Senior Attending Physician
Leon Hess Associate Professor
Elizabeth and Vincent Meyer Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology
Interview by Fernando Bejarano
Imagine that you are just out of graduate school and about to embark on a biomedical science post doc in a world-renowned research institute. You have your Ph.D., you feel self-assured, confident, and certain of your path in life. You are excited about this next step and don’t care how demanding it could be compared with your Ph.D. But in a moment of doubt, you pause to consider what it might mean to be an academic scientist: what have you gotten yourself into? Many thoughts and unanswered questions about your future career will run through your mind. “Will I be strong enough to withstand the pressure? Will the impact of my research be high enough? Will I publish in good journals fast enough?” Faster, Higher, Stronger… And you dive in, that moment when the Olympic motto expresses the career aspirations of a well-driven scientist.
Most would agree if I said that many of us dreamt from the start of achieving greatness in our careers, and embraced this motto just as if we were getting ready to run the Olympic marathon. Science can be compared to endurance running, where the stamina of researchers is tested and culminates with the ultimate goal, a groundbreaking, game changing publication that will help them secure a top academic position or that sought-after industry job.
Our guest, Dr. Sohail Tavazoie, is a great example of a top player achieving greatness in this scientific field, breaking records every step of the way. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkley. He also has an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University. Tavazoie then spent time as an oncology fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and conducted postdoctoral research in Joan Massague’s lab. During this time, he changed fields from developmental to cancer biology where he began to focus on the control of breast cancer by microRNAs. This was a fortuitous transition, because shortly after, he crossed Manhattan’s York Avenue to start his very own lab at The Rockefeller University. Dr. Tavazoie’s lab has been trying to understand different cellular situations where cancer cells are being regulated by small RNAs. Every project in his lab poses a new challenge. As a result of his continued success, Dr. Tavazoie has received much recognition and many honors: ASCO Young Investigator Award, Emerald He Foundation Young Investigator Award, and the Pershing Square Sohn Prize among others.
I met Dr. Tavazoie at his office, and what was supposed to be a ten minute chat turned into an afternoon of riveting conversation. Whether it was because I also work in microRNAs and tumor progression, or perhaps it was because I enjoyed his fascinating responses to our questionnaire, or maybe even, because he mentioned a fondness for Madrid, my hometown, I sat there enthused by his passion for science and his wonderful achievements in such a short career.
NS: Who, or what, inspired you to enter your field of achievement?
ST: It happened during a science summer program when I was in high school. John Roth, who was a bacterial geneticist, exposed me to science for the first time and that was what hooked me. Later, when I was in college, I got a job in a lab washing the glassware to pay for my college tuition. While I was there, I made a deal with the scientist from the lab I was in, half the time I would wash the glasses and half the time he would let me do research. That was great to do experimental science again during college, but looking back I would really say that it was my high school experience, when I was 16 and worked with John, who made bacterial genetics super exciting, that is what definitely got me hooked on science and I could never go back from that.
NS: Explain your work to a five-year-old.
ST: When people get cancer sometimes the cancer can spread to other organs in the body and that is called metastasis. When it is spread to other places, the cancer cells can grow in those organs destroying them and patients can die. The biological question is how is it that some of those cells that belong at the primary tumor site can colonize other tissues. Experiments have shown that out of every ten thousand cancer cells in circulation, roughly one is able to ultimately form a metastatic colony. We are trying to understand how this single cell is able to do that and how it can shift its gene expression program to be successful in colonizing other tissues. We have seen how those cells are able to change the lifespan of their RNAs. By increasing the stability of those RNAs of genes that promote growth and metastasis, and suppressing the genes that negatively impact on them, they are able to form the malignant colonies. We are interested in better understanding the process by which those cells are able to shift the level of those genes’ RNAs and we have seen that this can be achieved post-transcriptionally by diverse small RNA types. We have observed that similar gene regulatory mechanisms also operate in normal cells to control the levels of gene expression normally. Probably not for a five year old kid though.
NS: If you could sum up the most important characteristics of a scientist in three words, what would they be?
ST: A scientist should be passionate, rigorous and hard working.
NS: How does creativity play a role in science?
ST: I think that creativity plays two roles. The first is that creativity is important in the initial inception of what you are going to study and what you want to pursue, the biological question that you are interested in. Creativity also comes into play by enabling you to utilize new technologies and creating new approaches in order to specifically address your … questions.
NS: Scientists are not only focused on science. They are usually passionate people devoted to other extra-curricular activities. Do you have any other passions besides science?
ST: I used to. Right now my free time goes to my children…I used to play sports, I love[d] to run track and field, played a lot of basketball, skiing, rock climbing. Once you have children, things change and kids become your hobby. Right now, the kids drain all my free time, but every now and then, my wife and I take some time for ourselves and enjoy this beautiful city.
NS: What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?
ST: … I trained as a physician, I am a medical oncologist and I am still seeing patients at MSKCC. If I wasn´t a scientist I think I would do that full time. In my opinion, medicine has become … more and more scientific, and medicine and science have a lot in common. We need more effective cancer therapies for patients and that motivates me to continue to understand how cancer behaves. I think being a scientist is the best job one can … have, and being a physician would be the second best job.
NS: Did you have any big rejections in your life?
ST: Absolutely. As you grow up, there are things you aspire for that you don’t achieve. In track and field, there was always someone faster than me. During high school and college there were rejections. When I applied for grants there have been many rejections. There have been rejections also in paper submissions. I think rejections are key, because you want to know that not everything is easy and you need to get a sense that you can’t have everything you want. That you have to work hard for what you want. Life is many times not fair and you can work very hard and not get what you fought for. Rejection builds character and forces you to elevate your game. In science in particular, you need thick skin and can’t let frustration take over.
NS: Who, of all the historic or current personalities, would you most want to meet and why?
ST: That’s a good question. I would like to meet Oswald Avery of Avery-MacLeod-McCarty fame. He was a professor here … and they were the first [group] to show that DNA is constitutes the molecular basis of heredity. It is sad that he never got full recognition for that. From what you can read about him he seems to have been an outstanding scientist, an incredible thinker, and someone with tremendous integrity. I´d love to meet him and have a better understanding of his persona and how he could inspire the younger scientist[s] around him who transmitted his own approach.
NS: What’s your idea of a perfect holiday/vacation?
ST: I would say … in a Mediterranean beach resort with great food, enjoying time with my family and having time to read books about history and science that I am really into.
NS: Do you have any advice for young researchers?
ST: Take your time to find the question you are interested in. Talk to senior scientists who could be your role models and inspire you. Try to find out how they take their path in science. Try to push yourself into areas that are understudied. Find a good environment that allows you to grow and express yourself. One doesn’t have to stay in academia, if you find it in biotech [biotechnology companies], just go for it. There’s great science done in biotech, as it is in academia. Communication is a big part of science, so I would tell them to practice their teaching skills, it helps your lectures and your ability to write, and the better you communicate, the better scientist you will be.