On the race in research and the Palio di Siena
The first five minutes of the interview we already get to know him with his famous words ‘I am a calm and quiet Italian. I am passionate about scientific research. But science is also like a race to be the first. Much like the famous horse race in my hometown Siena, the Palio.
This reads as an introduction to an Italian movie but in reality we talk to Ludovico Buti, M.Sc, PhD, better known as Ludo. Ludo is Research Leader at Charles River and mentor of ESR Fatma Masmoudi in the ETN project OrganoVIR.
OrganoVIR is a European consortium of European universities, government agencies and commercial organisations jointly conducting research into virus infections with the help of human organoids. Early Stage Researchers from around the world have been selected for this project and are not only trained to become top scientists but are also offered a personal development programme. Building a strong foundation of soft skills and deepen self-awareness to boost professional influence and to become a role model for being confident and resilient 21st century leaders.
An important pillar of the personal development programme addresses IDENTITY. We asked Ludo who he is inside? And what does he show to the outside world? A conversation with an inspiring man who studied in Italy, lived and worked in Boston and London, and has now landed in Leiden, The Netherlands.
‘When I approached Marijn Vlaming, head of biology at Charles River Laboratories, about job opportunities in the Netherlands, she told me they were looking for someone to lead the OrganoVIR project at Charles River Laboratories. That was exactly what I wanted to do. During my time at Oxford, I had worked on mini-stomachs, so called stomach organoids, to study how a bacterial pathogen, H.pylori, favours the development of stomach cancer. Soon after I started to work on this model I have realized that this is a game changer for the way we do cell biology. In addition, so far we have only scratched the surface of its potential. So being able to explore its potential in a setting such as at Charles River… well, the deal was sealed pretty quickly.
I did my PhD in Italy, where I’m originally from. After that, I went to Boston and worked there as a visiting scientist at MIT in the lab of Hidde Ploegh, a Dutch scientist. This is also where I met my wife who is also Dutch. My wife and I stayed in Boston for five years and after those five years we decided to move back to Europe. We ended up going to the United Kingdom – my wife was based in London while I was based in Oxford. And then Brexit happened. It was the first time we didn’t feel welcome or at home in the UK and therefore we decided to move to the Netherlands. There was also the option to move to Italy, but we decided to work in the Netherlands and go to Italy for gelato and holidays.
My wife and I are both scientists. We both worked in the same lab in Boston and one thing led to another…. we’ve been together since 2006. We have a 2-year old son who is keeping us very busy. Our son isn’t sleeping a lot at the moment and he does a great job at keeping me and my wife up at night!
How Siena’s Palio connects to our modern world.
I am originally from Siena in Tuscany. I moved to the North of Italy to attend my university and from there I travelled all over the world. My family isn’t the traditional big Italian family that you always see in the ads. My family is rather small: I don’t have siblings and besides my parents I have one aunt and uncle and a cousin. The family of my wife is actually a lot bigger, so in our case, things are a little mixed up.
I’m really connected to the city of Siena. Each year there’s a medieval festival held there called Palio di Siena. It is a horse race that takes place in the main square of the city. Ten horses and riders, bareback, represent ten of the seventeen districts in which Siena is divided. You belong to a certain district depending on where you were born. It’s like having 17 different societies within the city: some districts are allies and some are enemies and they all compete to win the race, the Palio. I always found that the rules that exist between the different districts really reflect how life is. It’s a medieval tradition that came from the 1300s, but some rules still apply to our society today. For example, during the main event, the horse race, the main rule is that there are actually no rules. The worst position a district could end up in is 2nd place. You prefer to be the last rather than come in second, because to come in second means you are the winner of the losers. Everyone in the city will then mock the district that came in 2nd place.
These are things I find really interesting because even though they originated centuries ago, they often apply to our modern society to a certain extent. The research world is also based on this competitiveness and on coming in at number 1. Fortunately, in research things are a bit different. Yes, you are in a race with a lot of brilliant people. Sometimes you come first but other times you see that someone else is doing it better and you can just learn from that person. It’s impossible to always be the first, because the “race” is such that it is very likely that someone else came up with a similar idea. Therefore, just stay focused on what you are doing and give your very best at it, otherwise you are always in competition with everyone else and with yourself too.
For a PhD and a postdoc it really depends on where you do your training. There are places that are less competitive and places that are more competitive. For example, MIT and Oxford are one of the most competitive environments – in these environments there is only one goal, namely to be in the lead to discover something new. But I have to say that I really enjoyed my time at MIT in Boston. Even though it was competitive, it was also a place where things really happened, scientifically speaking. There is no other place that has that same energy in the bioscience field.
What does it mean to be a leader?
In OrganoVIR, my main role is to lead the science. So, together with our Early Stage Researcher (ESR) Fatma Masmoudi at Charles River, I will develop her research project from a scientific point of view. I have a lot of experience in this area (research development) and I’m quite creative when it comes to develop a new research line, so I really enjoy this part of the job.
Within Charles River, I also lead several other projects. In a way these projects are quite new to me, because it’s a new environment for me. I come from academia and now I am learning how to work in a contract research organization, which is different from the academic world. What I like about Charles River is that the company is extremely well organized. For example, in the lab the scientists really pay attention to the small details and this continues all the way to higher management. In the academic field many things tend to be less organized.
A month ago, I did a project leadership training via Zoom, so I am trying to improve myself when it comes to my leadership skills. There’s a lot of things you already do naturally, but what I think is really important as a leader is to give structure. When you have a structure it makes it easier to handle all the different tasks. Being a leader also includes coaching your team members. You need to identify what type of characters you have in your team and recognize early on what the strengths and weaknesses are of your team members and how to highlight their strengths. In the academic environment you do this as well, but until a few years ago there was less focus on this.
One of the discussions I often had with my previous Principal Investigator was that you start as a scientist working in the lab and then you are suddenly thrown into being a manager without having any management training. You are very good in doing the science, but you have no idea how to lead people and to manage money and that was a big weakness in the education of a scientist. What is really nice about OrganoVIR is that this part is now also covered.
Tools to connect, influence and convince others.
The best way to propose your suggestions is to create a case. So you build your argument step by step and if this one stands, you will most likely get the other party on board…and do not forget to listen! Keep everyone involved in the discussion!
It’s also good to have a connection with the people you are trying to convince. With some people you will naturally have a good connection, with other people you can improve the connection to a certain extent.
The way you use your voice is also a powerful tool. Sometimes when I give a presentation and I suddenly hear my voice I think “wow, this is very boring” and then I see people that aren’t engaged and some even yawn. I am sure this has happened to anyone who gives a presentation. Sometimes this happens because you’re not really focused nor connected with what you’re doing and you transmit this to your audience. It happened to me a few times that halfway my presentation I was like “what am I doing?” and then I tried to be more engaged with what I was presenting and I tried to reconnect with my audience. This can be done through the way you speak (for example the tone of voice you use), the gestures you use and showing your passion. If you’re passionate about what you’re presenting, it’s easier to connect with people. If you’re not passionate about your subject link it to something you are passionate about.
Who are you on the inside?
I find myself very creative – creative in the work that I do and in finding solutions. As a scientist, we are exploring things that are unknown and you need to be creative to find a way to understand certain things that no one before has either explored or discovered.
If you, for example, need to describe an elephant, but you don’t know what an elephant looks like and you’re in a dark room and you can’t see, you need to start from somewhere. You might start with touching the leg and then you slowly start to realize that this a leg. Then you slowly start building up the whole puzzle and putting every piece together and finally you realize this is an elephant. To do this kind of exercise, you need to be quite creative, to find a new way to understand what you’re looking at.
When there is a challenge, I always like to look at it from a “different” perspective. That will give you new insights, so I try to differentiate from how people normally approach a problem and to find a different way. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s fun to try.
This has always been part of my character, but this creative part of me also grew over time. The field I was working in, in Boston and Oxford, was very competitive: for many years I have worked on a project in competition with several labs throughout the world. Often myself and a PhD student or a collaborator and on the other side a lab of 10 people and in some cases even 20 people. All working on the same topic. I soon realized that if I tried doing what they were doing, it would have been impossible to be as quick as other labs were. That’s why I tried to find different ways, alternative solutions. The competitiveness also helped me to think outside of the box.
I am not as competitive in personal life. I really like the job I do and I sometimes think it is my hobby. As my wife is also a scientist we often discuss science-related questions after dinner. We both enjoy these discussions a lot.
I am actually a rather quiet person. I have a small family, I haven’t lived in Italy for many years now, so I probably didn’t really fit there that well. I do ask myself from time to time if I fit better in the Netherlands. I have lived in different places. Each one of them has unique memories that you bring with you (and you conveniently forget about the less nice ones!). I love London: it’s full of energy and there’s so many things that you can do, but it also comes with more than an hour of commuting to go to work. Now I live in Leiden and everything is within walking distance, but Leiden doesn’t have the same lifestyle as London. So it’s really hard to combine all these different pieces in one place. The perfect place is a unique combination of your memories.
Focus on the positives
PhD students often focus on what is going wrong rather than what is going well. I also recognize this from myself when I was a PhD student. If something goes well, students often think it’s because they were lucky or it was a coincidence. It’s important for PhDs to focus on the positives instead of only focusing on what to improve. Obviously there will be things to improve, but we do need to keep in mind the things that go well. For example, a few weeks ago we finished a project within Charles River and reviewed what went well and what went wrong in the project. Admittedly, it was a very challenging project! There was one colleague who mentioned that she always saw the negative part if something didn’t go well. She then told me that instead she thought I was always super positive and that in the end we managed to do what we had planned to do.
I think it’s a common human trait: many of us do it, we always want to improve things, but sometimes we don’t give enough attention to what we’re good at and what we do well. We should be proud of things that go well, we need to make sure we give that the right weight. After I had been in the States, it was really nice to see that during lab meetings or presentations you could always tell the difference between European students and American students. When Europeans present their data, even if the data is really good, they will mention that some of the data could be wrong, they sort of diminish the work they’ve done. However, the American students might have the same results but will say that they will save the world with those results. It was so interesting to see the differences and in a way it’s a great attitude to highlight what is good about your results.
What do you show to the outside world?
I think I can show my emotions, my inner side, quite well because I have very few filters. For example, one time I was invited to give a seminar at the very first organoid conference. As a microbiologist I was very proud to be there, I only realized later on that all the big guys in the organoid field were giving a presentation at this conference and I thought to myself “wow, here are the top scientists in this field and then there is me” and I got quite nervous. A colleague said afterwards that I indeed seemed nervous at the beginning of the talk, but that the moment I started to discuss data and results I sounded and looked very natural. So, I guess the way you feel comes through once you do what you like.
Everyone who’s at the beginning of their PhD is scared to give a presentation in front of an audience and I don’t think people should deny that they are nervous or scared, because it’s normal. Giving a presentation is not an easy thing to do, but it does get better, it’s really a matter of practicing and than you realize that it is also fun.
Which side of your personality would you like to put in the spotlight more often?
I would for sure describe myself as resilient. Ironic and funny are also words I would use to describe myself. I’m also caring and I’m passionate, but not in an extrovert way, more in an introvert way. Actually I would love to put more attention to all of these sides of my personality. The combination of a new country, a young child, a new job and Covid-19 require some resilience! I am looking forward to rebalance now and to focus on the transformation from a ‘human doing’ to a ‘human being’.
Wisdom to share with us?
Doing your PhD is like running a marathon. There’s always going to be ups and downs – there are always things that don’t go as you plan. So my advice is to ALWAYS TAKE THE POSITIVES and CELEBRATE little and large achievements you make throughout your journey.
With many thanks to Ludovico Buti, M.Sc, PhD, Research Leader Charles River and mentor of ESR Fatma Mousmoudi in the ETN project OrganoVIR.
Interview conducted by Ingrid Valks (PDP coach) and Angelica Reitsma (OrganoVIR project manager), 24th of June 2020, ZOOM.
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