Interviews with Scientists: Dr Tim Mosca
For the latest in our Interviews with Scientists series, it was brilliant to have the opportunity to speak with Dr. Tim Mosca PhD, Principal Investigator at Mosca Lab at Jefferson University, Philadelphia.
Dr. Mosca has a PhD from Harvard and completed his postdoctoral study at Stanford. He is described by his colleagues as: “Our fearless leader. He makes sure we have direction, money, baked goods, and mentorship. He's *kind of* a big deal.”
Currently, Dr Mosca heads up Mosca Lab, and his and his team’s aim is to provide an environment where science of the highest calibre can be done. The lab studies how synapse organization arises in the brain and how that organization enables behaviour.
Thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed, Tim! Our first question is, what’s your PhD in?
I have a PhD in Neurobiology … specifically, I studied the intersection of cell biology and development as a graduate student. We looked at how specific nuclear import factors called importins enable neuronal development by connecting the synapse and the nucleus.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
I always enjoyed science when I was a kid, but I was always far more into literature. I was much more interested in being a Comparative Literature major when I started college, but wasn’t keen on picking up as many new languages as that would’ve needed to be done well. So fortunately, I had a guidance counselor in high school who really pushed me to take more and more science classes. This way, when I got to college, I had a good background already and was able to dive in. From then on, it became clear that science was where my heart was.
What made you want to pursue a career in your particular field?
I have never been one for fields with typical boundaries. I found, as I learned more, I liked science that followed the “A little from column A, a little from column B” approach – realms where you could really pull from multiple areas to advance understanding. That turned me to neurobiology and, through the help of an incredibly well-timed summer REU program funded by the NSF at the University of Albany (where I’m originally from), I was able to dive deeply into neurodevelopment.
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?
Do everything deeply. Question deeply. Read deeply. Think deeply. The ethos that you build now will serve you for the rest of your career. Don’t just focus on one narrow area. Learn what your colleagues and fellow students are doing. If you’re a molecular person, learn systems. If you’re a systems person, know about development. You’ll be able to participate in, contribute to, and learn from so many more people if you know the basic concepts.
What did you enjoy most / are you enjoying most about your PhD?
I think my favorite part about my PhD was the freedom. You’re unencumbered by administrative details and you can really just dive into the work. It doesn’t always go exactly as planned, but it really affords you the pure time to think about science and what are the best ways to go about asking your particular question.
Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...
In my lab right now, we’re studying the three-dimensional organization of synapses in circuits. We want to know how these patterns arise, what molecules are necessary for their formation and ultimately, how these patterns affect behavior. We study this in the context of Drosophila olfaction, so currently, we’re studying how the olfactory circuits develop and what molecules they use to form connections.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
As a new assistant professor, a typical day in the lab is a bit more varied than my days of old. I spend time working on grants and writing manuscripts for much of the morning, punctuated by meetings about funding, wonderful discussions with potential students and our current students here at Jefferson, and hopefully some lunch. Experimentally, a lot of my time is spent taking care of flies, and doing immunocytochemistry on peripheral and central synapses in Drosophila for some of the projects we have going in the lab.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
If I wasn’t a scientist, I’d probably be organizing something. I’m a very detail-oriented person and that lends itself well to coordinating organizations or events. Though I used to be a tour guide for a major American city, and that was pretty awesome, so either one of those, I imagine.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
Outside the lab, I’m a big runner. Right now, I’m chasing a goal of 1000 miles for 2017. I try to run every day, weather permitting. It’s a great time to think about life and science and disconnect a bit from the day.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
What gets me most excited about my field is the pace at which it changes. I’ve been in science long enough to watch the world turn, as it were. To see all of the new advances we’re coming up in microscopy and imaging and the resolution we can achieve with respect to cellular processes is just so exciting. It’s honestly amazing to get up every day and get to wonder what‘s new.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
As kitschy as it might sound, the scientists that I admire the most today are our students. They are choosing to work in science at a time of amazingly fast discovery and complexity. The talent that they bring to the table and the ideas they have are absolutely inspiring. I consider it an honor to work with them.
What’s your favourite science joke OR science quote?
So, I am a die-hard Drosophila biologist and will defend fly science to the death. So naturally, my favorite quote is from a book by Martin Brookes called Fly: The Unsung Hero of 20th Century Science. It reads: "But there were others who stood out from the conference crowd: young, self-confident individuals whose demeanor suggested they were going places. These were people for whom public speaking seemed to hold no fears. They gave talks that translated each short scientific life into one long success story. They collected new facts like a bee collected pollen. And they had their work routinely published in the distinguished pages of Nature and Science. They came from all corners but were united by a common bond. Who were these people? ... They were the ones who had chosen to work with fruit flies."
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
I am a microscopist. So I think the greatest discovery of all time would have to be Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s invention / establishment of the field of microscopy. We literally could not have gotten this far without his pioneering work. It’s still a goal to cite him in a paper.
Thank you so much Tim, it was great to chat to you!