Dr. Jacques Archambault is Professor of Microbiology & Immunology at McGill University. He shares his thoughts on his career from the time he was a graduate student with Jim Friesen, when the Department was then known as Medical Genetics, to his current interests in virology and viral pathogenesis.
Can you describe your current research to us?
My lab is working to understand the molecular biology and pathogenesis of human papillomaviruses (HPVs) and polyomaviruses (HPyVs), specifically on how they replicate their genome. We are interested in the molecular mechanisms of the replication process and how to interfere with them using small molecules for the discovery of antiviral agents.
When did you first realize that you wanted to become a scientist?
Growing up, I really enjoyed sports and that was what I initially wanted to do. It came a little later in life, starting with my bachelor’s degree, where I became interested in biochemistry, molecules, and proteins. It was really during graduate school where I became hooked and got into the creative and intellectual process behind trying to make discoveries and simply understanding biology.
What scientific discovery are you most proud of?
All scientific discoveries come with nice memories, but the one that I am the proudest of was actually in graduate school. It was not my first paper, but it was the discovery that you can use 6-azauracil as a marker to identify mutants in genes encoding the transcription machinery. It wasn’t a spectacular or super impactful discovery by any means, but it was the first time that I connected the dots. It was the first time that I, myself, came up with the idea, read through the literature, designed and executed the experiments. I tested some RNA polymerase mutants we had in the lab and lo-and-behold, they were sensitive to 6-azauracil. It was incredibly satisfying and I was the happiest guy on Earth that day. I really felt that this was my own discovery. It was not influenced by other people in the lab. It was really mine.
Why did you choose University of Toronto and the Department of Molecular Genetics for your graduate studies?
I knew I was interested in genetics and molecular approaches. At the time, and to this day, Molecular Genetics (or Medical Genetics as it was known back then) was very well known. James Friesen had also started doing yeast genetics. I visited the department, talked to a few people, and was excited. I thought, “this was the place”.
How did your experiences as a graduate student in Molecular Genetics influence your career trajectory?
I think that even to this day, my experience as a graduate student has profoundly influenced how I approach science. It was where I learned that doing science is fun and that it can be a very creative process. Science does require very hard work and one needs to be persistent, but it can very rewarding once you start to figure out how things function. I still apply all of the approaches and all the training I got back in my own lab. It has really just been a big long continuity of what started in Toronto.
What are some of your favourite memories from graduate school?
There are many, many good memories, but I would say the comradery. We had a lot of fun. It wasn’t a big department back then (there was about 40 students all together), but we were all super interested in science and very curious. Those were the days where there were perhaps less pressure on students to be productive, so we could venture and think of crazy experiments and perhaps we did too many of those, but it was just fun.
What I also enjoyed were all the seminars that we had from outside speakers. Every week there were at least one seminar, and most times there were more than that, and we all benefited from the amazing experience of listening to other excellent scientists. We would all absorb it and then discuss the science over beers that night.
What was the most important thing you learned in graduate school?
Trust yourself. Trust your instinct. There are always going to be people that will have a different opinion from you and suggest that you do this or that, but at the end of the day, you have to follow your own instincts. Also, remember why you are doing science, what is driving you and what makes it fun. Always keep that in mind. Of course, there were many other things that I learned in Toronto, such as being scientifically rigorous, but I would say that following your instincts was the most important lesson.
What advice would you give younger students on choosing a mentor?
I would say “don’t overthink it”. Look for topics that you are interested in and things that get you excited. Go meet the professor. When you meet the professor and the people in the lab, you will know whether it feels right or not. If it feels right, then that is what you have to do. If it doesn’t, try another place.
What do you think are the key elements of running a successful lab and research program?
There are many. Especially nowadays, it is very demanding to deal with all the requirements. But at the end of the day, you have to relish the fact that you have people in the lab that are able to think differently than you. There is no point in treating everyone the same. Let them be themselves. Try to understand and capitalize on the way that they approach science and what they can bring to the scientific problem that you are trying to address. Essentially: trust people. Train them well if they are students. Let them develop themselves as scientists and they will make discoveries that you would not have done or made without them. It is really about nurturing the people in your lab.
If you could only offer one piece of advice to graduate students and post-docs who are hoping to pursue a career in academia, what would it be?
To me that is an easy question. My advice would be to believe in yourself and keep working at it. Sometimes it can take quite a few years to get there, so you need to have fun. Keep that goal in mind and persist. Do not let anyone tell you that it is not going to happen. Even if it seems impossible at times, go back to the science and remember what makes you enjoy science. Keep doing it and it is going to happen.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing scientists today?
On a day-to-day basis, we can all say that funding is an issue. However, one of the biggest challenges in the long run is that the boundary between science and pseudoscience is becoming blurred to the general public. That is one major thing we have to address. We have to find ways to make people again believe in scientists. I was reading recently that the general public no longer believes in politicians, businessmen and scientists and that was shocking to me.
The other thing is that we need to do is re-emphasize the need for creativity, basic research, and curiosity based research. There has been a big emphasis in translational research these days. I have been in the pharma industry for quite a few years and there has been a lot of amazing things being done in the pharmaceutical industry, but not everything has to be translational. In fact, we all know that most of the biggest discoveries come from a field that we never could have envisioned. We need to convey that to the general public that fortunately or unfortunately, it is serendipity that is often needed to make big discoveries and it is hard to predict where that is going to come from.