AsianScientist (Apr. 19, 2019) – Like the skeletons of our bodies, each cell has an internal support structure—a cytoskeleton—that determines its shape and function. A key element of the cytoskeleton is the microtubule, made up of proteins that can generate force when they interact with other proteins in the cell. For example, during cell division, microtubules help to pull apart bundles of DNA known as chromosomes, such that each resultant cell contains the right amount of genetic material. Microtubules also reorganize to allow cells to move.
Figuring out the intricacies of microtubule function in the context of cancer is Assistant Professor Varisa Pongrakhananon of Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. Since cancer cells divide rapidly, and late-stage metastatic cancers are highly mobile, their composition and arrangement of microtubules must differ from normal cells. Hence, a deeper understanding of microtubule dynamics could result in better treatments for the debilitating disease. Pongrakhananon received the 2018 L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science National Fellowship for her microtubule research efforts.
In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Pongrakhananon describes how she became interested in a STEM career and highlights the importance of basic research.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
I study the biological roles of microtubule dynamics and microtubule binding proteins in the context of cancer aggressiveness and cancer pharmacology.
- Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.
I wouldn’t say that my projects are completed as there are many things that I have yet to discover. I always get excited when interesting data from a main project might lead to promising side projects.
In terms of research, I’m most proud of proving how certain molecules regulate biological activity. Discovering something new is interesting, but proving how it works is the challenging part.
As an instructor at Chulalongkorn University, I also supervise a research group with graduate students. I am proud of my students when they understand scientific concepts, solve research problems and perform experiments independently to contribute to the scientific community. This is more important than just obtaining a higher education degree.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I hope that our research group can make an impact in the world, especially in the field of identifying drug targets for cancer therapy.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
I’ve always enjoyed unravelling the mystery of the sciences. When I was a kid, I liked watching animations about how cells work inside the body—it seemed unbelievable, and being curious, I wanted to prove it to myself that it was really happening. That was how I first became interested in science.
When I was an pharmacy student interning at a hospital, I saw many patients suffering from cancer and I could not do anything at that time. That motivated me to pursue a PhD in cancer research. I’ve always felt that researchers are like detectives, and I am always trying to prove a hypothesis, probing deeper into observations at the molecular level.
Having said that, I would not have made it this far if not for the motivation, inspiration and support from my mentors. They are role models for good science.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
I think doing research is not difficult if you have the right skills and critical thinking. Everyone can do it. Securing research grants and coping with the initial lack of research equipment when establishing a new research group are the difficult parts.
Typically, grant applications require us to at least have some research data already available, so I think seed funding is very important to give young scientists a head start. Furthermore, we need new equipment or technology to carry out frontier research, and bringing those in is a challenge.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
Many research agencies focus on applied sciences rather than basic research. Funding for basic research is gradually declining. I think if we have strong foundation in basic research, it could lead to more sustainable progress in the applied sciences.
However, the balance of both types of research is important. At present, I do not know how to fix this problem, but I try to distribute my efforts between research that matches the goals of funding agencies and research that I am curious about. I hope that one day, my work will strongly prove the importance of basic sciences.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have done instead?
This is very difficult question for me. I cannot imagine myself not putting on a lab coat. If I had not embarked on a career in science, I may have been a travel blogger. I like travelling, especially to the upcountry area, where there are views that cannot be found at tourist spots.
I can imagine sampling the food, sightseeing and learning from the locals while travelling. I think it would be interesting to document those experiments as a travel blogger, just as scientists do when we write manuscripts.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I spend my free time travelling to new places and exploring new cultures. I also enjoy outdoor sports such as running, diving, windsurfing, skiing and mountain climbing. To me, this is how I find work-health balance. If I work hard, I reward myself by playing hard as well. Sometimes, relaxing helps me think of new research ideas.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
In my opinion, many of the world’s problems are caused by humans, including pollution and corruption. If we can educate the next generation of people to have social responsibility and to respect the law, I think we can solve those problems.
I also believe that we can use the key principles of research methodology, such as identifying the problem clearly and applying scientific thinking, to find solutions to the challenges facing society.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
As I am still relatively new to the research field, perhaps I will just share what helps me get through each day. I believe that everything is possible if you do your best. Things always seem difficult in our minds, but every bit of effort makes the going easier.
If something appears to be beyond my capability, I view it as a challenge and will give it my all. If I fail in the end, at least I have already earned my reward because I have learned and gained more experience by trying, and I know I can do better next time. The success is just a “by product.”
There are many obstacles at the beginning, such as research funding, time management, or some another duty that distracts us from doing research. Setting priorities and following your passion are important. In my opinion, you should do research as if it were your hobby.
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: Varisa Pongrakhananon.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.