Category Archives: Interviews

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/
“I really enjoy doing the simplest of simple things and this is one of the things one should learn. Even if you are in a smaller place and you have done one experiment like transformation and if you are looking forward to what happens to that experiment next morning, and you see the transformants on the plate, that enjoyment and excitement is really something that I live for” quoted Prof. Umesh Varshney when asked about what he enjoys the most about being a scientist.

Prof. Umesh Varshney, Molecular Biologist, at the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore visited the Yenepoya Research Centre (YRC), Yenepoya (Deemed to be University) on July 21, 2018 to deliver a guest lecture on “Initiation with the initiator tRNA”.

We, research fellows at YRC grabbed this opportunity to interact with him albeit informally(!) and asked him few questions other than mainstream science. So, in an interview with Saketh Kapoor, Gayathree Karthikkeyan and Rex DAB, Prof. Varshney shared his insights and experiences in scientific research today as well as his personal interests on the questions posed to him.

The first thing he expressed about how he enjoys interacting with his students. “Many a time I will have one view on something, the student will have another view and the kind of things that we can come up with discussion and the questions that we can ask, makes it really interesting, so let’s say, me and my student have different hypothesis, now how to distinguish between two hypotheses by designing simple experiments is interesting“ stated Prof. Varshney.

We also queried him about that one study which he is really fascinated about. However, the answer we received was not just one study but various studies which Prof. Varshney mentioned. He described the very first kind of suppressor that his team analyzed which fell into one carbon metabolism and how it affected the fidelity of protein synthesis. “We were asking a question that a tRNA, which is not really a bona fide initiator tRNA and we know it should not be allowed to initiate, but because of one mutation, it goes into a pathway which normally would not be connected with protein synthesis, that really becomes then interesting to solve that puzzle. So basically, much of the molecular genetics is about solving a puzzle. And it was the first of its kind, when we identified that methylations in rRNA are important in fidelity of selection of initiator tRNA. This study which was immediately published in EMBO journal. And more recently we are finding out that there is heterogeneity in the ribosomes that is again something very exciting for us to go ahead and resolve it”.



We further asked him the about the qualities a budding researcher must possess. To which he again cited the example of a transformation experiment that how much a student is motivated and excited to see the results of his experiment the very next morning. The other very important thing is that a person has to be very persistent and motivated. “I always give this example, let’s say, you went to do some hobby activities, and you have to pay for it. But here my hobby is to do research and at the same time I am getting paid for it. So that is one of the incentives a student who is getting into a research always gets. It’s like getting paid for what you love to do! So, this is the best profession to be in. Also, one should not get depressed or disappointed with one failed experiment because we may not be sure whether it’s a failure. Many a time we are going with our hypothesis and the results we are getting is not fitting into hypothesis, we start calling it as a failure. But one should always try to look for an alternate hypothesis which will explain this outcome and if there aren’t then one should always look whether if there are any technical flaws in what you did”.

We then discussed how important is it for a researcher to go abroad to get an experience from other countries. To which he replied, “The number of scientists that we have in our country is very limited and if you now start picking up a particular area that becomes even narrower. So, if you have an interest in a particular area and if there are facilities available elsewhere, one should always explore that. I would not take the approach that one should just work in the country rather than going abroad, instead, go abroad, learn the things and bring the technologies back to the country”.

Finally, the interview concluded on a lighter note where we asked what he likes to do when not doing research. “Well I like to do nothing!! Being a senior faculty at IISc, there are lots of administrative responsibilities as well, so much of my time goes in fulfilling those responsibilities also. However, having said that, I actually like doing some exercise like jogging, cycling, which have become very infrequent now, but I still try to do it once in a while”.

We thank Prof. Varshney for sharing his time and his experiences with us. We also hope that this transcript will help our readers to motivate themselves for doing science research or other fields/areas they wish to pursue in their lives.