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Dr Raymond Staals: Postdoctoral fellowship interview

Dr Raymond Staals was interviewed about his experience of being awarded a University of Otago Health Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowship. These are the original interview questions and his responses.

What does your current work involve? What do you hope to achieve in this role?
I’m currently working as a postdoctoral fellow in the Fineran lab (Department of Microbiology and Immunology) where I work on a bacterial adaptive immune system called CRISPR-Cas. This system provides protection against virtually all sources of incoming foreign DNA, such as viruses and (conjugative) plasmids. The adaptive aspect of this system ensures that the bacterium ‘remembers’ prior invasions. As such, when the cell is exposed to the same foreign genetic element again, this system can quickly recognise and eliminate the potential threat. My goal is to work out the molecular basis underlying the formation of this genetic memory.

Where do you hope your career path will go from here?
I’m currently scouting my options, as this is already my second postdoctoral position. Although I have always been given the freedom to pursue my own ideas, it should always be in line with the main ongoing research topics of the lab I am working in. For this reason, I’m currently looking for funding that would allow me to be even more independent. Recently, I got selected to submit a full-proposal for the Marsden fast-start, which would be one possibility to achieve this goal. I will also be looking into other kinds of funding of course. What is certain is that I will continue my career in science, as I really enjoy the combination of tackling fundamental questions on one hand and contributing to potential (medical) applications (e.g. the recent revival in genomic engineering caused by CRISPR-Cas based research) on the other hand.

What attracted you to this field of work? Were there specific people that were an influence on your choices?
I’ve always been fascinated by how things work, whether it’s a TV or a molecular mechanism. While one can simply visually investigate how things work in the situation of a TV, the latter requires more sophisticated techniques in order to get your answer. When reading scientific papers on molecular biology, I’m still often amazed by the clever approaches scientists use to prove or disprove their hypotheses and thereby making progress in our understanding of this invisible world. This really requires truly dedicated and enthusiastic people. I was really fortunate to meet and work with many people that shared my enthusiasm about this field of work. One prime example is Associate Professor Peter Fineran, who I met during my first postdoc in The Netherlands. I really enjoyed discussing scientific questions with him and how we could tackle them with clever experiments. At the end of my contract there, we therefore quickly discussed the possibilities of me coming to Otago to keep this collaboration going. The Health Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowship was therefore an excellent opportunity to do just that.

What role did receiving a postdoctoral fellowship have on your career path up to this point?

The Fellowship enabled me to continue working on the CRISPR-Cas system in an inspiring environment with enthusiastic people inside and outside of the Fineran lab and the department in general. While the proposal was well in line with ongoing research in the Fineran lab, the financial independence allowed me to continue working on other topics (with different collaborators) as well. This has had a great impact on my scientific output and keeping my broad interests.

What were the most valuable things that the opportunity provided you with?
As stated above, it’s mostly the independence, not only of having a project on my own, but also being able to finish up research on topics that I worked on before.

What types of impact did this opportunity have on your research direction and prospects?
The possibilities of finding funding as a postdoc are scarce. If you want to continue a career in science however, you are really dependent on getting them. This, in turn, means that you are dependent on how well your ideas are perceived. I was therefore really happy to see that the Division of Health Sciences was so enthusiastic about my proposal as well, when they decided to award it to me. It felt like a confirmation to me that this field of research was more widely appreciated and that a future career for me in science was indeed possible.

What things did it enable you to do that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do?
As mentioned before, I’m most grateful for the opportunity it gave me to continue pursuing my own ideas in research, rather than just joining another research group and continuing in their direction.

Were there contacts, connections, networks, that were opened up to you?
On many of the projects I’m currently working on, we’re benefiting from several great Otago-based collaborators which are key in making rapid progress that is required in this fast-moving field of CRISPR-Cas research. Examples include: Dr Chris Brown (Department of Biochemistry) and Dr Ambarish Biswas (Department of Microbiology and Immunology), for bioinformatics analyses and Dr Mihnea Bostina (Otago Centre for Electron Microscopy) and Professor Kurt Krause (Department of Biochemistry) for (protein) structure studies. On top of that, contacts outside of Otago have been set up, such as Dr Grant Pearce (Biomolecular Interactions Centre, University of Canterbury), Professor Alan Davidson and colleagues (Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto, Canada) and Professor Albert Heck (Biomolecular Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics, Utrecht University, The Netherlands).
Last but certainly not least, the Fineran lab has several highly-motivated Otago-based students that have been essential for reaching some of the research objectives. I really enjoy working with them and often provide me with some fresh ideas on how to tackle a certain problem.

Were there any downsides, sacrifices or difficult choices to make?
Of course, moving about 88,000 km from home (The Netherlands) is quite a big step to take; leaving behind all your friends and relatives. Especially since my brother had his first-born in the time I was away. Luckily, I do have a travel budget to visit them 1-2 times a year.

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to post doc work?
Most importantly, you really have to enjoy the work you’re doing and be prepared to put more hours into it than is written in your job description. This often involves working late and sacrificing some free days in order to get the job done on time, as there’s often competition in the research field you’re working in. Getting scooped on a particular research question is one of the worst things that can happen in my opinion and you should therefore do everything it takes to prevent that from happening.

Where did you grow up? What interested you in the world as a child?
I grew up in a little town called “Grubbenvorst”, which is located in the southern part of The Netherlands. It’s considered to be the rural part of The Netherlands, which might have just sparked my interest for biology in my early years.

Did you have a clear vision as a child of what you would like to be doing as a career?
Not really, although I always had a strong interest in computers and technology. My parents were luckily in a position where they could provide me with the latest. As such, I’ve experienced the early days of personal computers and the dawn of the internet. I still benefit from everything I’ve learned during those years, in addition to learning English at an early age.
I scouted my options to study IT, but in those days the future for a career in that field was still uncertain.

What subjects did you enjoy most at school, and as an undergraduate?
Chemistry, maths and biology were without a doubt the 3 subjects I enjoyed the most at school. While it answered a lot of questions that I was interested in at that time, it was still kind of shallow. They tell you what is known, but not much about how this knowledge can be obtained. I guess this is what attracted me to science.

Why did you choose Otago, or the group you worked with, for your post doc?
As I've indicated earlier, I really enjoy working with people that are truly dedicated and enthusiastic about a particular topic. Equally important, I work best in a non-formal environment with fun colleagues. After meeting Associate Professor Peter Fineran during his sabbatical in The Netherlands, I knew that I would find all these things in Otago. The atmosphere is very relaxed, while still retaining the drive to perform at your best.

Did it prove to be a good decision? If so, why? If not, why not?
It definitely was. I’m having a great time here with many friendly colleagues and a great research environment in general. Everybody has been very supportive for the things I want to do, not only in the Fineran group, but also in the Department and the Health Sciences Division.

What do you enjoy doing outside of your work?
Since I do enjoy my work very much, by far most of my time goes into work. Nevertheless, I’m known to be a fanatic poker player (both live and online) and like to walk through the amazingly diverse surroundings that New Zealand has to offer. Lastly, I enjoy going into town every now and then for a drink with my colleagues or other great people I’ve met during my time here.