Muhammed Syed Siyadost: “I ended up being a lab for life” | Opinion

Mohammad R. Syed Sayamdost is Professor of Chemistry and Molecular Biology at Princeton University. His work combines extensive biological and chemical techniques for the discovery, study and synthesis of small bioactive molecules produced by bacteria. In 2020, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Unofficially known as the Genius Grant, this scholarship rewards individuals who demonstrate “exceptional originality and dedication in their creative endeavours.”

Upon entering college, I had a previous path in mind. But I didn’t like the memorization that was required in some of the courses, and I fell in love with organic chemistry, a course that I think most pre-med students don’t like. Then I took two biochemistry courses, by Melissa Moore and Liz Hedstrom, and they were really impressive for me. I have found it fascinating to be able to explain macroscopic biological phenomena with microscopic chemical principles. And so I chose a research path at the intersection of chemistry and biology.

I ended up being a believer in the lab. When I joined Liz Hedstrom’s lab to conduct my undergraduate research, I was there the whole time. I worked there, studied there, watched TV there, ate there, and even slept there. I just loved the lab environment, it has become my new home. I loved making discoveries with my own hands and slowly building towards a bigger goal.

I am one of those extraordinary professors who do as much laboratory work as possible. This excitement of discovery is completely different when you do it yourself versus your students walking into your office and telling you what they found. The latter is also exciting, but doing it yourself is another level. It’s getting more and more difficult, but I’m still holding on to a seat.

I give my lab members a reasonable degree of independence. I see this in part as a training exercise, because one day they need to be independent lab heads. They must be able to effectively generate and test ideas and hypotheses.

I’m looking for people who are really passionate about science and the kind of work we do. If they aren’t, and they see the research as a 9-5 job, there’s nothing wrong with that, but our lab probably wouldn’t be a good fit. Students/postdocs who are energetic and independent, willing to answer questions and love our areas of research are excellent fits for a group.

It’s a hobby that just happens to be a job

We have four subgroups in the lab, Four larger project areas. Most students usually sit in presentations from each of the four subgroups. It’s a great training tool because every member of the lab is exposed to a variety of techniques and many different ways of thinking. When I started the lab, I made a rule that students should attend each subgroup. Now I don’t even have to patrol. Everyone shows up spontaneously and is eager to see what the other subgroup has been doing for the past several weeks. This tells me they appreciate it too.

We work on microbial natural products, small particles made by bacteria and fungi that are released into the environment where they perform a number of different functions. Our work includes the biology and chemistry of natural products and everything in between. Each project usually evolves into several new avenues that we are interested in pursuing as well. It gets a little difficult to maintain the depth, with such a wide range of projects at the same time, but that’s also fun in it. You are always learning new things. I have to put in a lot of extra hours to keep up, but I don’t really see it as work. I love doing it, it’s a hobby that happens to be a job.

In one year, I reviewed 20 research papers for a specific leading journal. If you count the other journals, you’re probably near 50 in total that I reviewed that year. And here I was trying to figure out where my time went!

You should be really good at saying no in science today, Which is a strange way to put it. There are many demands on your time. If you don’t, you’re giving up time for what’s more important, which is science and research. Despite this, some requests are easier to refuse than others. For example, serving the community and advancing the careers of young researchers is part of our duty. Given how many job letters have been written for me to go from assistant to participant and participant to full, it’s only fair that I’d do the same for others.

I’m all about sports. When I was a kid I would come home from school and after that it was basically sport after sport until I went to bed. I always thought I would be a professional tennis player. I already played in college. When I graduated, I had the best singles tennis record in Brandeis University history. I don’t have much free time, but I still play as many sports as possible, especially tennis and football.

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