Keynote Speakers: Dr. Gira Bhabha and Dr. Damian Ekiert
Header image of Dr. Damian Ekiert (left) and Dr. Gira Bhabha (right) courtesy of the NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Written by Alison Mao
The old saying “two heads are better than one” might have some merit when it comes to the challenge of managing a research laboratory. After Dr. Gira Bhabha and Dr. Damian Ekiert delivered their keynote presentations at the departmental retreat, Transcripts had the opportunity to interview them on their respective journeys to their present positions and what it takes to run a joint lab.
Dr. Bhabha began her schooling in India, where students must specialize in one of three streams in grade 10: the humanities, commerce, or science. Although she originally chose the humanities stream, she became interested in the sciences, which she ultimately pursued for her higher education. It was during her undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago that she met Dr. Ekiert, another undergraduate student at the time. Dr. Bhabha started out working on a genetics project involving Drosophila, but developed an interest in protein mechanisms. Meanwhile, Dr. Ekiert remained curious about microbes ever since his first research experience in an E. coli lab. The pair coordinated their applications to Scripps Research Institute, where they completed their PhDs; Dr. Bhabha focused on structural biology while Dr. Ekiert studied in Dr. Ian Wilson’s lab, investigating the immune response against viruses. (Coincidentally, Dr. Jean-Philippe Julien from our own Department of Biochemistry was a postdoc at the Wilson lab while Dr. Ekiert was a graduate student!) Dr. Bhabha and Dr. Ekiert then found their own postdoctoral positions at the University of California San Francisco. Dr. Bhabha’s project combined the study of cellular pathways with enzymatic mechanisms of action using cryo-EM, facilitated by joint supervision by Dr. Yifan Cheng and Dr. Ron Vale. Dr. Ekiert decided to focus on diseases lacking effective treatment options and joined Dr. Jeff Cox’s lab to study tuberculosis.
When faced with the inevitable question of what to do with their careers afterward, the idea of starting up a joint lab gradually developed between the two of them. Dr. Bhabha recalled discussing it with Dr. Vale, who expressed caution but advised, “You should always go for your dream job–if it fails, it fails, but if you [don’t] try then you [won’t] know if it fails or not.” Ultimately, they decided to go ahead with their idea.
The process of starting their lab was aided by the fact that they were able to draw upon two reserves of funding and knowledge from their differing fields of expertise. This system also benefits the trainees in their lab, who gain support and perspective from both professors to guide their project. Dr. Bhabha and Dr. Ekiert aren’t always in agreement, but Dr. Bhabha mentioned that trainees could learn firsthand that “it’s okay to disagree,” thus encouraging them to take initiative and share their own views. Managing the trainees also became easier for the professors due to a more continual supervisory presence in the lab; Dr. Ekiert described that if one of them had to leave for a conference, the other could remain accessible to the rest of the lab.
However, their journey was not without its challenges.
For the joint lab to work, teamwork was critical; Dr. Bhabha explained, “It requires a good business partner.” They developed a system for working together since they were graduate students, although it wasn’t seamless at the start. For example, while working on the same experiment in the lab, Dr. Ekiert recalled disputes over simple things like volume while performing protein purifications. He would question, “Why is the volume so large?”, to which she would reply, “Why is the volume so small?” However, the issue of their distinct preferences for different experimental techniques was solved by dividing up lab tasks. They also adjusted to each other’s styles of writing for grants and manuscripts over time. Overall, in their case, they experienced more external challenges in the face of a system that has been, as Dr. Bhabha described, “set up to evaluate people as individuals.” Questions regarding who would be considered the senior author for publications and where sources of funding would be derived from were common. Although a joint lab is not a novel concept, changes at a systemic level would be required for investigators and trainees to fully benefit from the incredible possibilities of working in a joint lab.
On top of managing their joint lab, Dr. Bhabha and Dr. Ekiert run both an active mentorship program and a course teaching the fundamentals of peer review. Peer review is an essential component of the publication process, but graduate students receive varying levels of exposure and training for it throughout their degrees. The course teaches students how to write constructive feedback and publication-quality summaries, providing a very unique and practical benefit for the students. They also have the opportunity to interact with authors and editors from different journals. While discussing the purpose of peer review, Dr. Ekiert posed the question, “Are you a gatekeeper? Or are you a helper?” Through the Peer Review in Life Sciences course at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, students can decide for themselves.
The progression of the pair’s careers were gradual; even now, Dr. Bhabha said that she “tend[s] to think more in [terms of] ‘this is what I think is most exciting now’.” For current graduate students, she said, “If you can find a lab where you are super excited about the science and the mentor is really going to be your champion, then that’s what you should go for.” Dr. Ekiert added that it’s about “taking into account the mentor and the lab dynamic, in addition to the science…are they equally invested in your success?” Pursuing graduate studies is an undeniably challenging endeavour but ultimately, Dr. Bhabha advised, “Enjoy the science and be proactive.”
For more information regarding the Dr. Bhabha’s and Dr. Ekiert’s labs, please visit their website: http://bhabhaekiertlab.org/