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Tiffany Zhou | December 7, 2022

As the saying goes, “If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.” Many undergraduate students in STEM experience uncertainty when deciding which career to pursue after college. In particular, the path from student to a professor leading a lab can seem daunting and full of unknowns. How can you know if it is the right fit for you? What does the future of the profession look like? These are all important questions to ask when considering any job, particularly in academia.

To learn more about a career in academic research, I sat down with Dr. Eric Skaar, Director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation (VI4) and Ernest W. Goodpasture Professor of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology. His lab focuses on investigating metal acquisition at the host-microbial pathogen interface, with the goal of identifying novel therapeutic targets for treating infectious disease. In our interview, he offered advice for students studying microbiology and immunology and tells us about the story of his journey from a curious high schooler to a PI.

Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me for an interview, Dr. Skaar. Could you share a little bit about your academic journey? When and how were you first inspired to pursue a career in biomedical research?

I was very fortunate to go to a public high school in suburban Chicago that had a microbiology class, which was the equivalent of an AP class that taught half microbiology and half anatomy. I got lucky in that when I was a sophomore in high school, I knew I wanted to have something to do with infectious diseases. At the time I thought I wanted to be a physician because I didn’t really know what a career as a scientist looked like – I didn’t have role models for that. But I knew I wanted to study infection, so this was the direction I went in.

I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and majored in bacteriology, which is kind of an unusual major – I don’t think that’s an actual major anywhere else. That was exciting for me because that’s where I gained an appreciation for fundamental microbiology, with microbes that don’t cause infection and how interesting they are. I think that was probably a good way to train because infections can be devastating to humans, but they’re caused by bacteria that have the same physiological functions as normal bacteria. So learning about non-pathogenic bacteria was a good way to set me up for a career studying pathogenic bacteria. 

I worked in an undergrad research lab focusing on single carbon metabolism in the environmental bacterium Rhodobacter sphaeroides. Then at the end of college, I decided I wanted to study infectious diseases and that is when I learned a little bit more about career paths. I was really lucky to get a job working in the media lab, pouring all the petri dishes for the teaching lab. And the woman who ran that lab knew enough about biomedical research to give me some great advice on steps I needed to take to have a career as a scientist, and that’s when I made the shift from medical school to graduate school.

I decided to get a PhD in microbial pathogenesis at Northwestern University, and worked on DNA recombination in gonorrhea. One thing I did that was a little unusual was that when I was in graduate school, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, and being a professor seemed kind of unattainable. So I looked into careers in molecular epidemiology, and I decided to get a master’s degree in public health at night. The part-time dual degree existed for medical students but not graduate students, so I convinced the university to let me participate in that program. I would work in the lab until 6 pm and then go to class until 9 pm. That was hard, but it worked really well, so Northwestern decided to create a currently very active dual PhD/MPH program. I am pretty proud of being the first student to do that.  

The ironic thing is that at that point in time, my science started to take off, so a career in academia began to look more realistic. I decided to put the molecular epidemiology career path down and stay on a traditional biomedical research path and do a postdoc. I did my post-doc at the University of Chicago on microbial pathogenesis with an emphasis on chemistry. From there, my post-doc was much more successful than my PhD and set me up to start a lab.

Do you have any advice that you would offer to students who are interested in studying microbiology and immunology?

The fields of microbiology and immunology are experiencing a renaissance – they are the most exciting fields in biomedicine right now. Between the pandemic and the emergence of the microbiome at the root of many diseases, and cancer immunotherapy (using the immune system to cure cancer) these are currently the coolest fields. For the first time in my career, there are a huge array of job opportunities for PhDs in microbiology and immunology. Many of them are both lucrative and attainable, which is new. This is a very exciting time to be a microbiology and immunology student, and I want to underscore how attractive you would be for a number of career paths. 

I think the most important thing is to figure out how much you like the process of discovery. That, in my mind, is the fundamental aspect of a career in research, that you’re trying to solve puzzles and discover things. For some people, that is so exciting that it isn’t even work, it is something they enjoy doing and they can handle all the failures that come naturally with research. For others, they don’t like failure, the process of discovery, or doing experiments, and the career of science in academia may not end up being the best choice. The best way to figure that out is to give it a try. Join a lab, get a sense for if it is something you enjoy doing, or something that is tedious or frustrating. I strongly recommend that someone should only get a PhD in biomedical research if they enjoy the process of research to some level, since it is often a long and hard road. 

What are the biggest challenges that you face as a PI?

I think the hardest part about being a PI, which many PIs realize quickly after they get the job, is that the job you were trained to do, the success that led to you being selected as a PI from a large applicant pool, is very different from the job you end up doing. The reason you get chosen is because you have had success at the bench and had discoveries that ended up being published in high-profile journals. But once you run a lab, all of a sudden you are given a very large bank account and an empty room, and your job is to purchase equipment, manage the finances, hire and train people, and also fundraise. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re now a small business owner, but your product is knowledge. And very few training experiences give postdocs and graduate students a window into those aspects of running a lab, so it can be very hard to transition from a postdoc running experiments all day to becoming a small business owner. 

What are you most excited about in the future of infectious disease research?

One of the things that is most exciting about infectious disease research in particular is the emergence of monoclonal antibody therapy. Traditionally, there were two primary strategies to treat infection: antibiotics, small-molecule drugs that target bacteria specifically, or vaccinating someone against an antigen, ensuring that they are protected from subsequent infection. But monoclonal antibody therapy is the strategy of identifying the antibodies that a vaccine or natural infection would elicit, figuring out which ones of those are protective, and then mass producing them so they can be injected into people and treat infection. I think that monoclonal antibodies have tremendous potential, not only to protect against emerging pathogens, which it does very well, but also to treat antibiotic resistant infections. One of the real benefits of monoclonal antibody therapy is that they can be developed very quickly against pathogens, which is very exciting.

I’m also very excited about the microbiome. The microbiome has been a hot area of research for a long time, but up until very recently, it really was microbial ecology, meaning that it was more of an exercise in determining what organisms are in a certain environment of the body, and which of those organisms are associated with various health and disease-related outcomes. But there was less research into the mechanisms by which those organisms affect health and disease. And now I think true molecular microbiology is starting to be applied to questions related to the microbiome and in doing so, I think we are going to identify new organisms that have really interesting physiologic impact on the body, we’re going to identify new molecules that are made by those organisms which may have potential as drugs. So I’m very excited about the fact that microbiome research is now getting much more mechanistic – that means there are more exciting things ahead of us.