Archive for the ‘Life Experience’ Category

The Power of Persistence

Monday, April 30th, 2018

Persistence Figure

In this blog post I will explore my own experience with persistence in the Academic Sector. I was thinking about this history that went on for more than a decade and came up with some closure based on real facts. As a start, I will write about something that happened to me in the Academic arena that I’ve named “the power of persistence” and how it can affect young scientists. This history started almost 15 years ago, when I was doing my Ph.D. thesis studying cancer when I stumbled with some DNA regions that were transcribed even though there were no indications that these regions were translated into proteins. At that time, they called these regions “junk DNA” and they make up to 98% of our genome. I was excited but at the same time confused when discussing this with my Ph.D. advisor at that time. She told me that it was just something the method caught by error and to throw it away. She said: “keep working and looking for regions that are differentially expressed.” Well, even though I did what she said, I started digging the literature about regions of the DNA that are transcribed but not translated (now you can see how curious I am…). Some literature here and there but nothing very exciting. I’ve collected mostly everything published about these “junk DNA” regions that were transcribed and started seeing that several of them have some function and are more expressed in tumors or even less expressed when comparing with normal cells. However, lots of literature discussing that these regions could be artifacts like my advisor told me. Contrary to everything that was told me and that I’ve read, I had a gut feeling and thought: “There is something here. I am going to read everything about it and come up with a hypothesis”. Of course there were microRNAs and other “small” RNAs being studied and published but these guys were different. One year before finishing my Ph.D. thesis with what was “presentable” under the scientific “status quo” I came to my Ph.D. advisor and said: “ I have all this growing evidence about these RNAs that do no code for proteins and want to write a review about it. What do you think?”. Her response was blunt: “You won’t be able to because reviews are just for well-known and established researchers. You are a mere Ph.D. Student” (she did not want to tell me: you are a nobody; but that is how I felt). Hesitant, I started writing by myself a review article and started writing letters to Editors of Scientific Journals explaining the importance of this growing evidence. Of course, I staterd from top to bottom regarding the scientific journals. As I remind correctly, I’ve got at least twenty “Nos” (or more…). In the meantime, I’ve finished my Ph.D. thesis with something that my Ph.D. advisor was happy about and moved to the United States (I did my Ph.D. in Brazil) to do a Post-Doctoral Degree at Harvard University. With 90% of the review article already written, as soon as I’ve got to Harvard University in Boston, I showed the article to my new Advisor there. Guess what? Same answers: “this is nonsense and reviews are just for stars in Science” and “You are a nobody”. Interestingly, after sending numerous letters to the Editors, one of them, a japonese Editor at the Gene Journal replied and told me to send what I had until then. After a week that I’ve sent the piece, he replied: “I like it. Finish it and we will send it for revision”. This was 2005 and against all odds somebody at least gave me a chance. I was ecstactic! After 2-3 weeks more I got a positive response and the review article was accepted by the Gene jornal. Remember that I was told more than once that I was a nobody in Science and that review articles were for the “Stars”. More than a decade forward, the first review article about non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) is one of the most cited articles from Gene (PMID:16111837) and after this one I wrote several more; two others for Gene – the “ncRNA Trilogy” as I classify it today (PMID:17113247; PMID:18226475) and other Reviews for different journals that include Drug Discovery Today (PMID:19429503), Bioessays (my review was in the Cover of Bioessays in 2010 – PMID:20544733). In addition, I edited and wrote a Book Chapter (for more information on the book click here) about this subject that was featured in several scientific journals and News outlets around the world. Today the Gene trilogy sum around 1,200 citations and all articles that I’ve wrote about non-coding RNAs approximatelly 1,600 citations. It might not sound like a lot; however, for journals that have a low to medium Impact Factor (IF), it is indeed a lot. In the meantime, there was an explosion of articles (experimental and reviews) discussing the importance of non-coding RNAs, especially the so-called long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) in several aspects of eukaryotic cells and the importance of those in complex and rare diseases. All of this story (I tried to make a long story very short for this post) is to show how powerfull persistence can be even if everybody around you tell you that you are wrong, or tell you not to do something. Even discourajing you saying that you are not capable or “famous” enough. Sorry for the word, but I think of it today as total “bullshit”. If you have an idea, identify or discover something interesting that has potential to become of importante not just in science but even to start a company go ahead. The sky is the limit. The take home message from this post is: believe in your “gut feeling” and go forward. Show them they are wrong! So wrong…

Reflections on turning 40 – Chapter Two: Life

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Since I was little, my parents made a lot of sacrifice to keep my brother and I in private schools in Brazil since we were not rich. I was always one of the best in the classroom and I was able to get into one of the best Universities in Brazil when I was only 17 years old. After completing my Bachelor’s in Science with a Major in Biochemistry, I lived alone since I was 21 years old when I went to the biggest city in Brazil, Sao Paulo, where I did my Ph.D. I have always been a perfectionist by nature and I like things to be the way I plan. Unfortunately, life has taught me that it is never like this and this still bothers me. Life is supposed to be imperfect, I’ve learned. I am full of “to do lists” both professionally and personally and I try to follow everything. I always have several goals and most of the time I can’t do everything in the long run. BUT, planning is very important to me. I’ve learned this from my father since he is always planning everything. However, I’ve learned that my best experiences in life just happened without a “plan”. I am a person who has become frustrated by the circumstances of life. Many things have happened in my life in the last years, many good, but many bad. I have learned a lot with all this, but some things I do not accept until today, because I want to be in control, and most times we have partial or no control at all of the situations. I still can’t accept death mainly from loved ones, but I see that it is necessary to renew – to remove the old ones of the world and to put new minds / people in it. I have always been very truthful, aggressive. But I’m learning to defend my position in a more peaceful way. I have learned to be more humble, but sometimes I have my slips. I’ve always dedicated myself to my Professional life and forgot my Personal one. I did this for a while until it was unbearable. I’ve burned out several times. I had goals set for me since 17 years, I knew very well what I wanted. I forgot that I am a human being and that neither of us is an island. We need each other, especially when we get older. I’ve learned these values ​​after coming to the United States, a closed and cold society most of the time (no offense here, Americans have lots of good things). I’ve always been hard, hard to myself, but the things that life has put in front of me has softened my heart a little. I am a very curious person, I like to understand the world as a whole and I wonder a lot what we are like humans, what is our purpose on earth, and what is the meaning of it all. In the end, we all die, and what matters most is not the money we’ve got, the real state we have, but the image and values we have build and leave behind. This should be our legacy. We are all very insignificant, just another dot (or data point for data scientists reading this post) in the world. The greatness of it all full of inexplicable things makes us small. The human being is very complex psychologically and at the organic and cellular levels. And here I want to make a personal note also: when my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago (yes, she is cured now) I felt like crap. I study cancer genetics and knew all the prognosis and possibilities but even then I was scared and did not know what to do. We have no control, no power. Things just happen. In my last post I wrote that as a kid I wanted to be an astronaut and see the world from above hoping that this would answer some of my questions. Well, I became a scientist of the very small (molecular level). And I love what I do. I read a lot, but sometimes I read and I know too much about things like diseases that could affect loved ones. This became part of my frustration. Always in my life I got into conflicts, defended my point of view, always thought that I was right and owned the truth. I’ve got a lot of bullshit because of this, but I’ve tried to change and listen more than talk. There are times I can’t and I talk too much and then I regret it. Today, I am a changed man that takes more risks and spend a lot on things that I do not know if there will be a return. There’s a quote from Albert Einstein that says “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Try new things, especially in the professional field and take risks. I take a lot more risk and try not to think about the consequences and of the future. I believe this applies to the personal sphere as well. I think many things and decisions that I have made in my life until today were right and others I would do differently. An important thing that I think a lot after turning 40 is  that we are needy beings and although we need “alone moments”, we need loved ones around us in the “long run” and it matters a lot. I’ve changed a lot looking back to my early 20s. So, my advices are: forget trying to control everything, avoid perfectionism, take risks (being rational, of course) and live a happy life. The bottom line is that life is too short. Like the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer once said: “Life is like a whiff”. So, let’s enjoy life while we can.

Reflections on turning 40 – Chapter One: Trust

Monday, May 1st, 2017

For people that does not know me and my history, I was born and raised in Brazil and spend more than 10 years in the United States. Now, I split my time between both countries and also travel all over the world. When I was little, I wanted to be an Astronaut, mainly because I was very curious (I am still curious…). The National Space Agency (NASA) in the Unite States was using the Space Shuttle to send astronauts to space and building the International Space Station (ISS). We are talking about the 1990s. Everything changed when I got from my dad the signature of the Magazine “Scientific American” (the English version) and started reading a lot. Also, I had a Biology teacher in High School that sparked my interest in Genetics and the Human Genome Project that was going on at that time in the United States and in Europe. Over time, I lost interest in space and became interested in the world of the very, very small: molecular biology and genetic engineering. I was curious to know what was inside the cells, and the Human Genome Project caught my eye. That’s how I decided to get into genetics. So I changed my Career Goals, did a B.S. in Science with Majors in Biochemistry and Immunology and moved to a biggest city in Brazil to do my Ph.D. in Genetics (in this case Sao Paulo). I was 21 years old at that time and a very naive person. Intellectually very capable but raised in an Environment of values such as Integrity, Character and Trust. Like they say: “book smart” but not “street smart”. After that, I finished my Ph.D. in a record time of 4 years and with 26 years old I moved to Boston to do a Post-Doctoral Degree at Harvard University. That was a dream coming true! The best University in the world! The first year was all excitement, but in the second year I started getting frustrated since the scientific and academic system seems to be broken all over the world, even at Harvard (check my previous post entitled “Science is Broken: how, why and when?”). That is when I met another Brazilian doing a training in Boston and we started thinking on new ideas that could impact the genetics field and, most importantly, people. This is when one of the first start ups I have build started, just as a concept. After two years in Boston, I decided that it was time to move on and I got an invitation to go to Chicago to work at Northwestern University, full of professional promises. Well, the promises were never fulfilled by my boss there. He lied. This is the first lesson I’ve learned and my Dad always told me this but I never paid attention: pay attention to what people tell you and their actions. If they overlap, good, it is a trustful person. If they don’t, this person is not trustful. Lesson learned right? Nope. Remember the Start Up company with the Brazilian guy? In the meantime, frustrated again, we started building everything. I was working remotely. The company raised capital in a bad way: I was against it, did not like the Angel Investors and the VCs. But it helped us get started. I was the Operations guy in the United States. With my tirelessly work we were able to get into two Co-Working Spaces and and Accelerator. I have even wrote and applied for the Patent we have today. We were also selected to go to the White House in a ceremony with 50 other Start Ups developing solutions in biotechnology and healthcare to discuss the Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act with leaders and the Vice President Joe Biden when Obama was President. It turned out that the people I was building the company with (my co-founder and the investors) basically lied again several times and in the end after several disagreements we sold everything. Second time is a charm they say. Well, no. Second time you lose trust is really a lesson learned. So, the most important thing I’ve learned in my 40 years of personal and professional life is that trust is the most important thing when starting a job, a company, a friendship, you name it. Even in marriage we need to trust our partner, otherwise the relationship starts in a wrong way. Another lesson, trust needs time to build but you can destroy it in seconds. There is a nice definition for trust: it equals consistency over time. I am reading a nice book about this subject since it really affected me and I am quite sure it affects a lot of people in the world (check the book: “The Speed of Trust: the one thing that changes everything” by Stephen Covey). The important take home lesson here is that independent if you are in Academia or becoming an Entrepreneur or Investor, trust is the most important thing to build since the beginning; with your boss, co-workers, investors, clients, etc. Loosing trust can really compromise Life and Professional Projects and impact your experiences and outcomes. There is a lot of “bad” people out there trying to cheat and use you with your intelligence and expertise. Just please learn the art of trust first then move on with your professional and personal life. Trust is the building block for Success. That is my advice.