Department: Microbiology and Immunology
Education: MSc - University of Twente, Netherlands
PhD - ETH Zurich, Switzerland
Post-doctoral fellowship - UC San Diego
How long have you been with the College of Medicine?
I'm very new. I started at Drexel on September 1, 2015. It's a very stimulating environment. I like the size of Drexel and the interactions within the College of Medicine and between the College of Medicine and the programs in University City. I've already given three talks around campus to showcase what I am doing in my lab. I presented my work for the Chemistry Department in University City, as well as the Biochemistry and Microbiology & Immunology Departments here at the College of Medicine.
What research are you doing at Drexel?
My lab is interested in natural products. In other words, we're interested in molecules that we get from nature.
If you go to a hospital and you look at the list of drugs they prescribe to patients, you'll find that roughly 75 percent of those are derived from natural products. Those drugs are not something that chemists have invented. They're made from molecules that we've borrowed from nature. These molecules can come from a plant, a fungus, a sponge in the ocean, or any other organism. This is a very old topic that started with Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin, which he isolated from a fungus. The field has changed over the years though, so now we take different approaches to look at these natural products or secondary metabolites.
I like to look at how and why organisms produce these molecules. The organism isn't making those molecules to cure cancer. They make them for different reasons, and I look at those kinds of connections.
How do you extract these molecules from the organism?
Techniques for extracting molecules have evolved over the years. In the past, you'd grow or collect a lot of a certain organism, grind them up and isolate molecules from it. However, if you grind up a sponge, you'll wind up with more than 2,000 molecules, and it's not easy to extract those and get them in individual vials. I still use this technique occasionally but it's arduous work.
The more modern approach is to take the genomics route. You take the organism and isolate the DNA. Then you sequence the genome, which will allow you to predict what kind of molecules these organisms would make. Using that kind of predictive algorithm is a much more powerful way to do it. It lets us know what biosynthetic clusters are in certain organisms, we can express that in the lab and then look for the molecules. In the end, you have to do a little bit of both—the old school way and the more modern approach—but that's okay because it's good for students to learn.
I'm also working on acquiring a mass spectrometer—a machine that can separate molecules based on their weight —for the lab, which will help immensely with characterizing molecules.
How do you choose the organisms and what do you do with the molecules?
There are several approaches to that. Right now I have more than ten different organisms in my lab because I'm just starting out and I'm not that picky. In one approach, I'm looking to find new antibiotics, so I've been taking crude samples with maybe 100 molecules and testing them on a pathogenic screen with different bacteria like E. coli and other pathogens. When you test molecules in such a screen, you look to see if they kill the bacteria. In the future, I would like to explore anti-cancer research since that's an interest of mine, but for now, anti-bacterial is a good way to get started. It's incredibly visual, in that you can see pretty quickly if it works or not, which is great for students.
Do you have any students working in your lab?
I don't have any students in my lab yet since I just started. I love working with students, so I'm excited to hopefully get some this spring. I've met a bunch of students during the talks that I've given and they've approached me afterwards to ask questions about my lab. I'd love to have a mix of PhD students and undergraduates in my lab and thus I'm also tapping into the co-op program. I like working with students and being able to watch them learn in the lab.
Did you always want to work in academia and teach?
In the beginning of my PhD, I always said I wanted to work for a pharmaceutical company. As time went on though, that started to change. I worked as a teaching assistant every semester. This was in Switzerland and teaching assistants there end up doing a lot of the work, so I got some experience teaching advanced PhD and master classes and labs.
In my post-doctoral lab in San Diego, there were sixteen PhD students, four master's students, twelve undergraduates and two other post-docs. With that many people, a lot of the daily planning fell on the post-docs. I worked very closely with the PhD students and it was rewarding being able to help guide them. I like that process.
Do you have any advice for a student who's considering research in medicine?
Don't be afraid to learn from your mistakes. If I look back on my career, important experiences I've had stem from my mistakes. I'll remember those mistakes for the rest of my life and they are great experiences to grow from. I love being able to watch that happen with other students, from undergraduates to PhD students.