Interviews with Scientists: James Cleland

Interviews with Scientists: James Cleland
5 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: James Cleland

Next in our Interviews with Scientists, meet James Cleland! James is PhD Fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG).

In his work, James is trying to understand how and why certain animal groups are spectacularly good at regrowing missing body parts. He’s particularly curious about planarian flatworms and comb jellies, but is always on the lookout for new things to think about.

We spoke to James about his work, potential future applications, what got him hooked on science, the pressure to publish on life scientists, and more...

Thanks for speaking to us James! Firstly tell us more about your PhD...

I’m a fourth year PhD student at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany. In the lab I’m trying to work out how planarian flatworms manage to regrow body parts, even their heads, in a matter of days.

What are the potential applications of your research for medicine in future, and why is looking into regeneration so important?

Ahhh, the million dollar question we often get asked. I’m not sure that our efforts to understand the amazing abilities of planarians will directly lead to any regenerative ability-boosting blockbuster drugs or other such applications, however I want to stress that the operative word there is really “directly”. What we and many, many others around the world attempt to do with weird and wonderful (and yes, often non-mammalian) organisms such as planarians is at its core “basic science”. I like to joke that this is because we basically have no idea where the science will take us, but the truth of the matter is that our number one priority (and in my opinion the goal of basic science research in general) is to generate new understanding of poorly-understood biological phenomena like regeneration. However, I do truly hope that someday, someone more translationally-inclined will attempt to generalise our findings to “more complex” animals and perhaps even humans. If we’ve learned anything from GFP, CRISPR etc… it’s that you can’t predict where the next big biomedical breakthrough will come from. Now that you mention it, I don’t know that I’d put my money on planarians… but I can certainly hope!

Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?

Nope! I wanted to be a medical doctor, but after my first taste of research as an undergrad, I was hooked. It wasn’t any one particular experiment that got me hooked on research, but rather a series of many many experiments (most of which failed miserably) and all the associated experiences during the year that I spent in the lab of Prof Takashi Mikawa at UCSF while studying abroad in the US. Takashi (we called him by his first name) was incredibly inspirational with his Jedi-like dedication to practicing his particular craft (science) at the highest level, and I learned an astronomical amount under his watchful eye.

What are you enjoy most about your PhD?

The incredible freedom to work on the things I find most exciting.

What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?

These days the demand for funding and jobs far exceeds the supply, which means lots of competition. The pressure to publish big and / or often tends to stifle creativity and, ultimately, progress towards understanding and application. I can’t see the pressure to publish often and “big” going away anytime soon for the reason I outlined above. However, one thing that I think could have a big impact if implemented on a large scale (and something I certainly intend to do if I have trainees of my own someday), is to encourage scientists to acknowledge (and reward!) good science no matter the impact factor of the journal in which it’s published. Which begs the question: how to decide what is good science without the all-too-convenient journal impact factor metric? There’s no easy solution. Ultimately good scientists should take the time to read and assess the work themselves instead of assuming that because it’s published in a certain journal it’s groundbreaking, but it’s often hard to judge work on a topic you’re not an expert in. Therefore I tend to ask an expert to help me out and defer to their wisdom.

What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?

Find a supportive advisor, the rest is details. No matter how much research experience you have (or think you have) when you start your PhD, you have a ton to learn - at the bench and beyond - and the role of the advisor is (or rather, should be…) to facilitate this learning. But you have to be open to it!

From the very beginning when I was completely idealistic and, with the wisdom of hindsight, rather terrible at the bench, my advisor Jochen has gently (and in cases of serious judgement lapses... not so gently!) nudged me toward the better version of myself as as a scientist and person that I hope to grow into during my PhD. I think many students struggle to deal with tough feedback, and I certainly appreciate that it can be painful, but I urge anyone on the receiving end of criticism to take a step back and ask themselves: is my advisor really attacking me? Or do they simply want me to get better? I really like the American PhD system because through a series of rotations you learn pretty quick what kind of advisor you’re dealing with, but in many cases (e.g. in most European programs) you commit to an advisor without having worked with them. If you find yourself in such a situation, ask present and past trainees all the right questions! I can’t stress enough how important it is to find an advisor that’s a good fit for you.

Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...

I’m trying to work out how wounds “decide” what body part needs to be regenerated. To do this, I compare two different planarian species: one that has practically limitless regenerative abilities and one that very often makes mistakes. In my case the mistake is rather spectacular. The species still regenerates per se, but it makes the wrong body part. Instead of making a tail at the back, it makes a second head. Which makes movement complicated, because each head wants to decide which way to go. We hope that by comparing relatively closely-related organisms (two planarian species) with differing regenerative abilities, we will have a better chance of identifying the key mechanistic differences that ultimately decide whether an organism will be highly regenerative or not.

What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?

It isn’t overly sophisticated, but a good chunk of my time is spent working with planarians as outlined above. Besides that, I try to apply different molecular biology techniques (e.g. Western blotting, qPCR) to the worms, which tends to be much more difficult than you’d think! But the prize is understanding some truly amazing biology a little bit better, so it’s all worth it.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

I love to travel and teach. One of the best things about being in science is all the conferences and courses typically held in beautiful and exotic places. The past two summers I had the great privilege of spending time at the Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod, first as a student and later as a teaching assistant. These kinds of opportunities make all the long hours and failed experiments worth it.

If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?

Teaching high school students.

What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?

Regeneration is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. I’ve done the experiment hundreds of times by now, but it never gets old watching a planarian regrow its head.

Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?

The scientists who are also great mentors. The ones that put their trainees’ wellbeing and training before their own personal gain, the ones that teach their trainees that good science is good science no matter where it’s published, the ones who teach their trainees to believe in themselves.

What’s your favourite science quote?

"If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" -

Albert Einstein

What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?

Genome editing. It has given scientists the power to surgically remove - and just as excitingly, monitor the activity of - genes and the regulatory elements that control them. This has been an absolute game-changer for understanding the mechanisms underlying how biological systems work, but also the diseases that disturb them. Excitingly, some of these efforts are even in clinical trials and hopefully slowly working their way into the clinic. However, unfortunately, genome editing doesn’t relate to my current research as even the latest and greatest methods such as CRISPR have not yet been successfully applied to planarians - despite years of effort by really talented people all around the world. For some reason our beasts are particularly resistant to change! But my fingers (and toes) remain crossed that sooner or later the secrets of the planarian genome will yield to the ever-growing collaborative efforts of our community to make it happen.


Thanks for speaking to us, James!

You can follow James on Twitter: @jpcleland


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