Behind-the-Primer: an interview with early career researcher authors

We spoke to some of our younger Primer authors to hear how about their experiences with writing and collaborating with a global group of authors.
Published in Protocols & Methods
Behind-the-Primer: an interview with early career researcher authors

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Today, Nature Reviews Methods Primers published its first set of articles. Primers are written by teams of senior researchers from around the world, each of whom is welcome to include one of their post-docs or PhD students. To get more insight into the unique position of writing and coordinating a Primer as an early career researcher, we spoke with Liesbeth Minnoye (KU Leuven), Luzhao Sun (Peking University) and Timothy Wannier (Harvard University) about their experiences. Each of these authors coordinated or co-coordinated the writing process on their respective articles.

Can you tell us about your research? 

Liesbeth Minnoye: The aim of my PhD research was to unravel master regulators and genomic regions that play a role in regulating distinct melanoma cell states, through the generation and analysis of big omics datasets. I am what you would call a ‘humid’ lab person, meaning that I combine both wet lab (experiments) and dry lab (bioinformatics).

Luzhao Sun: My project is focused on the chemical vapour deposition (CVD)-based growth of high-quality graphene film. Graphene is a very popular two-dimensional material which has a lot of extraordinary properties and has garnered significant interest in recent years. CVD has been well demonstrated to be the most promising method in growing large-area uniform monolayer graphene. However, there is still a gap between the reality of CVD-graphene and ideal graphene. Therefore, I devoted my major energies on developing methods for controllable growth of graphene regarding domain size, cleanness, layer number, stacking order, doping and strain.  On another hand, the real industrial application needs both cost-efficient manufacturing processes and high-quality-compatible equipment, by which I was motivated to focus on the mass-production of graphene. As we mentioned in our Primer article, both the equipment and process control are important for CVD growth of high-quality thin films. I was responsible for building several laboratory-level CVD systems and designed one industrial-scale CVD system, during which I experienced a lot and realized the challenges when scaling-up the CVD technique.

Timothy Wannier: I work at the intersection of genetics, microbiology, and synthetic biology. My current focus is on bacterial recombineering, a promising genetic technique that underlies a set of powerful tools, and the subject of the Primer that we wrote for the launch issue of NRMP. I try to better understand how recombineering works, which host proteins it interfaces with, how to make it more efficient and to use this knowledge to enable efficient recombineering in diverse bacterial species. I plan to start a lab that uses these tools, which allow precise, high throughput genomic modification to study genetic variation and evolutionary processes in bacterial pathogens.

What have been the biggest challenges and greatest opportunities in your career so far?

Liesbeth Minnoye: As most can relate, time is always a scarce resource in life. As a ‘humid’ lab person, for me this meant finding the balance between time in the lab and behind the computer. Although this was sometimes not an easy task, it greatly helped me to develop a broad range of skills during my PhD. In addition, our lab offered me the opportunity to explore and work with many different state-of-the-art techniques and datasets, often when they were only just released.

Luzhao Sun: The biggest challenge in my career up to now is mass-production of high-quality graphene films, which is also the greatest opportunities in my opinion. To achieve this goal, both basic scientific research and engineering design are highly desired. During the CVD growth process, the intrinsic defective structures such as grain boundaries, contaminants and wrinkles are inevitable. Therefore, developing reliable and scalable methods for eliminating or reducing these defects is prerequisite for mass-production of high-quality graphene. Moreover, when scaling-up the CVD systems, there are additional problems, including the mass and heat transfer. However, as an emerging material, there is a lack of experience in the mass production of graphene, especially for factory-level equipment. To overcome these challenges, I learned a lot from traditional CVD technique, such as the design of substrate holder and gas distributor. The anomalous grain growth method for obtaining single-crystal copper foil was also employed to improve the quality of graphene. Recently, we successfully synthesized 0.3 m × 0.4 m sized single-crystal graphene films. Overall, this task provides me a good opportunity to learn and to develop the CVD technique. 

Timothy Wannier: Starting my postdoc in my early 30’s meant that I got married and have had two children during my five years here so far at Harvard Medical School. These have been some of the best and most meaningful years of my life, but they have sometimes been tough to manage with the research demands of postdoctoral work. Balancing life starting a family with the meagre salary that a postdoc affords has also been tricky, and I am a big proponent for increases to postdoc pay. On the flip side, being in George Church’s lab at Harvard Medical School has been a hugely beneficial place for me to grow as a scientist. The opportunity to lead and develop my own research agenda without guide-ropes or safety rails is the best training I could have asked for in transitioning to an independent career.

How was your experience of writing a Primer different from other works you’ve published? Is there anything you’ve learned in this writing process that you think will be valuable for you moving forward?

Liesbeth Minnoye: Being able to work together with such a great team of scientists from many different labs around the globe was a first for me. Also, the guidance and in depth engagement of the editor was exceptional and made the whole process even more satisfactory. The most important value that I learned was how to coordinate the different steps in the writing process and to communicate clearly with all co-authors, who each had their own work method. In a way, writing this Primer was a nice practical exercise in project coordination.

Luzhao Sun: This primer covers a huge area, which requires us to have a full understanding of the entire field. Meanwhile, to make it suitable for the readers unfamiliar with this field, the foundation and best practices of experiments are important. However, as it is a journal article, the most cutting-edge technology instead of general introduction like a book would draw more attention. Therefore, the balance of these points is more difficult than writing a research article or a normal review article just focusing on a special topic. Cooperation with famous researchers in the world is also different from my other published works. This writing process provides me an opportunity to learn many aspects of CVD by cooperating with other research teams. For example, the knowledge on CVD growth of 2D transition metal dichalcogenide and polymeric thin films will undoubtedly benefit for my research on graphene.

Timothy Wannier: Writing this Primer was the first time that I had collaborated with such a large group of scientists on a manuscript. I found it to be very fun, engaging, and think that by bringing together expertise on a subject from around the world, the work will stand as a resource for future scientists for a long time. In a way, I see the Primer as a short text-book, or chapter that constructs a window into a world of genetic tools that are being rapidly developed in microbes. I hope that it will be useful to scientists from microbiology to metabolic engineering and synthetic biology. Writing this Primer helped me to better understand my own work, to place it in a greater scientific context, and to present it more easily to outsiders.

How did you find collaborating with a global team?

Liesbeth Minnoye: Virtually working together with such a variety of great scientists, who each took responsibility and ownership of different parts of the Primer led to both a productive and pleasant collaboration. In addition, you get insight into the brains of leading experts who are in part setting the direction in the field over of the following years. I can tell you that great stuff is coming!

Luzhao Sun: Firstly, it is important to break the big topic into some smaller and more easily explanable aspects. Although there is a division of labor, we would check each other’s content during this cooperation process. When collaborating with each other, we should pay more attention on the logical connections between the various sections. During my writing process, the collaborating with a global team is not so different from that with my partner in my school, except for the time difference.

Timothy Wannier: Working with scientists from around the world was very fun and motivating. I hope to be able to travel to meet these colleagues in the future.

What did you wish you had known when you first joined the author panel?

Liesbeth Minnoye Before starting this Primer, I thought I had a far-reaching understanding of my specific field. However, sharing thoughts with researchers that work on the same general topic but with different angles really broadened my view of the field and made me appreciate its complexity. Therefore, I believe that this Primer will provide you with a comprehensive overview of the topic, and that it can send you into the right direction for your research journey.

Luzhao Sun: When I had the honor to be an author in such a high standard journal, I wanted to convey a deep understanding in this field. However, the Primer is meant to be introductory, targeting students and new researchers in this field. Therefore, I was initially unsure of how to balance the state-of-the-art of the method and its fundamental practice. I had the honor to discuss the whole logic of this primer as one of the coordinating authors. At first, the rigid structure of the Primer was concerning because it meant less freedom in writing, but we found sufficient flexibility in what could be included in the main sections. Of course, these questions were all answered patiently by communicating with the editor.

Timothy Wannier: It was my job to coordinate all of the writing and to ensure that it read as an ensemble piece and not a disjointed series of essays. In hindsight, I think that I would have fleshed out the outline in a bit more detail and thoroughly talked through the sections with each co-author, as it took quite a bit of time to massage everything into its final form.

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