Asia’s Rising Scientists: Varodom Charoensawan

Using a systems biology approach, Assistant Professor Varodom Charoensawan seeks to understand the complexity of gene networks and the way they are regulated.

Varodom Charoensawan
Assistant Professor
Department of Biochemistry
Mahidol University

AsianScientist (May 11, 2018) – Studying the functions of individual genes is one way to understand fundamental processes in biology. But living organisms are more than just the sum of their component parts, and genes often act within a network of other genes to confer a particular set of characteristics.

Hence, Assistant Professor Varodom Charoensawan of Mahidol University is taking a systems biology approach to better understand the complex interactions that happen at the genetic level. By adopting a global rather than reductionist view of molecular biology, he hopes to uncover the ‘rules’ governing dynamic changes in gene expression in organisms when they are exposed to environmental stresses, such as changes in temperature.

Charoensawan’s research has won him numerous accolades, including the 2017 Young Scientist Award from the Foundation for the Promotion of Science and Technology under the Patronage of His Majesty the King, the 2018 FAOBMB Young Scientist Award and the 2018 TRF-OHEC-SCOPUS Young Researcher Award. He shares his ambitions and views on academia with Asian Scientist Magazine.

  1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?

    Combining computational and biological methods to elucidate how genes are differentially expressed in response to various stresses.

  2. Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.

    I would be reluctant to call any of my projects so far ‘completed.’ However, I am most excited by a project that my group is currently working on, where we are implementing a cutting-edge technique called single-cell genomics. This technique enables us to, for the first time, monitor differentially expressed genes in each individual cell.

    The process of implementing single-cell genomics is quite challenging because, to the best of our knowledge, this has not been done in Thailand before. With support from experts from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK, we plan to disseminate this new technique through the first single-cell genomics workshop in Thailand in May 2018.

  3. What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?

    By then, I hope a good number of graduate students from the lab will be using what they learn with us to help themselves and contribute something to their communities. Technology keeps changing at a rapid pace, so it is difficult to foresee where our research will take us in ten years. But I hope our group will continue to eagerly and joyfully pursue new challenges in science as we do today.

  4. Assistant Professor Varodom Charoensawan receiving the 2018 TRF-OHEC-SCOPUS Young Researcher Award. Credit: Varodom Charoensawan

  5. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

    The idea of combining different problem-solving and technical skills to investigate a complex biological problem seems challenging and has appealed to me from the beginning of my research career. We are using the so-called systems biology approach to investigate gene regulatory mechanisms at a large scale, and this requires a multidisciplinary skillset integrating biology, programming, mathematics and engineering.

  6. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research journey?

    Having completed all my higher education abroad, starting a new research group back in Thailand has been a challenging—albeit fruitful and rewarding—experience. Not only were the funding structures and bureaucracies different, but so were the cultures and dynamics between individuals, such as between researchers and supporting staff, or between PIs and students. One has to be adaptable to make sure the lab runs smoothly so as to continue to do good science.

  7. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?

    I believe that many people in academia, including myself, came to do what we do because we share a passion and curiosity to learn something new every day, and we hope to disseminate our new findings for the good of mankind.

    However, as we speak, it seems many governments are putting more pressure on academic researchers to put on the ‘innovative hat’ and think about producing ‘real’ products. There have been series of discussions on whether people in academia should be doing more ‘translational or applied science,’ instead of ‘basic or fundamental science.’ I am personally not convinced such categorization would necessarily expedite innovation, as we have seen time and again that important discoveries stemmed from curiosity to ask very fundamental questions.

    If anything, the two sides of science we know of are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science. While I could not agree more that all researchers should have some commercial awareness, I am not sure that financial benefit should become the main incentive of academic research.

    I do not know how to fix this, or if it even needs fixing. But my personal view is this: try to strike a balance between our passions and what gives us the money to pursue our passions.

  8. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?

    I have never given this question serious thought, but I sometimes think I might write a book when I retire.

  9. Outside of work, what do you do to relax?

    I am a firm believer in work-life balance. Outside the lab, I spend a fair amount of time cycling and running. I am also a keen (but not very good) guitarist and love traveling to different countries with friends and family.

  10. Assistant Professor Varodom Charoensawan (center) and his cycling buddies. Credit: Varodom Charoensawan

  11. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

    Education—but not in the sense that everyone should get a PhD!

    I believe everyone should have the right to receive basic education and be given the opportunity to pursue higher education without financial or social restrictions. I find that the scientific methodology can be very handy when it comes to decision making and problem solving (that is, based on facts and logic).

    Social responsibility is also a very important part of basic education. If we can make any decision more logically and in a more socially responsible manner, I believe other world problems will be solved more easily.

  12. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

    We should never forget our dreams and what brought us into research. At the same, we should remain adaptable to the ever-changing research environment and the changing world in general. We learnt from Charles Darwin and others that only the fittest will survive. Hence, the ability to adapt to changing environments is necessary for us to live on and pursue our dreams.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Varodom Charoensawan.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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