April 2011

An interview with Jason Sello

Jason Sello is a tenure-track, assistant professor of chemistry at Brown University. In this online-only interview, he talks about some of the challenges he's faced in his scientific development.

ASBMB: What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
Sello: The first significant decision in my scientific career was to pursue undergraduate research with Prof. Joseph W. McCray, Jr. at Morehouse College. I worked with Prof. McCray from the summer after my freshman year through my senior year. The three and a half years that I spent working with him were absolutely formative. He cultivated my interests in biochemistry and in structural biology. He taught me how to read the scientific literature and to think deeply and broadly. In addition to my research at Morehouse during the academic year, Dr. McCray encouraged me to pursue research opportunities at Purdue University (with Prof. Thomas J. Smith who is now at the Danforth Institute) and at Harvard Medical School (with Prof. James M. Hogle) during the summers.

The second critical decision with respect to my scientific career was to attend Harvard University for graduate study in biophysics. At Harvard, I was able to explore my interests in scientific topics that interface between chemistry and biology. My Ph.D. adviser, Prof. Stuart L. Schreiber, played an especially important role - he gave me an opportunity to learn synthetic organic chemistry, which was a great complement to my undergraduate education in biology. My time in Stuart’s research group exposed me to an incredibly broad array of research topics in organic chemistry and biology. The breadth of his research interests and the impact of his research accomplishments continue to inspire my research perspective to this day.

The third critical decision in my scientific career was to focus my research on the metabolism of Streptomyces bacteria. Towards the end of my graduate work, I was looking for a research topic that could sustain at least a forty-year scientific career. I thought antibiotic-producing Streptomyces bacteria would be ideal research subjects, and a meeting with Prof. Arnold Demain (then at MIT) convinced me that this was the case. I sought, and was fortunate to be given, opportunities to work with some of the world’s experts on the metabolism and genetics of Streptomyces bacteria- Prof. Christopher T. Walsh at Harvard Medical School, and Profs. Keith Chater and Mark Buttner at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England. My decision to study Streptomyces bacteria was a very good one. Through studies of these bacteria, I have had opportunities to carry out fundamental research with implications for antibacterial drug discovery, antibiotic resistance, chemical ecology, and renewable energy.

ASBMB: How did you first become interested in science?
Sello: I first became interested in science in elementary school when my parents enrolled me in a summer program sponsored by the Pine Jog Environmental Education Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. This program did not involve research, but it gave me an appreciation of the environment.

ASBMB: 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?
Sello: From the time I was a graduate student, I knew that I wanted to lead an interdisciplinary research program in my independent career. Accordingly, I changed research directions three times after I graduated from college. My first transition was as a graduate student when I changed interests from structural biology and biophysics to synthetic organic chemistry. As a postdoctoral fellow, I made two significant changes. First, I transitioned from synthetic organic chemistry to protein biochemistry and enzymology. Then, I switched from protein biochemistry and enzymology to bacterial genetics. At each stage, I had a steep learning curve and faced many challenges, but I always kept my focus on my long-term objective.

A particularly challenging time was my training in protein biochemistry and enzymology. I chose to work on an exceedingly difficult project because it was an opportunity to define a new catalytic strategy in enzymology. After more than a year of work, I had produced very little data of any consequence. Fortunately, my transition from biochemistry to genetics provided me with an opportunity to redeem my career. However, the modest productivity from my post-doctoral period did not help my job search or my efforts to get funding. I would advise any post-doctoral fellow to focus on publishing as many papers as is possible- productivity is extremely important.


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