In this third post of our series entitled The Life of a Stem Cell Scientist, we interviewed 49-year-old Tiziano Barberi, who has been involved in stem cell research since the start of his career. Tiziano is from Rome, Italy, and is now an associate professor at Monash University in Australia. He started working with blood (hematopoietic) stem cells in Italy, but but generally biomedical research was not well funded and well paid at the time he began.
You’ll find out by reading below why Tiziano says NOT to come to Australia if you are focusing your research on human embryonic stem cells. He will reveal his big mistake and how you can avoid the same.
StemCultures: Where did you attend undergraduate/graduate school? When?
Tiziano: In Italy, our school system is different than in the US; we don’t have undergraduate and PhD. I went straight to the State University of Rome for a doctoral degree specializing in cell and molecular biology.. After that, I obtained another doctoral degree (Cell Biology) in Germany, which is equivalent to a PhD in the US, also focusing on stem cells. I then moved to New York as a postdoctoral fellow.
StemCulture: What attracted you to the field of stem cell science?
Tiziano: From the beginning, the ability of these cells—an undifferentiated cell to make specialized cells, and their plasticity to be able to make different types of cells—amazed me. When I was a student and looking for a lab in which to do my internship and thesis, I found the Instituto Superiore di Sanita’ in Italy, which is equivalent to the US NIH, working on stem cells, and I loved it. We studied not only how hematopoietic stem cells became different blood cell types, but also how these cells can become malignant, causing lymphoma and leukemia, so it was cancer and stem cell research at the same time.
StemCultures: What is the specific field of stem cell science that you focus in?
Tiziano: I am now in human embryonic stem cells and iPS cell research. When I moved to New York, I had my encounter with mouse embryonic stem cells, which I thought were fascinating. Now I focus in directed differentiation: making specific cell types from human embryonic stem cells. Initially, because of my background in blood development, I was trying to make blood from embryonic stem cells; instead, I ended up making neurons, something that boosted my career. Then I became interested in other tissues and processes, like trying to make skeletal muscle from embryonic stem cells and iPS cells. I am also interested in making retinal and eye lens cells from embryonic stem cells.
StemCultures: How long have you lived in Australia?
Tiziano: I have lived in Australia for four years. After my postdoc in New York, I moved to California and became an independent investigator at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope in Duarte (Los Angeles area).. That is where I started my assistant professorship, and I was there for almost three years.
StemCultures: What is the biggest challenge of being a stem cell scientist in Australia?
Tiziano: When I moved to California as an independent investigator, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) had millions of dollars to fund stem cell research, which was why I moved there. I obtained a new faculty award from CIRM to work on making muscle from human embryonic stem cells to be transplanted into the muscle of an animal model for muscular dystrophy to see if there was any therapeutic potential. I also had a small grant from the NIH. My total funding was $2 million. Soon after, at my institution (the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope) they decided stem cell research was not a priority anymore due to the economy and therefore all the efforts were focused on cancer research. I tried to relocate within California, but no universities were hiring.
I decided to move to Australia because they had a good history of supporting embryonic stem cell research and because it is a place where I always wanted to spend part of my life. . I gave up $2 million of funding to relocate to Australia. I became an associate professor at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute, and then my problems started. I realized that stem cell research was not well funded in Australia. I went from $2 million in funding to little/no money. In Australia, there is only one round of grants given each year. At the end of the round if you don’t get funded you cannot resubmit your proposal but have to submit a new one that will likely go to a completely different set of reviewers. Overall, you get very little feedback on your proposals so it is very difficult to improve on your new applications.
Before I moved here, I saw that investigators were funded on a fixed term determined by the Australian Stem Cell Centre, a government-funded agency giving money to stem cell research. The agency however stopped its operation in 2010, and the investigators went back to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which is the Australian equivalent of the NIH, but they do not fund embryonic stem cell research. Below is a table that shows the funding for different types of stem cell research in Australia. The file was taken from the NHMRC website. You can see that the funding for human embryonic stem cells is the lowest by far and completely inadequate.
Another challenge I face is that prices are much higher than reagents in the US – double or more in price. The lead-time of receiving supplies when you order is on average 2 to 3 weeks or more than when ordered from the US.
StemCultures: How are you surviving?
Tiziano: I am surviving with money from a stem cell consortium that I belong to and from a different agency, equivalent to the NSF in US, which is just enough to survive. This money will last until the end of the year. In addition, postdoctoral fellows in Australia command high salaries of up to $100,000 a year. I have not been successful in getting any grants since I have been here.
StemCultures: What is your typical day/week like?
Tiziano: I go into the lab early at 9 a.m., and because of scarcity of funding, I spend a lot of time in the lab, because I can’t hire enough personnel. Right now, I only have one postdoc, who just returned from a year of maternity leave. I also have one PhD student. When I can, I leave the lab and go back to my office, do research on other different funding sources, or write grants, which I can only apply for once a year, in March. I leave the lab at 6 or 7 in the evening. Then I go back on weekends to check on my cultures.
StemCultures: What advice do you have for other young stem cell scientists trying to build a career in Australia?
Tiziano: Don’t come to Australia for human embryonic stem cell research. When this agency’s (Australian Stem Cell Centre) funding of stem cell research in 2010 ended, all the stem cell research in the country started suffering, not just mine. Non-human embryonic stem cell research or adult stem cell research get more money and there are some good institutes like the Walter-Eliza Hall Medical Institute where you can work on adult stem cells.
StemCultures: What is/are your ultimate career goal(s) as a stem cell scientist?
Tiziano: My primary goal now is to survive and try to relocate to the US, but it will not be easy to survive. Due to the lack of money and high cost of personnel, my productivity in terms of papers has gone down. I don’t want to just survive anymore—I want to succeed like I have in the past. I want to see some translational and hopefully clinical application of what I am doing. For example, I would love to see our work heal muscular dystrophy in an animal as a trial. I want to be able to do more of that on human beings.
Stem cell scientists, think twice before leaving a place especially if you give up funding! Don’t act too quickly and take huge risks in you career. Utilize the funding you have to try to accomplish your goals.
Note: StemCultures facilitates posting on this blog, but the views and accounts expressed herein are those of the author(s) or interviewee(s) and not the views or accounts of StemCultures its officers or directors whose views and accounts may or may not be similar or identical. StemCultures, its officers and directors do not express any opinion regarding any product or service by virtue of reference to such product or service in this blog.