I recently sat down with Dr. Will Bailis from the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. A relatively new faculty member and alum of our very own Immunology Graduate Group. I had a few questions that needed answering.
Q: Take me through your academic timeline
I grew up on the Mainline right outside of Philadelphia and attended Vassar College, where I was originally interested in studying history and foreign policy. Eventually, after not getting into some of the summer positions I wanted, I sent out tons of emails to labs at the major schools in Philadelphia and the only person to respond was Dr. Susan Ross at Penn. I ended up working in her lab for two summers. Susan’s mentorship along with the exciting research going on in the lab changed everything for me and pushed me to redirect my studies from policy to science. With strong support and encouragement from Susan, I applied to graduate schools and started my PhD in the Immunology Graduate Group at Penn in 2008. There, I worked with Dr. Warren Pear for six years. After all of that, I actually planned on pursuing an industry career or something outside of academia, but I was eventually convinced by Warren and other mentors to pursue a postdoc and see how it went. That then lead me to Dr. Richard Flavell’s lab at Yale, where I spent four amazing years as a postdoctoral researcher, before getting the opportunity to apply for a position at Penn.
Q: What made you come back to Penn?
I love it here. It is a truly wonderful place to do science, with a remarkably collaborative and egalitarian culture throughout the University. It is also a perfect place for my lab to carry out the research we are interested in. There are few institutions in the world that have the level of immunology, epigenetics, cell biology, and cancer biology research all in one campus, like Penn does. I am particularly excited to work at CHOP, where there are so many opportunities for clinical collaborations.
Q: Could you describe some of your projects in the lab?
Sure! In an overview, the lab is interested in understanding how biology involved more than just turning genes off and on. Both prokaryotes and eukaryotes make DNA, RNA, and protein, but what really distinguishes multicellular life is that we compartmentalize our biochemistry, especially when it comes to metabolism. Metabolites move around inside the cell between their organelles, amongst the cells that compose tissues, and around the organ systems that make up our bodies. We want to learn how that spatial compartmentalization of biochemistry helps explain human health, in the context of the immune system. We hope to use what we learn to inform diet- and metabolism-based therapies to improve treatments of human disease. Much of the world doesn’t have consistent and reliable access to healthcare. If we can better understand how diet, nutrition, and drugs that modulate metabolism can be used therapeutically, then we can hopefully expand access to healthcare and offer treatments that are lower cost than protein and antibody-based therapies. We’re exploring a few ways in the lab currently. One project we have ongoing is to investigate how the movement of calcium from the cytosol to mitochondria regulates immune cell metabolism, development, and function. Along the same line, we are also looking more generally at how the full landscape of metabolites that move between the cytosol and mitochondria impacts histone remodeling in the immune system. Zooming out from individual cells, we have begun studying how the movement of metabolites between cells impacts immune responses; in particular we are exploring the interplay of metabolism and neurotransmitter production in the immune system. Finally, in a collaboration with the Baur lab, we are interested in understanding how aspects of organismal metabolism, such as the NAD salvage pathway, are uniquely utilized during lymphocyte activation.
Q: What is your mentorship style like?
I’ve had a lot of amazing mentors throughout my career, and they’ve all played a role into the style of mentorship that I have today. I’d describe my own mentorship style as being focused on supporting people’s individual needs and wants as a scientist rather applying a single model and idea system to everyone. Sure, you have to keep the work focused and the lab funded, but I believe there’s always a way to keep one’s own research program aligned with the research interests and career goals of the trainees in a lab. Creativity leads to the best science, and people are the most creative when you support their individuality.
Q: What’s something that you think yourself and other upcoming new faculty members should do more of?
One thing that’s unique about millennials is that we’re good at advocating for our wants and needs instead of being quiet. And that goes for the students we are starting to mentor as well. We need to be open to listening and supporting those that are expressing themselves. Sure, we are all here to do amazing and hard science, and the students doing their PhDs are inherently going to have tough times. But we are more than ever in need of keeping an open dialogue to hear what trainees need to be supported in, and we as faculty can be a central part of that. It is important to remember that it isn’t about entitlement when trainees speak up, they’re just advocating for what they think is right. Our job as mentors is to listen and then respond accordingly when necessary or start an open discussion about why we feel differently, when we disagree. There is a workplace paradigm shift happening across the country in all job sectors, and it is happening here in academia too.
Q: What’s some advice you would give first year PhD students?
Get involved! Graduate school is about taking ownership of your own training and taking advantage of all the amazing resources available on campus. That mostly means spending time in lab on research if you are a biomedical PhD, but if you are interested in non-academic careers, Penn also has a lot to offer. When I was here, I joined the Penn Biotech Group Healthcare Consulting (check them out at https://pbgconsulting.org/PBGsite/) and it opened my eyes to potential career paths that I was unaware of. Even Wharton offers the Startup Challenge and the Y-Prize student run pitches, open to any Penn student on campus, where you can either pitch an idea or be on the team that decides who wins. Even if you aren’t planning on staying in academia, there are plenty of opportunities to build these translatable skills for PhDs available on campus. Having your PhD can take you just about anywhere, you just have to figure out where you want to go and what’s even out there. Getting involved helps you do just that.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Hopefully still here! I want to be at Penn making some serious contributions to science and mentoring some amazing students and trainees.
Q: What’s the best scientific advice you’ve ever been given?
When I was in grad school, I was once told that there are three types of questions you can ask: (1) questions with answers that only you want to know, and ultimately no one is really going to care about the answer (2) questions where one possible answer is exciting, but the other answers no one cares about (3) questions where no matter your answer, it’s interesting. It’s advice that changed at how I approached my own work and helped me realize that projects and experiments can be designed in a way that no matter the answer you have something worth reporting.
Q: Thoughts on Science Twitter?
One of the greatest challenges in science is communicating research to the public. Scientific journals have been the main way the public is expected to get this information, but these articles are typically meant more for consumption by fellow academics than laypeople. This leaves it to science journalists to disseminate the information to the public and ultimately decide what’s worth talking about. Most media companies support themselves by getting readership, which incentivizes journalists to report highly consumable science that may be fun or easy to relate to but doesn’t always give the public the opportunity to hear about all the amazing science people are doing. We have a duty as scientists to go into the community and explain what we’re doing with their taxpayer dollars, and Twitter happens to be a pretty decent place to get that across!
Q: What’s your twitter handle?
Q: What are some of your hobbies?
Karaoke. 100% karaoke. I love going to Chinatown and singing some good karaoke. Back at Yale, we used to go several times a week and just sing our hearts out with the lab and some good friends.
Q: Amazing – I must know, what is your go to song in karaoke then?
You’re really putting me on the spot here, but it depends on the time of the night. London Calling is a good one if I just want to loudly scream. The Hurricane is a good one just to take up a solid eight minutes of stage time with friends. But, I think my solid go to has to be Modern Love by David Bowie.
Q: Did you watch Game of Thrones? Give me all the thoughts on that ending…
Yes. Yes I did. The show was great – the action, the scenery, the acting, the character development… but yeah that ending. All of these people were relevant and then from the second episode of the final season on, nothing really mattered anymore. It was all just back to petty squabble and unanswered questions. I did, however, absolutely love the books. The way George R.R. Martin played with the character perspectives and almost tricked the reader into thinking one way then the other was fascinating.
Q: Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Yes. (I should note that there was absolutely no hesitation to Will’s answer)
Q: If you could be a kitchen utensil, what would you be and why?
A whisk. It’s different than all the others, but it can be used in a ton of different settings to completely change the texture and everything
For all of those interested in Will’s work, or just wanting to chat about some good karaoke spots, feel free to send him an email at email@example.com.