Despite decades of research on HIV/AIDS, genuine cures for the widespread disease remain elusive. This challenge has not dissuaded University of Toronto Department of Immunology graduate R. Brad Jones, who recently launched his own independent HIV research program as an Assistant Professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine at The George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC. IMMpress Magazine caught up with Brad to glean some insights into his meteoric rise in academia.
A ROADMAP FOR SUCCESS
In 2005, Brad joined the lab of Dr. Mario Ostrowski as a PhD student and set himself to the task of, among other things, finding novel T cell-based HIV vaccine targets from human endogenous retroviral (HERV) and long interspersed elements (LINE) antigens used as surrogate markers for HIV-infected cells. “I worked on an array of different projects during this time,” Brad recalls. “It’s hard to say exactly how many, as some hit dead-ends, but let’s say 8 different major projects.”
For Brad, the opportunity to pander to his scientific curiosity and engage in so many projects at once during his PhD was invaluable for his scientific development. “The importance of my time at U of T cannot be overstated. For me, it was the perfect environment to develop into an independent scientist. I’m very grateful to my mentor (Mario Ostrowski) for allowing me the freedom and resources to explore.” His incredible PhD research culminated in a still-growing list of over twenty-five published articles and an unwavering collaboration between supervisor and student that continues to this day.
Looking back, Brad is also pleasantly surprised by just how productive his graduate years were: “At almost any snapshot in time over the 6 years I think I would have felt that 80-90% of what I was doing was not working.” As an example, Brad was ecstatic when he initially discovered that he could target and kill HIV-infected cells with HERV-specific T cell clones derived from an HIV-positive patient. Unfortunately, further investigation revealed that these initial clones were the result of an HIV peptide contamination of the selected HERV peptides, invalidating years of hard work on the project. It was a watershed moment when Brad summoned the strength to start anew — eventually being rewarded with the discovery of true HERV-specific, contamination-free, T cell clones that could recognize HIV-infected cells.
EYES ON THE ACADEMIC ROAD
With regards to his career trajectory, Brad has always followed a very simple maxim: Follow your heart. “Future career paths were not something that I thought about a lot during my PhD or postdoc. I focused on following projects/ideas that I was passionate about, and mentors who I found inspiring,” Brad says. In addition to his drive and persistence in the lab, Brad is also deeply motivated by the desire to improve the lives of those who suffer with HIV on a day-to-day basis. “… [I] try to remember that just by showing up in the lab and trying, we are actually making a direct difference in people’s lives,” he explains. “As a kind of baseline, even if nothing is working in the lab, our presence there generates hope”. Brad believes that keeping abreast of the big picture is something that can help keep students on track through the ups and downs of a PhD.
Most fresh PhD graduates today are faced with the career-defining decision of whether they will continue on the academic path — with the ultimate goal of landing an elusive faculty position —or whether they look towards industry opportunities for employment. Upon receiving his PhD in 2011, Brad wasted little time in deciding his next move, looking for a competitive postdoc with an extensive scientific reach where he could expand on the HIV vaccine work that he pioneered at U of T. “I suppose that I could have been pulled in the direction of industry if unique opportunities had emerged, but my personality is a better fit for academia,” Brad admits.
He ultimately chose to do a co-advised postdoc at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard in the labs of Bruce Walker, a physician scientist, and Darrell Irvine, a materials science bioengineer, whose common ground is the motivation to develop biomaterial-based methods for the delivery of novel HIV vaccines. As Brad explains, “I perceived some fertile grounds for discovery in the interface between these areas, and was able to draw from the expertise and resources of both labs.” This unique postdoc allowed him to mould an individualistic niche that he could eventually transition into his own independent program.
GUIDED BY GREAT MENTORS
In discussing the reasons behind his academic success, Brad is quick to acknowledge the contributions of the many mentors he has worked with in his career thus far. Brad’s PhD supervisor Mario Ostrowski was able to nurture some the creative impetus and energy that have stood Brad in good stead throughout his career. “Mario Ostrowski is a scientist who is driven by a genuine curiosity and love of discovery, and was an excellent role model for maintaining these as paramount aspects of a career in research,” Brad says.
Having two postdoctoral advisors not only allowed Brad to work at the intersection of diverse disciplines but also gave him the opportunity to learn from scientists with distinct personalities. “Bruce Walker is driven primarily by a desire to make a difference in the lives of people with HIV/AIDS, in particular those in developing countries,” Brad asserts, while mentioning that their relationship helped him cultivate a greater sense of perspective. As for Irvine, Brad describes him as “… brilliant yet humble, and unshakeably supportive of his lab members… an incredibly valuable person to have as an advisor.” It was this support, and the freedom to dictate his own scientific direction as a postdoc, that eased Brad’s progression into his own faculty position.
LOOKING FORWARD WITHOUT HESITATION
The research program of Brad’s own lab at GWU will be focused on developing cytotoxic T cell (CTL)-based therapies for HIV with a variety of approaches — including the development of both natural and various engineered CTLs, starting with in vitro and animal models of the disease. Although setting up their first lab in a new institution is a daunting task for any fresh-faced PI, Brad seems well prepared, being able to draw on advice from senior colleagues like Doug Nixon, a renowned HIV researcher and chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine at GWU. “From Doug I’ve learned how to navigate the politics of research and how to keep a high level of lab morale,” Brad remarks — invaluable skills for a young scientist who is undergoing a formal evolution from hands-on research to administration and management.
Understandably, putting together the type of top-calibre CV required for landing a faculty position meant that Brad had limited time for himself. Nevertheless, he is ready to readjust his work-life balance as a PI: “As I move into my new position I hope to rediscover my interests in skiing, running, and rock-climbing. DC offers an awful lot in terms of cultural events and night-life which I am looking forward to exploring.” Whatever the future may hold for Brad, there is little doubt that he has earned a breather as he begins the next chapter of his career.
Bonus Round – Q&A with Brad Jones
IMMpress – What motivates your personal interest in scientific research?
Brad – There are three elements to this:
a) Curiosity – I am always keen to see what is around the corner in terms of day-to-day results in the lab.
b) Stubborness – When I encounter an experimental problem I always redouble efforts to solve it.
c) Making a difference – When a) and b) falter I remember that my continued presence in the lab generates hope for HIV sufferers.
IMMpress – What advice would you give PhDs looking to succeed in academia?
Brad – Work on an array of different projects, some low-risk and others high-risk/high reward, but also indulge in detours into small “pet” projects that can develop your sense of curiosity and freedom.
IMMpress – How much time do you spend on teaching, management, writing and benchwork?
Brad – As a postdoc, I spent about 25% of my time at the bench, 60% of my time managing, and 15% of my time writing grants and/or papers – a distribution I hope to maintain in my early years as a PI.
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