We need to train Ph.D. students to be thinkers and not just specialists, in particular, critical thinkers. In other words, just putting the philosophy back into the doctorate of philosophy, said Prof. Antonio Mazzocca, Faculty Member in the Interdisciplinary Department of Medicine at University of Bari School of Medicine in a tête-à-tête with Mr. Saketh Kapoor. He shares his opinions on strengthening the links between laboratories and the clinics. He divulges into his journey from identifying LPAR6 as a potential therapeutic target for hepatocellular carcinoma and briefly touches upon the importance of maintaining work-life balance.
SK: You chose an unconventional path and you decided to pursue research after medical school. How was the transgression from being an ‘MD doctor’ to being a Ph.D. doctor?
Thank you for your question. Well, the transgression was quite good and it turned out to be a valuable transgression in my professional life. I think that combining training in medicine and in research is an amazing experience in a scientist’s life. So I have to say that I am definitely happy to be a MD-Ph.D.
SK: Do you miss visiting a clinic or you enjoy being in the lab?
Well, actually I am not missing my clinical duty because I am still in connection with the clinics but I really really enjoy my work in the lab – as a scientist, of course.
SK: Although researchers are equipped with the biological questions and right techniques and methods to tackle them, it would not be an exaggeration to say that clinicians know the ‘real’ clinical dilemmas. Do you think that generating clinical collaborations would be a smarter and more effective way to understand disease biology?
Thank you for this particular question. I think that collaborations are definitely important in science. I think that engaging clinicians in collaborative research works is very helpful and particularly in these days, especially to boost the systematic approach in biomedical research. So, this should be enough as a motivation to engage them. We really need a more systemic view and more integrative work as well as interdisciplinary work in research.
SK: Both, researchers as well as clinicians strive for the same goal – to improve the healthcare system. However, the methods we choose to achieve this goal are starkly different. What can spark the passion of doing basic science research in a clinician?
Well, I have to say that most of them are not really trained for doing that, I think we need to get them more involved in at least our work in the lab. This is absolutely important. At least, they could start enjoying the methodology in the lab. For example, just learning the basic methodology could somehow be of support for their activity in terms of knowledge. So at least they should know what we do, in order to strengthen the link between the laboratories and the clinics.
SK: Something that really caught my eye was the quote displayed on your publications tab on your webpage. It says “Imagination is more important than knowledge” – Albert Einstein. Although we agree that research is about passion, we more often end up following more protocols than our passion. How would you encourage researchers to inculcate creativity while pursuing their degrees?
As you said, following protocols rather than following passion seems to be the main attitude for the young investigators. We need to train Ph.D. students to be thinkers and not just specialists, in particular, critical thinkers. In other words, just putting the “Philosophy” back into the doctorate of philosophy. That’s what we need! So more critical thinkers than specialists.
SK: The current scenario in science is ‘publish or perish’. Do you think that in the near future translational research should be given more emphasis than scientific publications?
Since the translational research is present already, we should give more emphasis to good science which usually is slow science or doing pressure-free science. But this is not always possible since scientists are in a system which is driven by publish or perish pressure. Of course, scientific publications are extremely important to the scientific endeavor, so I think we should get less pressure in a system of publish or perish and do more slow science and much more good science.
SK: My friends across the globe agree that research life can best be enjoyed in European countries. While all countries are contributing significantly to research, why is the word ‘enjoyment’ associated mostly with European countries? Is there more to research than the research itself? The ambience for example or work-life balance?
Quite simply, I think that the work-life balance in European countries is ideal for research life because of the optimal compromise between the cozy ambience and the quality of life in many European towns or countries. I think this is the reason why research life in Europe is still appealing.
SK: Where have you come up with the best of ideas? In lab meetings/conferences, over a cup of coffee or with a bottle of beer with friends?!!
That’s a good question of course. Generally, brilliant ideas in science come to mind when you are more relaxed, maybe you are not in the lab, and you are involved in different activities, for example, running or walking or showering so why not over a cup of coffee or a tea or just having a beer with friends. Just the right time!
SK: International collaboration between labs can engage researchers to expedite contribution to science by utilizing their domains of the expertise. Diverse workplace environments and diverse minds to solve the same problem may also encourage innovation and problem-solving skills among students. To encourage such research culture, would you be open to collaborating with my home institute on some projects?
Absolutely, we need to encourage such a research culture by creating collaborative and interdisciplinary networks. The collaboration with your home institute has already started being you in my lab. So best of luck with our research!
SK: Researchers all over the world are working towards identifying biomarkers for various diseases. Your lab has been working on LPAR6, a biomarker for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). How was your journey from identifying LPAR6 as a potential biomarker to targeting it for treating HCC?
Of course, it is a long journey. Actually, we discovered LPAR6 as a factor involved in promoting and supporting tumorogenesis in HCC, so I think it could definitely be a theranostic target since it is accessible and druggable in addition to LPA which is significantly increased in patients with HCC.
CLOSING REMARKS: We thank Prof. Antonio Mazzocca for giving us an opportunity to have a splendid conversation. The interview was conducted during the research visit of Mr. Saketh Kapoor in Prof. Mazzocca’s lab. If you wish to know more about Prof. Mazzocca’s work, please visit http://www.antoniomazzocca.com/