Jean-Philippe Gourdine, Ph.D.

JP.Gourdine_lgTell us about your current career position.
For the past four years I have been a postdoctoral fellow in Biochemistry in Rick Cummings’ lab at Emory University. I work on the identification of leukocytic receptors for a family of glycan binding proteins, the galectins using diverse tools (glycan arrays, affinity chromatography, western-blot, flow cytometry, confocal microscopy and inhibition experiments). I also help to supervise students and organize the lab. Prior to coming to the U.S., I completed my first postdoc in Glycobiology in Anne Imberty’s lab at the National Center for Scientific Research in Grenoble (CNRS, France). I also taught biochemistry and evolutionary biology at the University of the French West Indies and Guiana (U.A.G) in Martinique and Guadeloupe, where I graduated with my Ph.D. in Marine Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2006.

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position? 
Hard work, passion and human connections are the ingredients in my recipe for success.  My passion for Science made me explore the world as a young research scientist and teacher through an intellectual, geographical and human journey.  While working towards my Ph.D. in Guadeloupe with Prof. Juliette Smith-Ravin (U.A.G), I was lucky enough to spend part of that time being trained in Protein Biochemistry in London at Westminster University in Prof. Pamela Greenwell and Miriam Dwek labs and at Imperial College with the late Prof. Judit Nagy. During my research, I discovered codakine, a new marine C-type lectin of a marine bacterial-symbiotic bivalve, Codakia orbicularis. This discovery became the basis of my thesis and enabled me to complete my Ph.D.

While applying for postdoctoral positions in the U.K., Canada and the U.S., my British mentors, knowing my enthusiasm for structural biology, advised me to apply for a position in Anne Imberty’s lab in Grenoble, France. This advice was sound and I spent the next year and a half in Grenoble, France for research and in Schoelcher, Martinique for teaching. Towards the end of this postdoc I attended a conference on glycan binding protein in Scotland where I met Linda Baum from UCLA who advised me to apply to one of the best Glycobiology labs in the world, and this is where I am currently doing my second postdoc.  I have since moved away from molecular anthropology, a discipline I enjoyed a great deal.  Indeed, I wanted initially to do a postdoc to study ancient and recent migrations in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas using DNA from fossils/blood samples and Immunoglobulin markers with Prof Eric Crubezy in  Universite Paul Sabatier Toulouse, France.  But for now I must satisfy my interest by simply following the research and summarizing scientific articles in this discipline in a French journal edited by an Egyptologist Alain Anselin from UAG (Cahiers Caribeens d’Egyptologie). 

How did you first become interested in science? 
Ever since I was a little boy I have been observant and curious.  Luckily my mother saw potential in me and gave me my first magnifying glass when I was 4-years-old.  I started off small by observing the ants that lived in our front yard. I was fascinated to see them communicating with their antennas, and the organization that existed within their colonies.  I also turned to the stars at night, I wanted to be an astronaut because the cosmos filled me with wonder and questions like “Where do we come from?” and “Are we the only ones in the universe?”  Science certainly didn’t give me all the answers but it gave me the best tools to understand the world.  My 6th grade biology teacher also had a very big impact on my interest in science. He amazed me with his lessons, showing me that science was involved in every aspect of our world’s existence and us. I am forever grateful for that magnifying glass my mother thought to get me when I was so young.  Sadly, she never got to see the scientist that I would become, passing away before I completed my schooling. Not surprisingly, learning about the disease she died from (oligoastrocytoma/brain cancer) increased my interest in the research currently being done to find cures for cancer.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
This happens whenever I take new steps in my career, like during my Ph.D. I usually ease up, take a break, go for a hike, a jog, listen to some good jazz with a glass of Bordeaux, or meditate and then come back with fresher ideas and more motivation. There is always a way to get back on track!

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours? 

  1. Find your own heroes, no matter where they are from - get inspired!
  2. Know yourself, your good points and limits.
  3. Find a particular discipline in science that you enjoy - nothing can be done without motivation.
  4. Be a sponge to scientific knowledge - read, read and read.
  5. Be flexible: remember the plasticity of your brain.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask question and meet people.
  7. If you want to succeed, don’t be afraid to fail - 90% of trials end up with failure but learn from it to get to the successful 10%.
  8. Last but not least, feel free to question your own answers - be a critical thinker.

What are your hobbies? 
I enjoy hiking, traveling, jogging, table tennis, listening to Classical, Soul music, Jazz and old school Hip-Hop, writing poetry, reading about the history of science, debating with my Black freethinker group of Atlanta, enjoying Science Café and trivia with my friends from Atlanta Science Tavern in Atlanta.  

What was the last book you read? 
The last book I read was “The Age of Empathy” by a colleague from Emory, Frans de Waal.  It deals with the discovery of one of the bases of morality in the primate world.  Advised by my girlfriend, I’ve started to read “Ghost Map” by Stephen Johnson, about the discovery of the cause of Cholera in 18th century London.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?  

  • Marcel “Vélo” Lollia, a drummer who made the traditional music from Guadeloupe, Gwoka, inherited by African slaves survive. He is a symbol of passion and resistance.
  • Aimé Césaire, father of the “Négritude” movement in Martinique, a poet and political activist who influenced me as Black French. He fought for under-represented people in France and still kept a humanistic point of view. He has the same resonance that Martin Luther King and W.E.B Dubois had.
  • Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese scientist sparked my interest to African history and popularized Prof. Leakey’s works on Human evolution.
  • Charles Darwin, scientifically and ethically amazes me. His powerful theory that is confirmed everyday with modern science as well as his humanistic point of view make me proud of our humble animal origins (especially in his under-rated “The Descent of Man”.  
  • Barbara McClintock, who discovered the transposable elements, is a model for perseverance in Science, especially as a female scientist in the 20th century…marginalized and ostracized in the beginning of her discovery, she finally got the Nobel Prize 20 years later.
  • Michel Onfray, the modern French synthesis of Nietzsche, Democritus and Epicurus are my ethical mentors. “The highest good with your own pleasure and that of others; the one must never be indulged at the expense of sacrificing the other “, this is an echo of the Ubuntu philosophy in South Africa (I am because We are).
  • Claude Zinsou, retired professor of Biochemistry in Guadeloupe, who transmitted the passion for Biochemistry during his class.
  • And finally, my current mentors, Dr. Cummings and Dr. Ju, deep critical thinkers and prolific scientists, they are models of success.
  • Along with these role models, I grew up reading the Marvel comics so, I have plenty of heroes.  ;)

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?  

Passion for discovery, I am simply happy to bring my own bricks to add to the pyramid of knowledge for humanity.