Interview - Dr Abdou Hachani
Abdou is a Marie Sklodowska Curie Global Research Fellow, and works between the University of Melbourne and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He completed his PhD on Shigella secretion systems at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, before working in post-doctoral positions in Marseille, Paris, and London. He now works between London and Melbourne, and his research focuses on secretion systems of Burkholderia.
What’s your current area of research?
From the beginning of my research career, I have focused my attention on bacterial secretion systems. These sophisticated machineries are used by bacteria to transport proteins across their membranes from their cytosol to the external environment, which can be the bacterial surface itself, abiotic surfaces such as medical catheters, or directly into other cells such eukaryotic host cells and even into other bacteria. Such systems are diverse by nature, and so far, up to nine different types of secretion systems (from T1SS to T9SS) have been identified in Gram-negative bacteria. Some of the most known pathogens, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, or Burkholderia pseudomallei, can bear different secretion systems, sometimes in multiple and distinct copies. These systems and their cargo play different functions according to the environment accommodating these bacteria, and allow them subvert these environments (sometimes hostile) towards their own advantage. My work is currently focused on understanding how B. pseudomallei, infamous for its virulence and resistance to antibiotic treatment, juggles with 6 different Type Six Secretion Systems; with one devoted to kill bacterial competitors, one used to subvert eukaryotic cells and the four others doing something I am currently investigating.
What drew you to microbiology originally?
In one word: Curiosity (despite what happened to that cat). I’m originally trained as a medical biologist and have had a first hand experience on the ravages caused by bacterial pathogens in a hospital setting. But this has also triggered tons of questions: Why some bacteria are harmless while others are very virulent to us, considering that the human body is one of the biggest single reservoir of bacteria? Why some people get chronically infected with one particular strain? Observing on my bench the emergence of antibiotic resistance in some of the most encountered species, or their adaptation to hospital environments, made me realise that despite exponential advances, we still know very little about bacterial cell biology.
So, I went back studying. I was privileged to gain training in labs at the forefront of T3SS; such as the lab of Guy Cornelis during my masters, and collaborated with the lab of Philippe Sansonetti during my PhD. That being said, I got irreversibly hooked to microbiology during my first post-doc on Pseudomonas aeruginosa in the lab of Alain Filloux, in Marseille (the research centre is now called Institut de Microbiologie de la Mediterannée). It was an immersive experience, surrounded by people working on respiration of extremophiles, magnetic bacteria, bacteria used to produce fuel and bacterial cytoskeleton. This rich environment showed me that microbiology is not a discipline solely focused on diseases, but can have multiple applications for humankind. Moving to the Centre for Bacteriology and Infection, a pole of excellence at Imperial College London, has further cemented my vocation as bacteriologist.
What does a standard day involve for you?
Standard… The only thing that I could qualify as standard is my daily coffee intake. And the expected standards of my coffee have been lifted quite high since we’ve moved to Australia! I don’t think I had a single day at work that could qualify as standard, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. My days could result with interesting results leading to new questions, or to a slow-motioned accumulation of negative data where everything went wrong (and possibly correlating with the bad mood of a coffee barista). That being said, I kept an old habit of saving at least one uninterrupted working hour in the morning to myself to: read articles of interest, deal with admin, or synthesise work in progress on paper. That's the only thing that I'm not ready to give up (and yes, it involves coffee).
How do you like to spend your time outside the lab?
Science has always gained from the researchers’ diversity and mobility, and vice versa. Having lived in different countries, I’ve realised how much I enjoy discovering other cultures, through the spectrum of … anything! It spans from local art culture to the news on TV, strolling down the city suburbs, engaging with the local communities (and breweries) and travelling.
What advice would you give to students/ECRs who are pursuing a career in research?
After these few years in research, I know one thing for sure: there is no one size fits all. Scientific research spans so many different settings, with the most important one being oneself.
Curiosity and persistence - that’s a given, otherwise you won’t be happy in this business.
Give yourself time to attend seminars that are not related to your field, subscribe to eTOC from mainstream journals and have a feel of what’s going out of your knowledge (to not use comfort zone, which is basically pyjamas). I think it is good to be focused on your area, but it’s even better to keep your eyes open on other disciplines. Get as much experience as you can to identify your strongest suits: do you like working in the wet lab? Are you outdoorsy and inclined to field work, be it in caves or in the desert? Are you more of a computer person? Or are you that insatiable "outreachy" person? Find out by taking your own initiative, seeking internships in industry or academia, and within cross-disciplinary collaborations during your PhD.
Mentoring is another strong aspect of such career, and to be fruitful, has to go both ways. However, your mentor doesn’t have to be your supervisor, and not necessarily someone in your field, or far more experienced than you. Just keep it informal, as you’ll have enough formalities in your career. To be exposed to different school of thoughts helped me to identify my strengths, and most importantly, the areas that required attention. The same goes to mentoring others, it will develop your listening and pastoral skills while adjusting yourself to expectations that are not necessarily equivalent to yours, yet very enriching.
Finally, I would say: get out! Look for overseas jobs, talk to people in conferences, approach them by e-mail, and apply to fellowships to send you out there, far from home. This is where you will likely find yourselves.