by Daniela Quaglia, PhD
Paul Jaschke is a newly appointed Assistant Professor at Macquarie University in synthetic biology. Before landing in Australia, Paul studied and worked for years in North America. His story? Well, it hits close to home for Autodesk Research.
Autodesk has a program called Artists in Residence thanks to which they allow artists from around the world to come and work at their facilities with state of the art equipment to imagine, design, and make anything. Based on this program, Paul was accepted at Autodesk as the first Scientist in Residence where had the opportunity to work within the Autodesk Life Sciences team, in particular on the development of two tools: the Wet Lab Accelerator and the Genetic Constructor.
‘Andrew Hessel and I had been talking for years and we had done a bit of collaboration when I was still at Stanford. Andrew asked to see how I designed viruses and I basically was using a glorified text editor, ApE (one of the most barebones Genbank file readers you can get) and a notepad. They asked me: can’t we do something better than this?’
This really excited Paul as he saw huge opportunities for a functional piece of software that could allow genetic designers to build their constructs more easily. ‘Many genetic designs start with someone sketching on a white board, and this is sort of how they modelled the Genetic Constructor tool.’ The Genetic Constructor is an extensible, open source, cloud CAD tool to drive biological design and complex DNA construction.
Paul is still in contact with Autodesk and this relationship is very useful in his current independent position: ‘Once in a while, they show me their latest version, and I test it out in my lab. It’s going to be a very useful piece of software, and I am very looking forward to it.’
But who is Paul and how did he get to Australia? I don’t think we can go wrong by defining Paul as a synthetic biology enthusiast. He says: ‘I heard about synthetic biology for the first time at UBC [During his PhD], and I started getting very excited about it. [Together with other scholars] I helped found the first UBC iGem team which ended up winning a golden medal at the iGEM Jamboree!’
The full immersion in the synthetic biology culture of the Bay Area during his postdoc in Prof. Drew Andy’s lab was also key for Paul’s development: ‘I got to be part of the Synberc organisation: every six months all these amazing synthetic biology labs come together in a sort of private conference and share their work, and it was a very interesting jump into a deep-end education on synthetic biology.’
On his recent appointment at Macquarie University he says: ‘they were looking for someone who could complement the synthetic biology projects that were already there: namely, the Yeast 2.0 project. They wanted somebody with experience in genome design and things that would complement what the yeast people were working on but not overlap because it is a smaller university. The job description was a very good fit, and thanks to my experience in Australia [where he had travelled and worked in the past during a sabbatical year] I had identified the place as somewhere where I wanted to live.’
Starting a Lab: challenges and opportunities
Paul has agreed to give us his perspective on what starting a new lab means, together with some useful advice.
‘With every starting lab there is a lag phase: mine was mainly that the laboratory was physically not ready when I got to Australia.’ When Paul arrived to Macquarie University his laboratory was not yet completed, but organization is key in academic jobs, and Paul had already planned how to keep himself busy: ‘I had grants to write, classes to organize and papers to write. I started in November 2015 and the lab was ready in March 2016. In the meantime, I was given lab space in someone else’s lab.’
Paul has no doubt: ‘The main difficulty [in starting a new lab] is getting grants and finding money to do good research. I guess I’ve seen some funding opportunities slipping through my fingers. I would say: make that a real central aspect to your work. Rearrange your calendar around potential funding opportunities. Planning ahead is crucial. Publish, publish, publish because the grant applications are ranking you for your publication record.’
Aside from securing funding, another difficult task for a new PI is to recruit good people to work with. ‘In Australia the system is changing as Masters degree similar to the ones that are in most [of the Anglo-Saxon] world have just been introduced and there has been a phase in which it was a little more difficult to find people wanting to enroll in this new lab-based Masters degrees, but now it’s getting easier,’ explains Paul. To get more and more students interested in synthetic biology Paul teaches a Masters-level class to the first year students, which is all about synthetic biology. ‘A few students already came banging at the door. This is working very well in recruiting students within our University.’
An unexpected challenge that Paul encountered is linked to the difference between the North American and the Australian administration systems. In Australia there are more stringent administrative restrictions to genetic engineering ‘so to do things that you would not think as extreme genetic engineering in the US or Canada you have to fill out of paperwork and do in separate lab space,’ says Paul. [In Australia] a list exists in which organisms are classified both on their biosafety but also based on their genetic modifications. If the organisms you are planning to use is not on the list, it automatically gets classified as Level 2, even if it is not very dangerous to work with. ‘This kind of limits your creativity because it restricts the organisms or modifications you can do compared to what you could do in other countries.’
Paul’s experience is a great example for young researchers that are in the process of applying for academic positions or setting up their new laboratory. While there are challenges to overcome, the excitement of Paul when he speaks about his research and his plans for the future is contagious. Setting up your research group is no easy task, but the passion for science and mentoring of young students are certainly making of Paul’s journey a great and positive adventure.
Dr. Daniela Quaglia is a Scientist and Freelance writer currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at Universitè de Montréal.