Dr. Bogumil Karas

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Q: Would you like to introduce yourself?

A: I started as an Assistant Professor at Biochemistry Department, in March of 2017. I also completed my undergraduate degree here, and I liked Western so much that I chose to do graduate school here as well. My graduate studies were at the Biology Department, but my research was at Agriculture and Agri Food Canada. Going back a little farther, I came from a farming family in a small town in Poland.  Growing in this environment allowed me to develop a deep passion for all living things but especially for plants. I started my first breeding experiments very early on, long before I had a chance to learn about genetics. 

When I came from Poland, I started my education in grade 12 at CCH (Catholic Central High School) here in London. The beginning was very difficult as I did not speak any English. Next I went to Fanshawe College where I took environmental program with a hope of becoming environmental inspector and possibly working for the Ministry of Environment. Then I continued my education at Western University. Here I discovered molecular biology and genetics and this was the start of my passion for science. 

Once undergraduate degree was completed I wanted to study more so I enrolled in Master’s degree. My Masters project was going very well, so I changed to the PhD program. I really loved my project and having this passion allowed me to very well. I was also very lucky to have great supervisor, Dr. Krzysztof Szczyglowski. 

At the same time graduate school can be tough because when you are investigating something, you might not get the result you expect, but for me that aspect was fun. There were many experiments that did not work but when you are working hard, sooner or later you will succeed. I was able to publish my research in multiple scientific journals which contributed to getting NSERC scholarship for my PhD work. But most importantly, I also got a postdoctoral scholarship from NSERC, which allows to go anywhere in the world to do postdoctoral research, as long as it is an established university or other scientific organization. 

As I was finishing my PhD program I started to be fascinated with synthetic biology and once I received my postdoctoral scholarship I decided to go to J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, USA. I wanted to go there as Dr. Venter and his team were working on creating first in the world bacterium with a synthetic genome. I loved working at JCVI, and one of my best memories are interactions with Dr. Hamilton Smith, who was my supervisor.  Dr. Smith discovered the first restriction systems (HindII), and for this work he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978. He is extremely passionate about research, but also a great mentor and really happy person. This might be why at 88 years old he is still in the laboratory performing research.  

After my post doc, I came back to London as my fiance and my family are all here.  When I came back, I had no job and I was concerned about my future. After my tenure at the Venter Institute I wanted to continue to work on development of synthetic cells but I did not see such an opportunity in London.  Therefore I decided to start a company. After spending five yeast California, I was exposed to the start-up culture. I learnt that people are not afraid of taking risks, things don’t have to work right away. 

It was initially a struggle, but I was able to secure space at the the local incubator, The Stiller Center and get some orders.  My startup company, Designer Microbes Inc., was focused on providing DNA assembly services and developing novel methods for delivery DNA to host organisms. I also applied for multiple grants and some of them were with academic partners, such as NSERC Engage grants with Dr. David Edgell from Western University and Dr. Isabel Desgagné-Penix from UQTR to develop novel genetic tools for algae. These collaboration were very successful and we ended up publishing multiple publications together. 

As I was building the company, the syn-bio program started to develop at Western.  I started to advise Western Synthetic Biology Research Program and in December 2016  I applied for the synthetic biology position that opened at Biochemistry Department. I was successful and I started my Assistant Professor position in March 2017. 

Q: In your PhD, did you always know that you wanted to go into academia, or were you considering going into industry?

A: When I was doing my PhD, I was undecided but I was leaning more towards academia. Also the start-up culture here was was essentially non existent so I had not much to compare to. Later in California I got to see that a lot of companies are doing similar research to academia. But if research doesn’t work, funding gets cut off, whereas in academia you have more flexibility, more time for troubleshooting.

In the beginning of my PhD, my goal was to just do well and keep solving problems of my research. I had the mentality that if I did well, opportunities will open up for me. So, I had a final goal, but I was always concentrating on the job in front of me.

Right now, I can say that probably less than 10% of individuals get a job in academia due to the shortage of jobs. Most of my friends who I did my PhD with are actually in California now, and they are working in startup companies. I think that our graduate students are very well trained and they make excellent employees in biotech companies. I would say that graduate students should look more into industry, and start-up companies.

Q: As a scientist, going into business, what was your biggest challenge with starting your company? And what advice would you give to someone aiming to get into the start-up industry?

A: Starting your first company is challenging as you really have no idea what to expect and how hard it will get. Academic scientists lives are not easy but you still have more control over your short term future.

When you go into start-up, you will have to work almost non-stop, and actually give up science if you are a founder. Your job becomes mostly about securing money and how to manage individuals and the company. You have to ensure that your employees are fine before you are. 

Also when applying for grants as a brand new start up you quickly realize that very few opportunities are available here in Ontario.  Some of the reasons are that your company is too young, you do not have enough full time employees, or you need to match the funding which can be difficult if you do not have seed money.

Having this experience now, and seeing how hard it was to start, it is better to develop your product in partnerships with academic labs. So if you’re a student, and have an idea, you should contact the professor that is working in an appropriate field and maybe she/he will let you do some pilot experiments in their labs.

Q: As there a synthetic biology program now? 

A: Yes. The new program was approved earlier this year and we have one student that should graduate with Synthetic Biology degree in 2020. To complete the degree students have to take two new (and some additional establish) courses. These is joined degree between Biochemistry and Biology departments. The first new course is offered by Biochemistry Department Biochem 3392G ( starting January 2019).  The second, 4th year course, Bio 4998 is offered by the Biology Department and it is a lab course where students will work in groups on projects similar to IGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine).

Students in third year right now, can still graduate with synthetic biology. They would need to take the 3rd year course starting in January 2019 and the 4th year course next year.

Q: Is there anything in particular that you would like students to know about you? 

A: I am fascinated with all living things and I want to understand how to build life from scratch. This is the direction for my academic lab but also for my startup company. Overall, I really enjoy my current position, I love doing research and I am trying to become a good teacher too.

Q: What was your experience like at Western? Were there any professors that stood out to you?

A: I probably had some of the same professors as you, such as Tom Haffie, Dr. Norm Huner, Dr. Percival-Smith, Dr. Dean, Dr.Greg Thorn, Dr. Chris Brandl, Dr. Denis Maxwell. When I first started here, my average was not the highest but I really enjoyed learning about genetics – Dr. Marc-Andre Lachance was my first instructor in the first year Biology course. I think at the end of first year, my average was around 76%, but I was super happy. And then over the years, I got better and better as I kept building my knowledge and developed experience.  I really liked studying at Western and that is why I stayed here for my graduate studies.

 I noticed that this generation tend to overwhelm themselves with extracurricular activities. I recommend picking up only a few activities so whether it be a lab position, or a volunteer position. Personally, I would recommend a maximum of two activities at once, as it is better to do fewer activities, but do them better.

Q: Promotion for new course discussed in the interview:

A: The course code is Biochem 3392G. The course will focus on three aspects: cutting-edge synthetic biology including techniques like CRISPR, business, and ethics. 

Dr. Bogumil Karas conducts research focused on the development of innovative genetic tools to enable the engineering of microbes at Western University. Read more about his research here.

Interviewers: Simran Jawanda & Jasmeen Ranu