From the scientist’s view: a conversation with … Chris Russo
Chris Russo is a Group Leader in the Structural Studies Division at the LMB.
He studied both Electrical Engineering and Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA. He then completed the joint PhD program in Applied Physics, Medical Engineering and Medical Physics between Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Medical School. He joined the Harvard Physics Department for his first Postdoctoral Fellow position before moving to Lori Passmore’s Group at the LMB in 2011. In 2014, he became a Senior Research Scientist and two years later started his own group as an Independent Investigator Scientist.
Chris works on developing new instruments and methods for imaging biological molecules, at atomic resolution, so as to gain a deeper understanding of biology. More recently he has begun work on improving the quality and functionality of electron microscopes.
We recently talked to Chris about his work and career in science.
What inspired you to choose this particular area of science/research?
It was actually a convoluted and complicated path that lead me to where I am, but it is an extremely good fit for what I enjoy and the things that I’m good at. It combines a lot of disparate skills, things like engineering, building things, taking things apart, but also understanding the physics and the optics of how a microscope actually works, combined with the applications which are biological and medical in nature. It was sort of an accident that I ended up doing this and I could have ended up doing many other different things, but it turns out that this combination of skills that I acquired by chance, at many levels, is actually what you need to be able to do biological electron microscopy at a deep level.
What is the most exciting thing about your research?
There is a certain pleasure in just finding new things out, the discovery type motivation that drives many scientists. But there is a different sort of pleasure in being able to understand something like the physics of electrons scattering through a protein, but then turning that into a product that people actually buy and use – being able to take the idea all the way from its inception to being something that actually there are thousands of in the world, all helping to take better images of specimens. And then there’s a real satisfaction in working with really smart, intelligent people, with very little restraints put on you. You have tremendous freedom here to be able to work on what you want to, and that’s really empowering, and really fun: it’s like being in a playground every day, coming to work.
Has there been an occasion where an experiment or a piece of research hasn’t gone according to plan but has turned out to have a really useful outcome?
There are many examples when science does not go the way you think and it turns out to be really fortuitous – I can think of a very good recent example. We started to try and understand what energy electron microscopes should be for doing biological microscopy. The energy is the controlling factor – it’s the energy of the electron that starts at the top and goes zooming through your specimen and then hits the detector and you use it to take pictures. Until only a few years ago, we thought that going to higher and higher energies would be better. The specimens we are trying to image are extremely small and would actually charge up and distort the beam – they make the images all blurry and you basically can’t get high resolution images anymore. We thought that this would always get better if we increased the energy of the electron, because you are shooting it through at faster speeds and it has less time to sense this blurring, charging effect. All of the microscopes for high resolution imaging are done in an energy that is as high as possible but still practical – 300,000 volts. We started to re-examine the assumptions of this, myself and Richard Henderson, and we had lots of arguments at tea about whether or not this charging phenomenon really mattered. In the end, since it really wasn’t clear, we needed to go into the lab and work out a way to measure how much the images are blurred by this charging phenomenon. And it turns out that’s it not a problem – the assumptions were wrong. We showed the physics of exactly why it was that the specimen isn’t charged to the degree that it reduces image quality. This led us to re-examine the entire notion of what is the best energy to make electron microscopes at, what is the best energy to actually image the specimen? We were terribly surprised to realise that the best energy turns out to be lower than what everybody is doing right now. Instead of 300,000 volts it should be about 100,000 volts. We have now undertaken a project to build new microscopes that are at the correct energy for the specimens. The benefit is, not only are they actually a bit better at imaging the specimen, but they’ll be vastly cheaper – if you lower the energy by a factor of three, you actually reduce the cost by a factor of ten. Now the entire direction of our research has changed and for the better.
Who has been the biggest influence on your scientific career?
I think you have mentors at every stage of your career and they make a huge difference to your trajectory in the long run. If I had to pick some that were the most influential, I would probably pick one of my Math teachers, when I was in High School in Detroit, who made a tremendous difference in my education and in my idea of what I could achieve. And my PhD supervisor who taught me how to be a scientist in many ways – not necessarily how to do science, that’s something you learn as you go along – but how to be a scientist, that’s a different thing. And then as a postdoc I had very good mentorship from Lori Passmore, here at the LMB. We worked together on lots of projects and she learnt from me and I learnt from her and that was tremendously productive. And then, even as a Group Leader, I’ve had many opportunities to work with Richard Henderson and he has taught me loads, both about microscopy but also about the scientific enterprise and how to do it well. I think one of the most important things to do when progressing in science, is to surround yourself with good mentors and good scientists.
If you could interview any scientist, past or present, who would you choose and what would you ask them?
Ernest Rutherford is an interesting character in the history of physics, the history of chemistry and the history of many things. He wasn’t just a tremendous scientist, in the absolute sense of discovery and understanding, he was also a tremendous scientist in the terms of creating other scientists. He clearly figured out some trick how to produce really world class scientists in his lab – maybe it was a part of the situation and the problems he was working on, but I think there’s no one in history who has had more students and postdocs who became Nobel laureates. It’s something like a dozen from his lab who also won Nobel prizes. I think it’ll be fun to ask him, what was it you looked for in order to recruit scientists to come work with you and then what was it about the lab environment that allowed you to produce so many tremendous scientists? I think that would be a terribly interesting conversation.
What is special about working at the LMB?
What makes the LMB unique really is the culture of the place and the way it’s set up – its structure. You can look back to its history to understand how it was set up in order to basically just get on with the scientific problems – they were given almost complete freedom to get on with the work and that culture persists to this day. I think it is essential to why people come here and why people stay here. People working here are all independent, talented scientists – they really want to get on with their work and not be burdened with all of the extraneous things that often come along with doing science in other places. I had been told about the LMB for many years but I didn’t really understand it until I came here and really saw the difference in the freedom that’s available to the scientists. That culture imbues the entire place, the entire building, from the scientists, to the support staff, to administrators to everything else. It is just a completely refreshing atmosphere compared to many other scientific places.
What scientific breakthrough would you most like to make?
The ones that are necessary, the ones that are needed to take the next step. Right now, we are really interested in being able to see all the molecules. If you could see the structure of every molecule that made up life then a huge number of the problems in biology would become just much simpler and I think we are at a point where that seems feasible now. It is going to take still quite a lot more scientific discovery as well as engineering and technological development but I think it’s possible now. But there will be many more problems after that, that are just as interesting and just as important.
How has your work been impacted by COVID in 2020? Have there been any positive outcomes because of changes you had to make this year?
One of the things that COVID has forced us to do is to stop interacting on a personal, social level. And that is one of the essential components of the LMB and certainly of science and the way it works – these close, interpersonal relationships and delving deeply into problems together. One of the saddest things I had to see recently was going up to the LMB canteen after all the restrictions were put in place, so it was now a series of tables distributed throughout the room with one chair per table. I can’t imagine what Max [Perutz] would have thought to see the LMB in that state – it’s the worst possible situation really, it’s like cutting the heart out of the place. But that said we’re still managing quite well. The good thing is we had such strong interpersonal relationships with most people in the lab before COVID happened that we can maintain them through very difficult times. I think it’s really made us appreciate more the true value in the social interaction that we have. I would say one benefit to the restrictions was that there is a certain obligation to travel to various meetings around the world, attend events, and that all ended at the beginning of 2020. Doing some of that virtually or just re-examining how much of that really needed to be done is a useful thing – I certainly was travelling more than I wanted to be and more than was necessarily beneficial to the science in general.
Has your scientific career been different from what you imagined?
I would say my career has been terribly different from what I imagined – I never thought I was going to be a scientist – it wouldn’t have even been on my radar as a child. Even coming out of high school I thought I was going to be an engineer, which would have been a perfectly good thing. But in the end, you follow your talents, your interests, your passions and ultimately you make the leap that you will land in a good place that matches you, and I think that is what happened with me.
Chris was interviewed for the LMB Alumni Newsletter on 21st December 2020