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Science Careers: Interview with Michael DiDonato

Name: Michael DiDonato
Current employer: Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF), part of Novartis Pharmaceuticals, La Jolla, California
Job title: Research Investigator II
Science Career: Biochemist
Time working in this field: 10 years

What initially sparked your interest in this field?

From a very early age, I remember being drawn to science and technical problems. As I progressed through my education, I became interested in biochemistry, protein engineering, structural biology, and their applications to the drug discovery process.

What did you study in high school, undergrad, graduate school?

In high school, I went through the advanced curriculum, which placed a heavy emphasis on math and science. I took advanced courses in biology, chemistry, physics, calculus and algebra prior to entering university. In undergrad, I completed a combined specialist program in biochemistry and chemistry and received an honors BS In graduate school, my general area of interest was genetic disorders of metal metabolism, and my PhD thesis work involved characterizing a protein that is defective in Wilson Disease (copper metabolism disorder) patients.

How would you describe what you do on a typical day?

On a typical day, my tasks generally involve activities that support the drug discovery and development process, such as—finding small molecules that can bind to a specific protein and either turn it on or off to affect certain medical conditions, like high blood pressure, cancer, etc. This includes molecular biology (engineering bacteria and other organisms to make the proteins we are interested in studying), protein purification (isolating the proteins we are studying in a pure form), protein engineering (modifying a protein's structure to change its behavior in a specific way), and structural biology (determining what a protein looks like when candidate drugs are bound to them).

How would you describe your work environment?

I work in a typical lab environment. The lab consists of long benches where we do our experiments, and also contains the equipment we need to carry out our work. Examples of typical lab equipment are incubators (for growing bacteria), centrifuges, and biosafety hoods (special enclosures where we work with toxic or infective materials). The lab area is also lined with offices where I do my computer work when looking at protein structures.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

In my experience, I would say that the most important personal attribute is being tenacious and not giving up easily. I think there is a tendency for people who are not scientists to think that research is very exciting and that every day brings a new discovery. While this does sometimes happen, most of the time we are doing slow, careful, and sometimes repetitive work, taking small steps toward a larger discovery. There are many failures along the way; therefore, many successful scientists have the trait that they are not easily discouraged. In addition to this, another useful trait is a strong desire to learn and discover new things; this is at the core of scientific research. In terms of skills, having an aptitude in math and science is certainly helpful, but being creative and being able to think out of the box is also very important and often separates the good scientists from the great scientists. I have seen many examples of people who get top marks in science, but have no ability to carry out an experiment in the lab. Remember that academics are not the entire equation, but being successful in your education will open many more opportunities for you, especially in the research field.

What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything that you do not like?

I love being one of the first people to observe something new, the sense of accomplishment that comes with a new discovery, and the feeling that I am doing something that will have a positive impact on someone's life. The only thing that I do not like about my job is that it can sometimes get boring day to day.

Describe a project that you have worked on at your job that was of particular interest to you.

During graduate school, I worked to characterize a protein that had just been discovered. We were among the first people in the world to learn about the properties of this protein. This was a very exciting time for me. It was my first real taste of a research environment, and because nothing was previously known about the protein, everything we learned about it was new knowledge.

What can a student do now to prepare for a career in your field in terms of coursework and extracurricular activities?

In terms of coursework, it is pretty straightforward: math and science should be at the top of the list. For extracurricular activities, science fairs are a good way to get experience with using and applying the scientific method. Working or volunteering in a research lab would also be very good experience and would allow you to get a taste of a real research environment.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in this field that you wish you had received?

When I got interested and involved in research, I was primarily interested in solving scientific problems and making discoveries in areas in which little or no knowledge existed. I later found out that modern scientific research involves much more than just the "research" part, such as—writing grants, writing research papers, giving presentations, going to meetings, etc. As you progress further into a research career, you will find yourself spending less time in the lab and more time in the office. I wish I had known this earlier on in my career and prepared for it better.

Did you ever participate in science fairs as a student?

Yes, I did participate in science fairs when I was younger. I remember doing a project on model rocket engines. I remember being quite excited about it but frustrated at the lack of information I could find. I think this is when I realized that I had more than a passing interest in how things work.

What are your interests or hobbies outside of work?

I have two small sons, so there is not much time for hobbies outside of work. When I have some free time, I enjoy motorcycling and mountain biking.

Free science fair projects.