I recently sat down with Cesar de la Fuente, a newly appointed Assistant Professor in the Departments of Microbiology, Psychiatry, and Bioengineering. Cesar leads a diverse group interested in using multiple approaches, including in-silico models and synthetic biology, to address global health challenges. Below is a paraphrased transcript of our discussion regarding his time at Penn, goals for the future, and advice for current trainees.
JG: Could you describe some of the projects in your lab
CF: Our main goal is to develop new molecular tools and medicines using computers. We are currently focusing on developing new antibiotics to help address the global health challenge of antibiotic resistance, which exerts a massive toll on public health. In the US alone, 35000 people every year – or one person every 15 minutes – die due to antibiotic resistant infections, and it is likely that this issue will only become more pressing in the future. For several decades the scientific community has been unable to effectively develop new antibiotics or discover effective natural products like penicillin. Therefore, our main approach is to use computers to extrapolate from what nature has provided to create new synthetic antibiotic molecules with increased efficacy against drug resistant infections. Ultimately, our ambition is to develop computational tools that are capable of building new molecules for various diseases that are resistant to treatment.
JG: Why do you think there is a lack of development of new antibiotics?
CF: It’s a complex and multi-layered problem. Part of the issue is that people thought the problem was solved after the discovery of penicillin and so innovation in these fields had slowed down for many years. Another issue is that antibiotic development is not a profitable business model, and so large pharmaceutical companies have stepped away from this space. Because the lack of profit is a hindrance here, I think the solution will have to involve steps to make profit irrelevant. There are efforts to involve governments and non-profit organizations to address these issues. Ultimately there need to be incentives to draw researchers toward these problems. Hopefully funding from various organizations can be used specifically to help address the growing issue of antibiotic resistance.
JG: How would you describe your mentorship style?
CF: I would say hands-off for the most part. I truly value the time of trainees in my lab and their devotion to our studies. I encourage them to be as creative as possible and try to find projects that they are highly passionate about. I also try to create a lab environment in which folks are generally nice and can get along with each other.
JG: How do you go about working to create a comfortable environment within your lab?
CF: Yeah that’s a very difficult question. I generally try to recruit people that are personable and who enjoy talking about science. I try to recruit individuals that are highly qualified, but not necessarily in the sense of having a spotless academic record. I think it is important to recruit individuals with non-traditional academic backgrounds as well as members of groups that are underrepresented in the scientific community. Doing so can bring different perspectives to the lab which is key to tackling the complex questions we are interested in. This approach has helped us to build a highly diverse group with trainees from all over the world. I also try to create a culture within the lab that is free from hierarchy: I don’t consider myself superior to the people that work in my lab in any way. The main difference is that I just happen to have a bit more experience and a different title. I think that helps to encourage people to be comfortable in their workplace. My ultimate goal is to build an exciting environment in which individuals can find what they are truly passionate about.
JG: Do you have any advice for first-year graduate students who are looking to find the lab that’s the right fit for them?
CF: It’s key to explore different fields early in your training and to not necessarily get stuck on one idea. It’s important to get exposed to different ways of thinking in order to truly explore what you are most interested in. There is always a number of possible projects that we have not thought about and perhaps that is where your passion lies. It is also critical to put a lot of thought into your relationships with potential mentors. A good relationship with your advisor is essential, and you should make sure that you can count on them to help you navigate your academic environment. I think it is also important to become accustomed to the fact that learning in science will involve performing a lot of experiments that won’t necessarily go how you hoped they would. I think students need to view things like that as part of the process of working toward an evolving hypothesis or a way of tackling a difficult problem, rather than as failures or setbacks. More than failed experiments, I consider these to be important parts of the learning process.
JG: What do you think is the best way for trainees to seek out mentors that they can develop a healthy rapport with?
CF: I would encourage folks to do their best to avoid being shy: set up meetings and interviews with potential mentors that you might be interested in. At this step it is important to believe in yourself and be confident in your ability to seek out a great mentor. I would also stress the necessity of finding a mentor that will be honest, and one that you can feel comfortable being honest with. A PhD is a major commitment, and it’s important to place yourself in an environment in which you are not under unnecessary stress and where you can learn and thrive. A PhD is a special time, as you have the very privileged opportunity of thinking about a problem or set of problems for a long period of time.
JG: What activities do you think new faculty in the life sciences should pursue to help cultivate ideal mentor-mentee relationships?
CF: I think meetings and seminars to encourage discussion and collaboration are critical. Interactions between students and professors, particularly in less formal settings, are important for helping students to become comfortable with their colleagues. It’s also important for us as faculty to embrace criticism from trainees: learning is a non-linear process for all of us and it’s important to incorporate ideas from diverse perspectives.
JG: What drew you to Penn when you were searching for faculty positions?
CF: I think Penn has a fantastic community, particularly because it places such great value on collaboration and interdisciplinary research. There’s also just such a high caliber of faculty here in general and that leads to the great projects that are always ongoing here. The other advantage is that the medical school, engineering school, and undergrad campus are all integrated on a relatively small space. This tends to encourage collaboration and cross-disciplinary studies, which aligns very well with my research interests. So that was one of the key aspects for me. And, of course, Philly is a great city.
JG: Where did you study before your appointment at Penn?
CF: I did my undergraduate studies and master’s in biotechnology/bioengineering in Spain, then I did my PhD in microbiology and immunology at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver. Then I went to MIT for a post-doc to expand my knowledge of synthetic biology and computer science. After that I was hired here. Now my lab works to incorporate concepts from microbiology, synthetic biology, and computer science into our research approach.
JG: Would you say that traveling so far from home for your training added any extra hurdles to your academic journey?
CF: Well whenever you transition to a new country there are challenges, particularly becoming familiar with a new language, which is especially critical for interviews and that sort of thing. That’s certainly a barrier that one needs to overcome, but I think that a good mentor can be especially helpful for dealing with issues like that. That’s another example of where I think good mentorship is critical. The way I look at it, every hurdle or challenge is part of the learning process.
JG: What do you think of Philadelphia?
CF: I live in Center City; I think there’s a great energy and culture and diversity here. Philadelphia has a lot of heart and passion, which I think are important components of any community.
JG: What are your hobbies outside of the lab?
CF: I play soccer. I was an assistant coach and player at MIT FC when I was there. I am playing here as well but I don’t get to play quite as much as I did during my post-doc. I try my best though. I also love to bike, which I think is the best way to get around the city. (Ed: the author whole-heartedly agrees). I also love cinema and really enjoy going to movies and concerts.
JG: What’s the best movie you’ve seen this year?
CF: The Irishman. It’s worth the time commitment and the story is based in Philly. Joker was also fantastic.
Cesar’s lab is located in the microbiology department in Johnson Pavilion. Any trainees interested in learning more about his work can contact him at email@example.com.