vision married to cast iron will-power and determination are fairly essential if one is to roll with the many punches that PhD life will undoubtedly jab at you. Solid organisational skills and an independent spirit also empower postgrads to take control of their personal research space and work it with confident efficiency. Dr. Emma Harper, a freshly minted PhD emerging from our group and set to graduate this November, is a case in point.

Emma’s PhD involved developing cellular models to better understand the complex paracrine signalling that routinely occurs between vascular endothelial and smooth muscle cells of which arterial walls are comprised. This signalling becomes dysregulated in certain disease states such as type-2 diabetes, leading to deposition of crystalline calcium in blood vessel walls (vascular calcification), the root cause of arterial hardening and a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. She subsequently employed these models to test the anti-calcific therapeutic efficacy of an endogenous circulatory molecule known as TNF-alpha-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL), with very promising results! This challenging project, jointly funded by the DCU O’Hare Scholarship and the Irish Research Council, was conducted in collaboration with clinical partners in Beaumont Hospital (Dr. Diarmuid Smith) and has yielded a tidy pile of publications, all testament to Emma’s tenacious work ethic, unparalleled organisational skills, and technical competency. Unsurprisingly, she crosses the PhD finish line with a veritable treasure trove of awards and medals, including the 2018 DCU/FSH Outstanding Graduate Researcher Award. A good PhD always leaves behind an indelible trail of research breadcrumbs for the next postgrad to follow, and judging from the 359 page hardbound tome that has just found it’s way onto my bookshelf, I believe Emma has done just that. As with the good Dr. Rochfort, her work will feature at the forthcoming EASD and IES meetings, where, I suspect, it will also be very well received.

Dr. Emma Harper: Recipient of the 2018 DCU/FSH Outstanding Graduate Researcher Award

And so, we come to the end. Or is it the beginning? I’ve sneakily reverse-engineered this little article to finish with the undergrads, the starting fabric of college life from whence our future academic heroes will evolve. Our undergrads of today will become our postgrads of tomorrow, and so the advice I would give to budding researchers is this: Do not approach the PhD game lightly! PhD projects are complex challenging beasts that test one’s intellectual, emotional and physical stamina in many ways. When I think back upon my own PhD journey, terms like frustrating, exhausting, head-wrecking, heartbreaking, patience-shredding, and tear-inducing all come to mind. But if you can see your way past these impediments, think creatively, and rise up to meet the project challenges, then terms like fulfilling, fascinating, accomplishing, rewarding, and succeeding will eventually shine through the murk. To our undergrads I say therefore, think hard upon your reasons for choosing this career path, what new skills you want to get out of it, and where you think it will ultimately lead you. And if you think you have the right stuff, then do your homework – proactively seek out your PI mentor and buckle up for the next four years of your life. And in case I forget...  somewhere along the way, please do learn how to clone yourself.

One final thought to finish up. I think if I had to pick one word that best describes my personal academic journey thus far, I would say “BUSY”, and indeed at times academia can feel insanely so. Overdue reports, corrections without end, countless demands on your time, innumerable fires to fight, a regular tsunami of e-mails to wade through, and deadlines constantly looming left, right and centre – all par for the modern academic’s course. But ultimately, the highs for me have far outweighed the lows and I would recommend academia as a rewarding career path for young scientists. Watching one’s garbed and gowned students, both undergrad and postgrad alike, proudly strutting across the stage of the Helix clutching their hard-won degrees, is worth every atom of perspiration. One thing I can say with certainty is that my long association with both the School of Biotechnology (SoBT) and the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology (NICB) at DCU have been an absolute boon for all of my academic endeavours, offering inspirational environments for teaching and research. Indeed, the very fine work of Drs. Rochfort and Harper has been unceasingly supported by these twinned entities. I have witnessed no small number of students enter their portals to proudly emerge as highly trained scientists worthy to count themselves amongst the world’s best, many of whom have since gone on to do truly great things in academia and beyond.

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