Dr. Anthony Vecchiarelli, postdoctoral researcher at the NIH, shares his scientific journey from completing his doctoral work with Dr. Barbara Funnell in the Department of Molecular Genetics to winning the Vivash Award to developing a cell-free system to study spatial organization systems at the NIH. Anthony highlights his favourite memories from MoGen, and his passion for science that would prevail even if he won the lottery.
Can you describe your current research for us?
I’ve been a post-doc at the National Institutes of Health near Washington, D.C. for almost 5 years. During this time, I developed a cell-free technique to visualize spatial organization systems on biological surfaces such as condensed DNA or a lipid bilayer. Using this technique and purified cellular components, we can study how spatial organization systems interact to position things within the cell. The large number of factors involved in subcellular organization and the tiny size of cells, especially bacterial cells, made it very difficult to study spatial organization under well-controlled conditions in vivo. That’s why we developed this cell-free technique. So far we’ve been able to reconstitute bacterial DNA segregation and cell division positioning systems using our new set-up. This technique has led to several publications, one of which just won the 2014 Cozzarelli Prize from PNAS, and allowed us to answer some previously unanswerable questions. By combining these organizing systems, one long term goal is to reconstitute a minimal cell.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a scientist?
Truthfully, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that I wanted to become a scientist. I’ve always been very interested in science but I found undergrad quite daunting as I was not good at memorizing - a very useful skill in undergrad. In my third and fourth year lab courses, I realized that I had pretty good hands at the bench. My fourth year project with Dr. Barbara Funnell in the department was, ultimately, what sealed the deal for me. She was incredibly patient in teaching me how to work at the bench and was instrumental in building the foundation of scientific skills that I have now. Once I realized how science was performed as a graduate student, I was hooked.
Why did you choose the University of Toronto and the Department of Molecular Genetics for your graduate studies?
One of the main reasons I chose MoGen and U of T was the research project itself. I was always interested in the biochemistry behind how things get to where they need to go inside of a cell. I was really surprised that although we have a relatively good understanding of eukaryotic mitosis, we didn’t know much about the fundamental mechanism of how DNA moves in bacteria. During my fourth year, I also got to know Barb and the department really well and in the end, it was those two things that convinced me to pursue my PhD in MoGen.
What are some of your favourite memories from graduate school?
I would have to say that one of the best things about MoGen was the people, whom I miss to this day - the students, my friends, the colleagues and of course, the PIs, particularly in the Medical Sciences Building (MSB) where Barb’s lab is located. If I were to highlight a few memories, they would be the retreats, the friends I made in the lab and our neighbours, the Frappier lab. Some friends and I also started a club called “Bizjak”. Initially, the club’s mission was to try all the bars in Toronto, but that quickly spiraled into just drinking at O’Grady’s every Thursday. Nonetheless, those weekly meetups provided some of my best memories of being in MoGen.
How did your experience in MoGen influence your career trajectory?
I gravitated towards the lifestyle of a scientist early on. Being able to choose a question that you find interesting and then tackling it in your own creative and imaginative way – I don’t think there’s another job that compares to what a scientist does. I was able to experience that first-hand in MoGen, especially in MSB. So many of the students and PIs were willing to sit down with you, sometimes over a beer, to just talk about science. Trying to understand an interesting question in nature, just for the sake of knowing - that aspect of science made the whole enterprise very attractive to me.
You won the Barbara Vivash Award for the best PhD thesis. How has winning that award influenced you and your career?
It’s a very prestigious award that boosts your CV and certainly, the extra money is always a big help to a graduate student or post-doc. Aside from that, it was very rewarding to have the department recognize my thesis as a significant academic achievement. But I would say the most significant impact of the award came from a fairly unexpected place: my mom. The day after I told my parents I had won the award, my mom came to me and asked “What did you really do for your thesis?” This time, she didn’t want a fancy title like “Molecular Biologist” that she could memorize and regurgitate to her friends. After winning the award, she genuinely wanted to understand the science. When your work is acknowledged with a prestigious award like this one, people’s ears perk up. It gives you a few more minutes of their attention to make the case for your work. I think more awards should be available to young scientists so that more ears perk up.
What scientific accomplishment are you most proud of?
My current research stems from my thesis project in Barb’s lab. My work in Barb’s lab allowed us to propose a new mode of intracellular transport that does not use microtubules, actin filaments, or a classical motor protein. We found that protein gradients on biological surfaces, such as condensed DNA or the inner membrane, was imparting positional information to the cell. Most bacterial chromosomes and plasmids are actually surfing on waves of protein gradients on the bacterial nucleoid. This transportation mechanism is responsible for the segregation, movement and ultimately, transmission of these DNA elements to daughter cells. Identifying this completely new form of intracellular transport that proved to be relevant to all kingdoms of life was unexpected and incredibly fulfilling.
Do you have any advice for students on how to choose a post-doc lab?
If I were to provide general advice, it would be that you don’t want to start your post-doc in a completely new field with completely new techniques. I would suggest that you be familiar with either the field of research or the techniques so that you can hit the ground running and improve your chances of publishing. At the same time, you want to make sure that you’re still developing as a scientist and learning something new. In my case, one of the reasons I chose NIH was because my post-doc supervisor was a collaborator of mine during my undergrad. He suggested the idea of developing a cell-free system to study spatial organization systems in vitro. Although I had a solid understanding of bacterial chromosome segregation, I knew nothing about the biophysical techniques. My second piece of advice would be to go to a lab that has strong funding. As a post-doc, you want to maximize your productivity and the best way to do that is to not worry about money. That’s another reason why I chose the NIH – I’m able to do a variety of projects at the same time without worrying about the cost.
What advice would you give to students and post-docs hoping to pursue a career in academia?
You need to make your name stand out. During your job search, whether it’s for a post-doc or a PI position, try to go to as many conferences as possible. It’s the networking that is going to differentiate you from that stack of other applicants. When you are at a conference, blow them away with your talk, put up your contact information during the question period, and if possible, go out for a beer with the other speakers. To have others know your name, know your work, and be able to put a face to the name – all of that goes a long way when applying for a post-doc or PI position.
There’s a lot of negativity plaguing science right now and for good reason. It seems like there are editorials in Science and Nature every week about how unsustainable the current situation is – not enough funding and too many trainees for very few PI positions. This is making science very undesirable for a lot of students. I’ve been looking around for an academic position and I know first-hand the difficulties of the current situation. Recent stats suggest that less than 1% of current post-docs will obtain a tenure-track position. Staying in academia is now considered an “alternative” career path for postdocs. With all of these grim predictions, my best advice is to stay positive, be realistic, and answer this one question: If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you still do science?
For me, the answer is undoubtedly yes. It taught me how to think. It showed me how others think. It’s given me a different and valuable perspective on life as well as a deep love of nature. Science is more than just a job for me. It’s a hobby that I get paid for. And if science doesn’t work out for you, your PhD itself has opened up a lot of doors that go far beyond the field of science.