Featured Scientist (III): Prof Hidde Ploegh

Friday the 22nd of November’s Friday seminar at the John Innes Centre took on a distinctly non-plant science flavour as Professor Hidde Ploegh, of the Broad Institute, delivered his seminar on host-pathogen interactions. We’re not exactly strangers to pathology here in Norwich, but rather than striving to mitigate the effects of crop pathogens like many of the researchers on the NRP, Hidde’s group is interested in human disease.

It became increasingly apparent throughout the seminar, and as lunch progressed, that Hidde is a great advocate of developing your own tools to study the problem at hand, as evidenced by his appropriation of somatic cell nuclear transfer technology to generate novel mouse models with immune cells against several important viruses and his use of bacterial sortase proteins as a method by which to study the ubiquitin mediated degradation of proteins at the proteasome. His body of work (which includes contributions to over 400 academic papers) has left us with an understanding of how the Major Histocompatibility Complex functions and how its products get to where they need to be and how are cells are able to detect invaders through the perception of antigens and mount a response.

Professor Hidde Ploegh (image courtesy of http://wi.mit.edu)

Despite there being only three students at lunch with Hidde, conversation flowed quite freely and there was little need to ask any of the questions that have appeared in previous editions of this feature; he provided answers to them pretty naturally as we talked.

One of the first topics to come up was advice that he would offer to students and early career researchers in general. It should come as no surprise that the first words to exit his mouth were “Develop your own toolbox.” Hidde was adamant that this is the best way to ensure the relevance of your science and minimise the risk of being in direct competition with another group. Also adding “If you’re just working with things you can order from a catalogue, you’re only going for the low-hanging fruit and there’s probably someone else out there doing the same thing as you.” Away from advice on how to excel at the bench, Hidde also had some thoughts on the politics of science when it comes to rising through the ranks, stating that “Political game-playing is not something I can say I’ve ever experienced in my career. Some people are better at it than others and extroverts may have a better chance than introverts at interviews purely because communication is so important in science. If you’re worried about this sort of thing I’d urge you not to be. Just stay above it and make sure your science is interesting to people, that’s all you should focus on.” As a final vignette on advice for those starting out their careers, Hidde had this to offer: “Don’t always tell your advisor about that risky experiment you want to try. We like to be kept in the loop most of the time, but the wheels really start turning when you come to us and say ‘Look at this cool result I’ve got…’.” *

On Hidde’s route to becoming a project leader; well, there’s not a lot to say. Those in attendance at the seminar will be aware that he secured a faculty position straight out of graduate school. When asked “How on Earth did that happen?” Hidde provided the following explanation “I just got lucky I suppose. My PhD thesis was very interesting to the right people and very novel at the time. There was a position available and I took it. These sorts of opportunities are becoming more available today, particularly at MIT, Stanford and the University of California. I see no issue with not having done a post-doc. It’s like finding the right partner and saying ‘No, I can’t be with you now, I have to try out a few other people first.’ If the topic of your thesis is something you’re capable of pursuing further than I see no reason why you shouldn’t do that just so you can spend time in a few other labs.”

We didn’t get round to asking what Hidde would do if he hadn’t become a scientist but we did discuss which areas of science he thinks he may have ended up in if he could start over again. What emerged was a very pleasant surprise: using chemistry to synthesise plant secondary metabolites for medicinal purposes on an industrial scale!

Other topics discussed were the various emerging genome editing technologies, in  particular the intellectual property minefields surrounding them and how they could circumvent current EU regulations on GMOs, how great it is to work as an academic in the Boston area and how he’d love to know if plant pathogen effector proteins were able to have any effect on animal or fungal cells.

By Ben Hall – a second year PhD student in Mark Banfield’s group.

*The author accepts no responsibility for any ludicrously ambitious experiments attempted by students in the aftermath of this blog, regardless of outcome.

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