Will Hinckley: Interview with Dr. Yannick Jacob
PI at Yale University studying histone variants in Arabidopsis
By Will Hickley
1. You began your education in Canada, but then continued it in the US. What are some of the differences in research culture you noticed while making that transition?
I don't think that there were significant differences in research culture between Canada and the U.S. back in 2003. However, I think that there were more resources available to do science in the U.S. than in Canada at the time. This provided me with more opportunities to make an impact with my Ph.D. work.
2. How would you compare your experiences at Yale versus Indiana University? Did you feel more pressure moving to a school with a more “daunting” name?
I think it was actually the opposite for me. I felt more pressure when I moved to Indiana University, in large part because I was leaving Canada for the first time to continue my training in a new country. I was younger and less confident in my abilities to succeed in biology. I also had to adapt at the time to a new scientific environment and learn a new language. Finally, I also joined a research lab working in plants, and I never had any training before working scientifically with plants. Moving to Yale after my postdoctorate, I did not feel that the new challenges were significantly different than the ones I had faced before as a postdoctorate.
I think my working experiences at Yale and at Indiana University have been very similar, aside from the difference that I was a student in Indiana while I'm a professor at Yale. I have had the chance to work with great colleagues at both institutions.
3. You studied different aspects of chromatin during your PhD and Post-Doc. When applying for your Post-Doc, did you apply with a project in mind? In other words, did you arrive with a research project, or did you apply for a project you were interested in?
Yes, I already had a project in mind when I started my postdoctorate at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab, which was to assess the activity of chromatin-modifying enzymes on different histone variants. What I have found during my training, starting all the way from when I was a graduate student at Université de Montreal, is that you probably increase your chances of succeeding if you work on your own original ideas. While this is obviously essential when you are a professor, it is also very important when you are a graduate student or a postdoctorate.
4. Would you be able to summarize your decision making process when it comes to deciding between what is important for a particular research project versus something that is interesting but not as important? For example, if you had 5 different experiments to choose from, but could only complete a certain amount because of time, resources, etc, how would you decide which experiments to do?
This is such a great question. I think my strategy is to design experiments that can quickly lead to a core finding, meaning a finding that will make a real impact in a specific field and serves as the main result of a scientific study. You want to design as many experiments as possible to "screen" for these core findings. Ideally, you want to maximize the number of "easier" experiments that can lead these findings, such that you have more time, energy and resources to keep trying until you have a core finding. So, to answer your question, I would have to weigh how much time, energy and resources each experiment would take, and start with the ones that can be done more rapidly, assuming the probability of success is the same for all five experiments. If the probability of success is different for the five experiments, then this also has to be part of the equation leading to the decision. Finally, I think quitting an experiment and even a project is oftentimes an underrated decision in biology. There are an infinite number of research directions to explore, and quitting is the first step toward starting something new and potentially better.
5. As a PI, do you prefer having lab members doing small tasks all working towards a larger project, or do you prefer giving each researcher their own independent project (albeit still related to the main research topic of the lab)?
I don't think I have any special preferences, but I do believe that lab members need to be able to work independently even if their work is going to be included as part of a larger study. The reality is that biological studies are more complex than ever. Many high-impact studies are now often authored by a long list of people, each with its own specific expertise. As a professor, it is unrealistic for me to expect that a lab member will be an outstanding molecular biologist, structural biologist, computational scientist, and capable of mathematical modeling. I think being able to work effectively as part of a team is an important skill for all students interested in a career in biological research.