Shahragim Tajbakhsh is the Director of the department of Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. We sat down with him to discuss how he got to where he is today, what drives him and what is needed for success in a research career.
Can you tell us a brief history of your career?
Well, I would start my career in the pre-thesis time. The reason is, when I was going through university, every summer I decided to work in a research lab. It turned out I worked on my own. In one lab, with electron microscopy, looking at the antennae of insects and the other lab, working on the transport of proteins through plants. In each case, my mentor left me alone to play.
I went through university, through the system as everybody does. When I reached the bachelors, the idea was to move onto a PhD program. At that point, I had a fellowship to start the thesis and decided to postpone it for a couple of years. I was not sure whether I wanted to continue on that path. So I travelled a little bit and took some time off. Then went back and started working in a lab.
As I was working I decided, “well I like this, so why not continue and put that towards a thesis?” So I activated the fellowship and did my thesis. I think that break was important for me, because most people, by default, move in because that is the thing to do. I think today that there are too many people doing their thesis, when they perhaps should not be. It is a little bit oversold. You really have to know what a thesis is, what it gives you and how demanding a research career is. At that point, I did not know how demanding it was. But I loved it so I decided to do it.
From there, after having done the thesis, I was delighted doing the research. I was working on virology and molecular biology of insect viruses when I decided to switch fields. The turning point was going to a meeting on mouse genetics. I realised after sitting through a few talks that people were, at will, editing the genome by homologous recombination. That was in the early days in the late 80s and just completely threw me off. To me, if you throw a piece of DNA into a cell it would integrate randomly among the nucleotides. I had no idea what they were talking about. Until I realised that actually, the piece of DNA they were putting in, was specifically going to a particular position or place and modifying it. There was then a selection scheme to isolate the cells that had this mutation or modification, and you could generate entire animals! That means you can generate a cohort of genetically modified mice that has never existed before in history. To me, that struck me as extremely powerful and this is absolutely what I wanted to do. So that is where my post-doc started.
Bringing us forward to the present day, what are you working on now?
What I am working on now is what I actually started in my postdoc. I started on the embryology of muscle, using genetically modified mice to make mutations. This lets us understand the function of specific genes and specific regulators of genes that put the tissue into place. As that developed, I worked in that theme for about 10 years. Then I added the adult biology onto that, so right now we are working on the embryology and adult muscle development and regeneration.
You’ve already spoken how you got into Stem cell research, what are your main aspirations in the field?
Oh my god! You know, I am going to give a rather vague answer, because I am inspired by serendipity. My main ambition is to be left alone and have the peace of mind to do wild experiments. But it does not matter what, obviously it is going to be on the system close to what I am working on now. I am not going to run off and work on plants or whatever. But there are different questions we have ongoing in the lab. One is how different structures evolve in us or in rodents, and why did those structures not evolve in other organisms. So there is an evolutionary developmental biology aspect to that. The other is how cells and tissues regenerate, and how they age and can we understand it.
We talk a lot about translation now, but I really do not care about that. I think understanding the fundamental aspects of how things work will automatically give it some sort of applicability. So I am not interested in the translational part of it, I am interested in the fundamental understanding and then naturally it will flow into the application.
What advice would you give to early career researchers?
Whatever you do, do it well. If you are going to run a restaurant, if you are going to go for the national volleyball team, if you want to do research, you have to do it well. If you do it well and you are good at it, people will want to have you around. So if it is research, really understand what is demanded. In my case, I probably am not the best example to follow. I never thought about a retirement plan, I never thought about a job, about belonging to a specific institution. The only driving force was to be in a lab, have fun and study what I wanted to do. Now, I realise I fundamentally believed that if I did it then everything would fall into place, and that if I was not good at it, I will just have to move on myself. Someone else would not have to tell me; I would have to move on myself.
I think what researchers need to understand, is if they have the passion and the curiosity for this field, for this area of research, whatever area it is; they should go for it. Not to overthink it. When you overthink you start to think of the negative aspects of it: referees, grants, am I going to get a job and so on. I think if you are passionate about something, whether it is playing a musical instrument or playing sports, you end up being relatively good at it. You really have to have that feeling in your gut that you really want to do this. It is probably one of the few professions around, where you are constantly criticised and constantly evaluated. There are very few professions out there where you are put in check so regularly.
So you need a degree of resilience?
Resilience and tough skin to absorb criticism.
So you mentioned resilience, tough skin, passion and curiosity. Are there any other key qualities that you think make a good researcher?
I would say, you have to work well in a team. What makes a lab or community work is a general level altruism among individuals. When you have that, you have a synergistic effect, because each person has their interest and speciality. Naturally people start to collaborate and things get put together that you did not anticipate at all. People talk to each other, “Hey, I have this idea, you have this technique, we could join forces and give this a go”. I do not want to intervene at that level, because there is no way I can have every idea. I rely on other people to also have an input. So I think you have to have that ability to work in a group. There are some people in certain types of professions I would say, maybe bioinformatics or mathematics, where they could be off on their own and formulate. But eventually, they would have to work with other people. If you do not have that ability it becomes less efficient, less fulfilling.