preLights talks to Sarvenaz Sarabipour

15 November 2021

Sarvenaz Sarabipour is an assistant research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD USA. She received her PhD in Engineering also from Johns Hopkins University, and her research focuses on receptor signalling networks at the cell and tissue level. As well as her scientific interests, she is an active advocate for early-career researchers, open science, mentorship, and diversity in science. We spoke to Sarvenaz about her research career and her impressive portfolio of work focusing on academic culture and science communication.

A good place to start is thinking about what led you to pursue scientific research! Where did that interest come from and what did you study for your undergraduate degree?

When I was in sixth grade, one of the chapters in our school science textbook posed a question that the teacher asked us to think about: why do we see earthworms on the surface of the soil after it rains?

Of course, there were a few possibilities. Could they be drowning? Does the rain prompt mass migration in worms? Or maybe they lack oxygen? It was the first time that we had been challenged to think for ourselves and I found it really intriguing that there were multiple possible answers and uncertainty around their behaviour. That prompted my interest in science, and from then onwards I was determined to become a scientist and pursue a degree in physics and mathematics. I was born and raised in Iran, but I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia, before moving to Canada for my master’s degree.

You then pursued your PhD at Johns Hopkins University. Can you tell us about what you worked on and what your main findings were?

I took a different direction after my undergraduate studies and instead of taking courses in astrophysics, condensed matter, or medical physics, I directed my work towards more fundamental biophysical questions. When I was in high school, I had a conversation with my father, who is a cardiologist, about the different molecular therapies for cancers and cardiovascular disease. He mentioned a drug called Herceptin, which is an antibody that targets a cell-surface protein called HER2 from the family of receptor tyrosine kinases (RTK), and is prescribed for some cancer patients. However, in some patients Herceptin can lead to heart problems, and doctors don’t really know how the drug impacts HER2 signalling or functioning in cells. This made me realise, firstly, that we do not even know how the HER2 receptor functions on the cell surface with or without therapeutics, and secondly, that we don’t know what the impact of modifying HER2 via therapeutic intervention will be, either in the target tissue (in cancer treatment) or in other tissues, like the heart, at a system level.

I started studying RTK families during my doctoral work and found that members of the fibroblast growth factor receptors (FGFRs) and vascular endothelial growth factor receptors (VEGFRs) have different dimerization thermodynamics in wild type and mutant forms, and that ligands induce distinct structural changes in receptor dimers that govern reporter function.

And what does your postdoctoral work focus on now?

My postdoctoral work is in systems biochemistry and computational modelling, and examines how more complex networks of RTK interactions with ligands and co-factors govern cell function. Specifically, I’m modelling members of the VEGF receptor family that are involved in modulating endothelial cell behaviour and new blood vessel formation. The ultimate goal is to shed light on how VEGF interactions can be leveraged to improve therapeutic outcomes and identify mechanisms that can help blood perfusion in patients with peripheral artery disease who suffer from limb ischemia.

You’ve moved all over the world for your studies; is this something you’ve enjoyed doing?

Yes, I learned English as a third language from a young age and always hoped to study in an English-speaking country. Australia was a great choice for that and for its scientific reputation, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to move so much. Science isn’t a small community, and the perspectives of scientists are so different. I’m interested in the perspectives of scientists in different countries and what I can learn from their practices and research cultures, and I hope I can use that to find my own way in how I do science and hopefully do science with my own group in the future. It was challenging to move, and there’s always a steep learning curve when you make drastic changes, but I also made big changes in my research discipline, moving from physics and mathematics to physical chemistry for my masters, and then to biophysics and biochemistry for my doctoral work.

You stayed on at John Hopkins for your postdoctoral project, too. Do you like the research environment there?

For scientists, I think that your movements are influenced by the people who work in a particular discipline. After my PhD work, I was really interested in the systems-level and computational approach to studying human biology and medicine, whilst my doctoral work was largely experimental. My experimental background really informs my computational modelling, and that combination is what made me interested in working with my current mentor, and I think I’d have missed a brilliant opportunity by moving elsewhere. I don’t think a change of institution is always the way to go.

Moving to a different side of your work. You were an early-career research advisor for eLife and have authored an impressive number of papers and articles on academic culture, open science, and reproducibility. What inspired you to pursue these interests alongside your scientific research?

There are two key inspirations for me: my personal hopes as an early-career researcher (ECR) to improve the culture of research and our research community, and the enthusiasm and dedication of wonderful fellow ECRs I’ve had the privilege of working within the eLife Community and the Future PI Slack group. eLife Community was initiated by eLife as a way to gather ECRs worldwide who are interested in discussing challenges in our work and culture and finding ways to talk about those problems and propose solutions for them. I joined the Future PI Slack group a couple of years ago and now I’m leading the group, in a sense, and hoping to help make the postdoctoral experiences more pleasant and build a community.

I think ECRs often have hopes for how we want the research enterprise to evolve in the short and long term, and we want to be involved in discussions about that. However, these discussions don’t really happen in a visible way, and I think it is important for mentors to support ECRs in these activities. I want to thank my mentor, Dr Feilim Mac Gabhann at Johns Hopkins for supporting all his mentees in these other endeavours, and it’s also good to see that journals are beginning to publish articles about research culture from ECRs, too.

One of the papers you authored focused on how to maintain a work-life balance as an academic. What prompted you to focus on this, and what advice would you give to ECRs who feel overwhelmed by the demands of their research projects?

This work came from the Mentoring and Leadership initiative that I led with ECRs at eLife Community. We hoped to highlight that a lot of habits that researchers have are borne out of anxiety, lack of time and task management, and no personalised balance between life and work. The paper aimed to discuss these problems and address what individuals can do. Working very long hours does not necessarily mean they are productive hours, so if ECRs can improve the quality of their work by maintaining a balance between work and leisure time, that’s beneficial for everyone.

We also discussed negotiating work-life balance practices in advance. ECR behaviour is often influenced by the culture of the lab or the department, but it’s important that you take charge of your career and don’t de-value your time or let the environment you work in dictate your behaviour.

Lastly, it’s difficult to plan or strategize without support, so finding great mentors and seeking their advice is key. Peer support groups can also improve the quality of academic life and I highly recommend the career-level-specific Slack groups: Grad Slack, Future PI Slack, New PI Slack, Mid-career PI Slack.

You mentioned anxiety, and I think another big source of anxiety for ECRs can be conferences and networking. You’ve written about conferences, and the COVID-19 pandemic has meant a big transition to online events, but how can we think about doing these in a ‘better way’ to support ECRs and promote accessibility?

This was an issue I’d been thinking about for a long time. As an immigrant scientist, I felt that there are very few opportunities in terms of mobility and collaborations in research. That might be the cost and process of getting a visa to travel, or the willingness to have an open discussion around science when you have different language and cultural backgrounds.

As a group of ECRs from six continents, we examined over 250 in-person conferences occurring between 2018 to 2019 across physical sciences, life sciences, engineering, and medicine, and found many aspects that could be improved. Most meetings lacked gender balance in terms of organising and scientific committees and invited speakers, they produced millions of tonnes of carbon emissions, and collectively cost billions of dollars annually. ECRs have very few opportunities to attend meetings, and even when we do attend, the setup is not ideal for interactions. This impacts all researchers, but particularly ECRs, women, researchers with disabilities, international scholars and researchers with vulnerabilities or care responsibilities. Data from 2020-2021 shows that virtual conferences actually provide more access and interaction opportunities. After the advent of preprints, I think virtual conferences are the best change academia has experienced during my career. Hybrid conferences (combining in-person and virtual attendance) can decouple listening to and presenting research from networking, and we also need to think about new approaches to networking as you can’t have proper discussions in just a few days at a conference either. Quality and year-long networking can be supported via online communities facilitated by grass-root movements and by scientific societies, and I’m really excited about this change to research culture.

Which leads nicely on to preprinting! You’ve written about the benefits of preprints for ECRs and authored a rebuttal to the suggestion that preprints were damaging for the general public’s perception of science. Why do you advocate so strongly for preprints?

I support preprints because they enable us to communicate science in new and far-reaching ways quickly. I also think preprints initiate international discussion and allow conversations to happen that weren’t happening before around journal articles. The paper we wrote about conferences was released as a preprint in April 2020, one year before it was finally published in a journal, and exactly around the time that conferences were going virtual. I was really excited to see the preprint being discussed online, and it was even featured as a preLights post which got a lot of attention. So many aspects of academia, including academic publishing, funding, hiring and career progression have been hampered by long cycles of peer review, editing, and other journal decisions around publication, but this impacts ECRs the most. Preprints improve, support, inform, complement, and promote many aspects of research and research culture positively, and this is all anticipatory of a cultural shift in how we perform and communicate science and improve academia for ECRs.

It’s interesting that you wrote the rebuttal article prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Has the portrayal of COVID-related preprints in the media made you think any differently?

I think that journalists and the media have to collaborate on making sure that an accurate representation of research findings are reported in the media. The solution to media representation of new scientific research is not to halt preprints! It is the responsibility of journalists to reach out to the authors and to other experts in the field, have an informed discussion, and choose their words carefully. That’s a huge responsibility, and I think it has, to some extent, been mis-managed during the pandemic, but that isn’t reason enough to stop the sharing of scientific work. This can happen to peer-reviewed articles as well, and just because preprints are in the spotlights, doesn’t mean that there is something inherently flawed with them.

Preprints provide an open access avenue for peer review and discussion among scientists, clinicians, and authorities, and are only helpful for all involved.

And to finish – what’s next for you?

I hope to stay in academia, and I think there are great opportunities in academia for the future in the area I’m involved in. Systems biology is a relatively new area of research, but it has the potential to examine research in different areas and bring them together in ways that haven’t been possible before. In computational work you can begin to reimagine the field because you’re not limited by instruments or funding for reagents, and I think that’s really exciting for the future of the discipline. Medicine is yet to see fully what systems biology and computational medicine can offer, and I’d be ecstatic to be a part of it.