Binyam Mogessie was born and raised in Ethiopia. He moved to Germany in 2004, where he studied biochemistry and cell biology at Jacobs University Bremen. He then moved to the UK for his PhD with Anne Straube, first at the Marie Curie Research Institute in Surrey and later at the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology in Warwick, where he investigated the cellular mechanisms that organise the microtubule cytoskeleton during skeletal muscle differentiation. After receiving his PhD in cell biology from the University of London, he joined the laboratory of Melina Schuh in 2012 as a postdoc at the MRC-LMB in Cambridge (and later at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Germany), where he discovered a function of the actin cytoskeleton in accurate chromosome segregation and the prevention of aneuploidy in mammalian eggs. Binyam established his independent research laboratory at the University of Bristol, School of Biochemistry in 2018, where he is a Wellcome Trust and Royal Society Sir Henry Dale fellow and HFSP Young Investigator. He also received a Seed Award from the Wellcome Trust and funding from the Rosetrees Trust and Royal Society. His lab is investigating actin- and microtubule-based cytoskeletal ensembles that promote healthy egg development and embryogenesis in mammals.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
The inspiration to get into research was a collective experience, engraved from early on. My father is a professor of microbiology, so there were a lot of biologists around when I was growing up. Overhearing conversations about bacterial cultures or seeing weird catalogues from Sigma with chemical structures in them was really commonplace. If I had to name a single experience, it would probably be the time when I went to my dad's lab and looked at bacterial cells under a simple microscope.
Later, how did your interest in the cytoskeleton come about?
Initially, I wanted to study biochemistry, but because there was no standalone degree in biochemistry at the time, I moved from Ethiopia to Germany; I was fortunate to have found an undergraduate research-focused university in Bremen that was willing to train me in biochemistry and cell biology while covering my living expenses. I should firmly say here that without this unusual mechanism of recruiting and funding African and other overseas undergraduate students at Jacobs University, I would not have had a chance to become a cell biologist. Over the years, I found myself leaning more towards cell biology over biochemistry. I remember seeing in my third-year advanced cell biology lectures movies and stunning electron microscopy (EM) images of actin and microtubules in migrating cells and learning how cytoskeletal drugs could be used to manipulate different cellular processes. These sets of lectures were what sealed the deal for me, and I just knew I had to study these ‘weird’ structures.
During your postdoc, what factors led you to discover an unexpected role for actin in chromosome segregation?
Towards the end of my PhD, we were working on a mitosis project looking at how two proteins, MAP4 and CLASP1, control the dynamics of astral microtubules, and how this helps position the spindles – and I was really in love with looking at spindles! Then, when reading some papers on meiosis, I was shocked to see that there was so much actin inside the spindle. So, I looked around the literature and it seemed that nobody knew what actin is doing snuggling up to the specialized spindles of oocytes. I felt this was something I really wanted to find out as a postdoc, so I decided to work on oocytes and shift my focus from mitosis to meiosis, and I haven't looked back since. Setting up the live-imaging assays that allowed us to look at chromosome segregation and spindle actin dynamics at very high spatiotemporal resolution, and then combining these with our loss-of-function assays was really the key to uncovering the function of spindle-associated actin filaments in oocyte meiosis.
What kind of questions is your lab trying to answer just now?
We are studying cytoskeletal crosstalk in meiosis and looking at how the functional interaction between actin and microtubules helps to prevent chromosome segregation errors in oocytes and eggs, which is a leading cause of aneuploidy, genetic disorders and human infertility. Our new finding that actin also polymerizes in the large nuclei of mammalian eggs, which we demonstrate in our recently published preprint, is something we are also very excited about and have started investigating in depth. We are particularly looking into implications of this finding for nuclear mechanotransduction studies, where potential force generation via nuclear actin polymerization needs consideration.
What challenges did you face when setting up your lab that you did not expect?
I think the operative word in this question is ‘expect’, because I didn't know what to expect and was ready for anything, whether disastrous or wonderful. I went into it with a lot of enthusiasm, and the opportunity to design my own independent research programme, or even just decide where to put the lab equipment without having to explain myself to anyone, was in itself a hugely rewarding experience. So, whatever challenges came with starting a lab, I just took them on and considered them as a learning opportunity. I'm very grateful for the enormous amount of help that I received from my head of school and my mentors in Bristol who invested a lot of time and effort into making this happen. My advice to researchers looking to start their own lab is to find a department with faculty who will support you and are committed to your success as if it were their own. A good way to find this out is to directly speak to recently recruited early-career PIs at the department you are considering and learn about their experiences.
“My advice to researchers looking to start their own lab is to find a department with faculty who will support you and are committed to your success as if it were their own.”
You told me that you are still doing experiments yourself. How does the fact that you work at the bench, together with your international experience, influence your mentoring style?
It definitely plays a big role in the way I run the lab and interact with people who work with me. Although it's been a challenge for me to start thinking about myself as a PI rather than a postdoc, it also means that I can better relate to the people working in my lab. I know the pressures and stresses that come with experiments failing, or wanting to contribute to a paper, and my job is to try and make sure people are not under so much pressure that they forget to enjoy the science. My lab is also very international – we have five nationalities – and I think the key is to recognize that with diverse backgrounds come diverse mentoring needs. I continuously try to learn from my trainees, whether at the bench or in one-to-one meetings, what their research interests are and what they wish to pursue when they leave my lab. This way I can use my lab's resources and my own experiences to help them best position themselves to succeed in their goals. This could be something simple like enabling their attendance at scientific meetings to talk about their research and network or, if they happen to have a strong interest in assisted reproductive technologies, then arranging a research visit to a collaborator's lab so they can gain clinical research experience.
How have the lockdowns due to the pandemic affected your research?
It has been challenging, but we've been resilient. When we were forced to shut down the lab in March 2020, we were right in the middle of following up a surprising finding that the oocyte nucleus contains prominent actin filaments. And even though the lab opened up again in June 2020, our experiments really only resumed in September 2020 due to restrictions associated with animal use. However, we spent our lockdown months thinking a lot about and planning experiments for this project, so when we got back we knew exactly what we needed to do and went in with a mission to finalize the work for submission as soon as we could. This worked out nicely in the end, and actually over half of the work for our recent preprint was carried out post-lockdown. It looks like we managed to positively approach the whole issue and that something good came out of it.
With most of the conferences having moved online, how do you make the most of them?
I must admit my attendance at virtual meetings has been minimal during the pandemic. I have been on either side of seminars as a presenter and attendee and my overall experience is that while the quality of science on display may not change much, it is very difficult to foster the sort of freestyle conversations that lead to great collaborations. The majority of my lab's collaborations have actually come from in-person interactions. Since my time as a graduate student, I have always come back to the lab with a lot of energy after getting inspired by talking to people at a conference or seeing something really captivating, which I feel is difficult to get from a Zoom seminar. I do try to engage with the speakers independently of the seminars they're giving, which could be via another Zoom call. I definitely recognise the challenges that are involved in making virtual conferences interactive and providing networking opportunities. Moving forward, I am very enthusiastic that the culture will shift towards a hybrid meeting model where in-person meetings can also be attended virtually. This would be a strong mechanism for inclusion, especially for scientists in Africa, where it is extremely difficult to get visas to Europe or the US for conference attendance.
What is your approach to collaborations? I noticed that on your website you have a page termed ‘Friends and collaborators’
We should probably rename that part of the website to just ‘Friends’, because we only collaborate with friends! The personalities of the people that we work with really reflects the way we do the science. Collaboration is a major principle of my research because I recognise our strengths, just as much as I recognise our lack of expertise in other areas. The questions we're addressing can heavily benefit from multidisciplinary research, and that's why we have collaborators ranging from people who are EM specialists to people who run more clinically oriented research programmes. The latter type of collaboration, for example, is important if we want to study the fundamental process of chromosome segregation in a more physiological context, by using oocytes that are donated by healthy women across different ages rather than oocytes that have been deemed unsuitable for IVF.
“The personalities of the people that we work with really reflects the way we do the science.”
You're an advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement for fighting systemic racism. In your view, what needs to most urgently change in academia?
I think the first step is recognizing that underrepresentation and racism are real systemic issues here in Europe, and that science is not immune to this. I take any single event of police brutality, discrimination and social injustice against Black people very personally, so I have constantly struggled to focus on my work over the years. While the police killing of George Floyd may have forced a rude awakening for most of the US, my perception is that Europe sees this as a US-only problem. And that is a very serious issue, as not acknowledging systemic racism both in academia and society equates to being complicit. I could discuss my humiliating experiences of being stopped by the police because they thought I robbed a jewellery shop or the distressing racial profiling I go through whenever I travel for a conference, and still none of these would be significant compared to what other Black people go through every day in Europe. I cannot emphasize enough that when we say Black Lives Matter, we mean all lives don't matter until Black Lives Matter.
It now seems European institutions are beginning to recognize the deeply entrenched mechanisms of racial inequality they embrace, and that is a good step towards eliminating racism in academia. But making concrete and lasting changes requires much more dedicated introspection and not just recruiting Black faculty to increase diversity stats and optics, or repeatedly declaring that ‘we need to do better’. For example, we should be outraged by the lack of Black PIs in Europe and we should certainly not attempt to justify this massive imbalance with ‘there are so few high-quality Black scientists to recruit from’. This excuse, which was also used when I asked the editor-in-chief of a top-tier journal why their editorial board had no Black scientists on it, is false! Likewise, universities should recognize that Black faculty are significantly less likely to get UKRI funding in the UK, just as NIH funding in the US, and that this strongly affects their ability to publish and in turn compromises their promotion applications. The lack of Black faculty also significantly undermines support for Black students at every level. The role model effect is critical; whether it is a Black woman as vice president or a Black academic tutor. Black trainees need to see what they seek to achieve is indeed achievable and not reserved for other races. I have personally struggled with this at every stage of my scientific career. In fact, I distinctly remember moments when I seriously considered quitting my PhD and my postdoc. Fortunately for me, I was raised by a Black scientist and, until I moved to Europe, all the successful people in STEM that I knew were Black, and I somehow held on to that to win that battle. Very few Black students in the UK and Europe have that opportunity, and after all these years, I am yet to meet a Black PI in Europe. A lot of work also needs to be done at grassroots level to help school students of colour understand that they too can become scientists. Finally, we need to recognize that the lived experiences of different underrepresented groups are not the same. I personally dislike acronyms like BAME that put groups of people into boxes – you know, we're trying to break out of boxes all the time! I'm out here grinding every day and trying to break stereotypes of what a scientist should look like, or what a Black person should be doing. Even well-intentioned actions can have the opposite effect, so I say to those in a position of power to dismantle systemic racism in academia to please speak directly to your Black colleagues and students and do not assume to know what is best for them. Most importantly, moving forward, please understand that the burden to fix this should not fall on the underrepresented.
To end, could you tell us some interesting facts about yourself that people wouldn't know by looking at your CV?
I'm enormously empowered by hip-hop music. It has carried me through a lot in my scientific and personal life. I'm a phenomenal dancer; some may have witnessed this in person at post-meeting parties (smiles). I'm actually a twin, so there is some guy out there who looks so much like me that sometimes even my parents can't tell which son they are talking to over the phone. Oh, and I am a CrossFitter as well (unprofessional of course!) – this helps me immensely with doing science and running a lab.
Binyam Mogessie's contact details: University of Bristol, School of Biochemistry, Biomedical Sciences Building, University Walk BS8 1TD, Bristol, UK.
Binyam Mogessie was interviewed by Máté Pálfy, Features & Reviews Editor at Journal of Cell Science. This piece has been edited with approval from the interviewee.