How do you decide to become a scientist? In the case of Vista scholar Jack C. Leo, it happened while he was rehearsing for the role of Inspector Pisani in an amateur theatre production of a famous classic "The Accidental Death of an Anarchist". The director of this play happened to be a professor in structural biology at the University of Helsinki. His passion for both theatre and biology led to Jack's decision to start a PhD and the director of the play became his supervisor.
- I think my interest in biology started with dinosaurs when I was four or five years old. We had tons of books on this topic, and I would always go to the zoos and natural history museums wherever we travelled. I had also many aquariums, says Jack C. Leo.
He also enjoyed acting, so at high school he seriously considered going to drama school.
- But when we were learning about classical genetics, I thought this is brilliant. This is what I'd like to do. So I applied to the University of Helsinki for a degree in biology, specializing in genetics.
Drama and biology are two pretty different subjects, don't you think?
- Well .... Actually there are many people in amateur theatre who come from the science world. Both fields require certain similarities in personalities. To do theatre or science you need to be creative and think outside the box. If you're a scientist, then it doesn't hurt to be good at performing since you have to give a lot of lectures and talks.
During his PhD, Jack focused mostly on structural biology.
- The main method which our research group employed was protein crystallography. We used this method to find out the three-dimensional structure of proteins.
What is protein?
- Proteins are sort of workhorses of the cell. They perform important functions in organisms like catalysing metabolic reactions, transporting molecules within cells and throughout the organism, depending on what type of protein it is.
There are structural proteins, messenger proteins and enzymes. Proteins and DNA are interconnected and vital to sustaining life.
DNA is used to make proteins through the genetic code. But proteins do all the work in the cell, and are responsible for metabolism and maintaining the cell. Therefore, you could argue that proteins are more important than DNA.
As a member of the protein crystallography group, Jack wrote his PhD in the field of microbiology, studying the interaction of bacterial surface proteins with their receptors.
Where can we use that kind of knowledge?
- This is basic science, so it is not immediately applicable. I studied the interaction of a protein from a bacterium called Yersinia enterocolitica and how it binds to collagen. Yersinia causes a range of gastroenteric and systemic diseases and infects the host by sticking to its cells using a trimeric autotransporter adhesin called YadA by binding to, for example, collagen.
I studied this interaction to characterize the binding interface. How does this bacterium recognize collagen in our tissues and cause disease? A long way down the road, you could design drugs that might block that kind of interaction.
When studying this, Jack discovered that his real passion as a scientist was not just in structural biology, but in combining biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular biology to research bacterial adhesion. After doing a post doc on this topic in Germany he received a Vista grant and left for the University of Oslo to work in Professor Dirk Linke's research group at the Department of Biosciences. The main focus of this group, where Jack is a post doc for five years, is how bacteria stick to things.
This kind of research may in the long run alleviate the problem of antibiotic resistance, especially in environments like hospitals where this is a significant problem, and one that is just increasing.
Could you elaborate on your Vista project?
- It's sort of different from the main project that the group does. Under certain conditions, bacteria can reduce heavy metal ions into metallic nanoparticles. This is not something a bacteria would normally do in nature. This ability of bacteria has been known for a while in science, but not many people have actually investigated the mechanisms behind this transformation into metallic nanoparticles. Studying the mechanism turned out to be slightly more difficult than I hoped, but we are in a fairly good position and have discovered interesting things.
This is particularly relevant for different industries like oil and gas, because these nanoparticles have unusual electronic, magnetic and catalytic properties. Once you find the pathways of how these things are formed, we might be able to manipulate them to produce nanoparticles with desired properties.
You mentioned previously that it's possible to do it in an eco-friendly way?
- Yes, these nanoparticles can be synthesized chemically, but this is done using harsh treatments and in high concentrations. Doing it with the bacteria is better for the environment. Say, for example, we have heavy metal contamination in the soil. We might be able to add these bacteria to detoxify the soil, let the bacteria absorb heavy metals and transform heavy metal ions into a state where they are less toxic.
How do you start with basic research?
- You start with an interesting question or problem - for example: How do bacteria stick to things? You take baby steps and find out what factors are involved, and what they bind to. Some of these things we already know, but in many cases we don't know how the binding happens, how do proteins get onto the surface of the bacteria?
Is it frustrating to do basic research?
"Yes," he answers fast.
Because it's so abstract?
- No, it's not so abstract because we're answering concrete questions in real biological systems, and there's some medical and industrial relevance and impact in what we do. What is frustrating is when things don't work and that's 70 percent of the time in general. So yes, it can be very frustrating, but it's not boring.
How do you tackle this frustration?
- I think it comes with the territory. If you aren't a person who deals well with frustration - science is not for you. If something isn't working, you have to approach it from a different angle. Occasionally things really don't work, so you just have to accept this and move on.
How do you find the difference between when to try harder and when to just move on?
- When you're facing a problem, you do three repeated experiments and if none of them are giving you the answers you need, try something else. So you really need to repeat something at least three times.
What drives you?
- For me personally, I find basic biology very interesting. My Vista grant runs out early next year, but I've been lucky enough to get a Young Researcher grant from the Norwegian Research Council. So I'm going to keep researching in the same field, but more on certain secreted proteins. There are only one or two publications on these, so it's a really interesting and undiscovered niche to research.
Do you still do theatre?
- Here in Norway I've been doing some improvisation with an international group, and I will soon direct a play by one of my favourite playwrights Christopher Durang. His style is absurd comedy.
Do you regret not going into theatre?
- Occasionally you think - what if you wind back the clock and maybe choose theatre. But I don't think it would be an easy career either with so many difficulties to get a steady job and perform. But as a fulltime scientist I can both do science and amateur theatre. I don't think I could do amateur science and be a professional actor. So no, and I certainly don't regret going into science.
How to write a grant proposal
- You need to have a clear research question and a clear approach, and explain why it is relevant to society. Anybody can have an idea, but you need to show how you can make this idea work.
How to write
- I enjoy writing - if you want to do science you need to enjoy writing, or at least not actively hate it. Clarity is the main thing, which can be surprisingly difficult. Write in a way that people understand.