“I think I was extremely lucky. Before she became such a superstar, I…It’s like I booked myself a place (in her lab) in advance.”
Steven Lin, assistant research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, specializes in the development of a more effective, precise and safer CRISPR/Cas9 system. In recent years, when his name was on many people’s radar, it was mainly because of his connection with Jennifer Doudna, winner of 2016 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science and 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. From doing media interviews, to giving a speech on CRISPR at TedxTaipei, to talking about popular science at universities, it was Doudna’s reputation that helped open up more opportunities for Steven to share his research interests with the general public.
For many people, becoming Jennifer Doudna’s disciple is a dream come true, and for someone as modest as Steven, he always credits his good luck for the realization of this dream. A year before Doudna and French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier published the breakthrough they made with CRISPR on Science magazine, he had started to apply for a postdoc position. At that time, he had no idea what Cas9 was, and never thought CRISPR was going to sweep the scientific world. “The timing was just perfect,” Steven recalled. Now anyone who wants to work in Doudna’s lab will have to wait for ages and compete with millions of applicants.
From 2006 to 2012, Steven was doing his PhD in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When he was in the 4th or 5th year of the program, Doudna, already a renowned RNA structural biologist in the States, went to his department to give a talk on the structures of RNA and RNA-binding proteins. Steven was very interested in structural biology and deeply impressed by Doudna’s talk. So he decided to give it a shot.
Applying for a postdoc position is like looking for a job. For Steven, “the outcome is unpredictable. Sometimes it depends on whether this is what’s meant to happen between you and your boss. It (Doudna’s lab) was my first choice, but also the one that I didn’t have high hopes for.”
Before the interview with Doudna, Steven attended another interview at MIT, which didn’t pan out well. However, because of this experience, he overhauled the content of his presentation, asked other professors about Doudna’s teaching style, and even asked the department secretary whether he can access the recording of Doudna’s talk and the slides she used, so he can study it again. The interview with Doudna was a real pleasure, but since their areas of expertise weren’t that similar, Steven wasn’t sure he would be hired. Little did he know that when he sent an email the next day to thank Doudna for interviewing him, she would reply in less than 30 minutes and offered him the job.
Why did Doudna pick him? Steven thought maybe it was because CRISPR is the adaptive immune system of microorganisms, and since he studied microorganisms before and knew how to carry out experiments on proteins, he would be able to find more CRISPR for her. On top of that, after graduating from university, he worked as a research assistant at Academia Sinica. “In that job, I cultured a lot of mouse-related cells, so I know how to manipulate cells. It never occurred to me that something I learned so long ago would one day be put to good use, because to do gene editing, you need to be able to work with things like cells,” Steven told us.
Working with Doudna also meant Steven was in a front-row seat to observe how this future Nobel winner conducted herself and interacted with people around her.
Steven is aware that for some people, “working with a famous boss means you have to worry about being pushed into the background.” But for any of Doudna’s colleagues, this should never be their concern. She is “very willing to share her research findings” and “doesn’t care about how the authors’ names are listed in a paper.” That’s why there is always a good chemistry between Doudna and different researchers she works with. This kind of attitude is also very helpful for young researchers, as it will affect how much grant they can get and whether they will get promoted in academia.
“When I got frustrated, I would ask myself: ‘Why did you come back?’”
After finishing his postdoc in 2016, Steven didn’t stay in America where the resources were relatively more substantial. Instead, he decided to come back to Taiwan to build his career. People did caution him, “Don’t come back if you want to do quality research, unless there are other things you need to consider.” Steven admitted that he was too native. “I forgot that I was working in an excellent lab.” He was so eager to become independent and put into action all these ideas he had in mind that he didn’t pay much attention to some real barriers. The main one he underestimated was the difficulty of establishing and running a lab.
Steven explained that we have great equipment here in Taiwan too, but you need a creative researcher to optimize its function. Taiwanese students are very smart, but because of society’s influence, only few of them want to devote themselves to scientific research. Many just want to get a degree and get a job. The talented and passionate ones all want to find opportunities abroad. Once they leave, there is no guarantee they will come back. It is just not the same when you are in a foreign country and surrounded by top-notch researchers. “You come up with new ideas when chatting with each other, and usually in a short time, these ideas will be implemented,” Steven noted.
Now in a less ideal environment, Steven has to work harder. Though he has to constantly remind himself to be as motivated and driven as he was in America, at least he has more time with his family. No one has a perfect plan for life, so Steven doesn’t know whether he will go abroad again. However, he does know that “in this field, where you are doesn’t matter. What matters is how good your research is.”
By Daisy Lee
English translation by Wei-hsin Lin
Photo courtesy of Steven Lin