Dr. Thomas Murooka is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Immunology at the University of Manitoba. His research career began at the University of Toronto where he completed his PhD from the Department of Immunology in 2009. Under the supervision of Dr. Eleanor Fish, he elucidated the downstream pathway of CCL5-mediated T cell migration, contributing to our understanding of how T cell populations are recruited and activated at sites of infection in vivo and in the context of breast cancer progression. He pursued his post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Thorsten Mempel at Massachusetts General Hospital where his work involved using multi-photon intravital microscopy to directly visualize cellular dynamics mediating the dissemination of HIV infection. At the University of Manitoba, Dr. Murooka continues to explore how spatiotemporal dynamics between cell populations in vivo govern the immune response against infection. We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Murooka about his time at UofT and his path through academia.

IMG_1501What unique values/experiences did the Department of Immunology at UofT offer to your career path?

The Easton seminars are fantastic. They impacted my research trajectory quite significantly. I remember Dr. Ulrich von Andrian came to give a talk on his work on dendritic cell : T cell interaction dynamics in 2005. He showed these awesome in vivo multiphoton microscopy movies – I’m pretty sure I burst something in my brain… I was mind-blown! I knew I wanted to learn this microscopy technique, so after I completed my PhD, I contacted Dr. von Andrian, and eventually joined the lab of his former postdoc, Dr. Thorsten Mempel, who had recently started his own lab. I had an amazing opportunity to work with both of these scientists. Without the Easton seminars, my career path may have looked quite different.

How did you navigate the transition from being a post-doctoral fellow to establishing a niche for your own research program as a PI?

I think that is the most difficult thing: being able to set yourself apart from your supervisor. When you’re interviewing for faculty positions, that’s the first question the institution will ask: what is your research plan for the next five years and how is it different from what your post-doc supervisor does? At the same time, your research goals must be attainable, and funding agencies look at your track record (i.e. what you’ve succeeded in and what your strengths are). You don’t want to diverge to the extent that you cannot get grants because what you’re trying to accomplish seems too far out of your previous area of expertise, at least initially. That’s where it helps to gain expertise in specialized techniques during your post-doc so that you can address unique questions in your own lab that will differentiate yourself from your former mentor. For me, that was multi-photon intravital microscopy.

What was the biggest learning curve in becoming a PI?

Being the leader of the lab. As PI, you have to constantly make decisions about many things in your lab, such as who works with you, what projects to pursue/stop and where resources are going to be allocated. As a trainee, you’re still shielded from these decisions. In many cases, I won’t know if I made the right call until several months later, so these things can weigh you down a bit. I think as I get more experience dealing with the day-to-day issues of running the lab, things will get easier. And all that administrative paperwork does not help: sometimes I feel like we are giving ourselves more work just for the sake of doing work.

A big challenge for me is to give trainees projects that address important questions in the field, but are also feasible and manageable. Ultimately, everyone needs to publish their results, so I want to strike a balance between novelty and feasibility, especially for new trainees. I think graduate students should be given projects that will allow them to finish their degree within a reasonable time frame.

How big is your lab? What do you look for when people apply to the lab and what kind of balance would you like to strike with the number of students and post-docs in the lab?

Currently, I have 1 research technician, 1 fellow, 1 research assistant and 2 graduate students. When I started my lab, I put a lot of effort into hiring the right research technician because this individual would be critical in establishing all the initial assays in my lab. Luckily, I have a great one. Everyone has their own projects, so it’s important that I recruit researchers that are able to work independently and troubleshoot on their own. I look for students who have a genuine interest in learning and are passionate about live-cell and in vivo microscopy, just like I am. It’s simple: if they don’t seem excited about watching cells move around, this is not the lab for them. I’ve learned that you can always teach trainees various skills, but you can’t instill motivation. I think the size of my lab right now is just right: maybe another graduate student or two, depending on new projects and funding, would be my maximum.

What are your research goals for your lab in the future?

We spent quite a bit of time and resources to build a biosafety level 2+ two-photon microscopy imaging facility next to the animal facility. This way, we can infect mice and perform all in vivo imaging studies in one contained facility. Our goal is to expand on the breadth of infectious agents that we study, and apply new imaging approaches to investigate the clever ways pathogens use to evade detection by the immune system and to rapidly spread within tissues. We really benefit from working closely with the National Microbiology Lab, which is a stone’s throw away from our campus; they study all kinds of interesting bugs over there and are a fantastic resource. The long-term goal is to study – using microscopy – the immune response to pathogens that are relevant public health threats to humans.

Looking back, what was your favourite part about graduate school and what do you miss about it most now being in a faculty position?

I think I miss being able to spend most of my time doing science. In a way, as a student, you have more freedom to pursue your interests. I think everyone should have a side project that their supervisor doesn’t know about, and to me, it was really exciting to pursue something purely based on curiosity. Now I pursue my interests through my students, but it’s not quite the same.

Is there anything you would have done differently during your PhD?

Looking back, I wish I had taken more opportunities to differentiate myself from other students. It’s just like business – everyone in your class is going to graduate with the same degree but you have to be able to market yourself as an individual, whether it’s through cutting-edge science, extracurricular activities, or professional development. I wish I had taken an opportunity for international exchange. At the time, I thought that spending five to six months to work elsewhere sounded unproductive and took time away from my project. Looking back now at the 5 to 7 years of a typical PhD program, I think it would have been entirely worth it to go away for a bit, gain new perspectives, and learn new techniques. It all ultimately enhances your own research and helps differentiate your experiences from other students.

Also, I wish I had taken courses outside my fields, such as programming and script writing. That would be so helpful now, especially with image analysis. I would have spent more time outside of science playing sports, going to events, and spending time with my friends – basically having a life outside the lab.

According to a recent study, approximately one-third of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder like depression. What do you think can be done to address this issue?

I am not surprised to hear that graduate students are prone to mental health challenges. Most of you enter graduate school in your early and mid-twenties and leave as adults. You grow as a person and learn how to develop relationships, build self-image, and cope with failure. It’s a period in your lives where you are experiencing high demand and multiple stressors. As a supervisor and a member of multiple student committees, I’ve learned that when students are going through mental health challenges, it’s usually not just failed experiments that are the sole problem. There are multiple underlying issues that can decrease your resilience towards failure. In these situations, I sit down with these students and help them identify those difficulties, and if possible, we find a way to address them. Sometimes, it is a good idea to take a break. Also, having a support system is extremely important and helpful. In recent years, mental health awareness has been more focused. Universities also have more available resources for graduate students who face mental health challenges.

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Anh Cao and Laabiah Wasim

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