Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter (JPCM) has invited some of the best early-career researchers in condensed matter physics to contribute to a special issue. Called ‘Emerging Leaders’, this special issue will be part of the Journal of Physics (JPhys) series’ 50th anniversary celebrations in 2017, recognising the talents of exceptional, upcoming researchers. Here, we catch up with Ruggero Cortini of CRG Barcelona to discuss his fascinating work on the physics of DNA, and his motivations as a scientist.
Read Ruggero’s special issue article here: The tilt-dependent potential of mean force of a pair of DNA oligomers from all-atom molecular dynamics simulations
What research projects are you and your group currently working on?
The main focus of our lab is studying the structure of the genome. The lab is called Genome Architecture and is headed by Dr Guillaume Filion. One of the principal aims of the team is to understand the relationship between the spatial organisation of the genome and the patterns of gene expression. To this end, a variety of experimental and theoretical tools are employed. My project in particular focuses on how proteins search and find their target sites on DNA. Despite the fact that much is known about how this process occurs, there are many aspects that remain mysterious, such as how and why only few potential targets are found, and what are the mechanisms that regulate this process. We intend to investigate the relationship between how DNA is folded in cell nuclei and the process of protein search.
What motivated you to pursue this field of research?
The field of biophysics has always fascinated me, since I was an undergraduate student. The processes occurring in living organisms are remarkably stable and reproducible despite occurring in widely different conditions. I have long been seduced by the idea that physics is the key player in explaining a great part of the extraordinary stability, precision and self-organization of biological systems. On the one hand, it seems that the principles governing biology are fundamentally different from those that pertain to non-biological systems; on the other, it is clear that living matter must accommodate the physical laws, and perhaps it is precisely thanks to the nature of those laws that life is possible. As a physicist, this is to me the most intriguing phenomenon, and the greatest mystery to solve.
Where do you think the field is heading?
From the experimental point of view, great progress in biophysics comes from the field of microscopy. For example, the invention of super-resolution microscopy by the group of Professor Xiaowei Zhuang in Harvard is a testament of how physicists can contribute substantially to the development of tools that mark major breakthroughs in biological research. On the theoretical side, there is great potential for supercomputer-based research to improve our understanding of the detailed molecular mechanisms underlying biological processes. Another exciting possibility is modelling entire networks of interactions between biological components, which would lead to a much-sought predictive model of cellular response to changing environmental conditions or stimuli. More generally, I believe that the scientific community is becoming more and more interdisciplinary, with the boundaries between different fields becoming ever more faded. This is already happening and it is very desirable, because biological systems cannot be understood without contributions from all kinds of scientists. It is already evident that biophysics is a key player in guiding the transition to quantitative and predictive biology.
What advice would give to young scientists?
Today it is becoming ever more difficult to enter academia as permanent researchers. Therefore it takes a huge amount of persistence and courage to thrive in this medium. I personally believe that there are two things that increase your chances significantly: motivation and discipline. Motivation is what really keeps you running: the enthusiasm for your research topic is fundamental to make progress. However, it is not something that you can control actively. That is to say, it is a feeling that comes from deep inside, and if you have it it’s great and it keeps you going, but if you don’t… well then you cannot force it to be there! That’s where discipline comes in. Discipline is reliable, in the sense that it is comes from an active internal effort to keep going despite all the adverse external conditions. Having a healthy combination of motivation and discipline is, to my advice, the best way to guarantee that you will enjoy your time doing research.
Who inspired you to become a scientist?
My Master thesis adviser, Professor Antonio Coniglio, from the University of Naples Federico II. He had been my teacher of Statistical Mechanics, and I enjoyed his lectures very much. At the end of my studies in Physics I was not entirely convinced that I wanted to pursue an academic career. During my last year, I did a research project on simulation of amyloid protein aggregation. Professor Coniglio’s research group had made a model of the aggregation using coarse-grained potentials. I found the project interesting and started to investigate, among the other things, on the biological consequences of the ideas of those models. I remember then going to Antonio’s office and telling him what I had found. It was a sheer pleasure to see his eyes sparkling with amazement as he heard about the inner workings of the cell, and about my ideas on how to apply some ideas to biological systems. He was a role model for me: a person who kept his ability to be excited and surprised about science even at the end of his career.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
A teacher. I love teaching and I believe that good teachers can make in some cases an impact which is even greater than the impact that researchers have. What I mean is that there is an ever-growing need for a new generation of scientists that are able to tackle our society’s greatest challenges. This generation is now growing up in a world in which knowledge is not the greatest asset. Knowledge is accessible by anyone that has a smartphone in their pockets. If you don’t remember a particular piece of information, it takes you a few seconds to get it. Therefore, I believe the most important qualities that a scientist needs to have in this century are human qualities, such as the ability to listen and interact with scientists from different backgrounds, and the ability to connect different pieces of knowledge and come up with a better understanding of a complex system. These abilities come only through the exercise of human qualities such as active listening and empathy. These aspects are not taught, but I strongly feel that they should. In my vision, I’d be a teacher that would focus on these qualities, and on the other hand teach that science is really one discipline, there are no borders between the areas of research. I’d certainly enjoy very much teaching to think in these terms.
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