First Paper as PI: Kota Mizumoto

Tailoring your supervision style to fit individual students can be challenging, but watching their confidence grow and hearing about their ideas is rewarding.
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After completing a PhD and a brief postdoc at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, a conversation over lunch at a conference resulted in Kota Mizumoto moving to Stanford University in the US. Six years later he was offered a group leader position at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada. His lab’s first paper, which explores how nerve cells in C.elegans position their synapses, was published in eLife July 2018.

Kota Mizumoto. Image credit: Ardalan Hendi

How do you describe your research to your friends and family?

In our lab, we are interested in how nerve cells communicate with each other as the nervous system develops. We study this process in a type of roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans that has a very simple nervous system – only 300 or so neurons. Despite this, these worms can perform complex tasks, such as sensing their environment, and memorising where food is located. Also, the genes, proteins and chemicals that C. elegans uses to communicate are very similar (or even identical in some cases) to those used by human cells. This makes C. elegans a useful model for studying how our nervous system develops.

How would you summarise the main findings of your paper?

Nerve cells communicate with one another via specialised sites known as synapses. Previously we showed that two molecules – a signalling molecule called Semaphorin and its receptor Plexin – control where nerves position their synapses. In our eLife paper, we discovered this process is mediated by two enzymes, called Rap2 and TNIK. Moreover, we showed that TNIK also works independently from Semaphorin and Plexin to regulate the number of synapses.

What was the biggest difference between working on this paper as a PI and your previous work as a postdoc?

When I was a postdoc I did all the experiments myself – I knew which results I was 100% confident about, and which ones needed more experiments to make the conclusion stronger. As a supervisor, it is very difficult to know which data I should be more sceptical of than others. Being able to spend sufficient time with my students in the lab while doing my own experiments makes me feel more confident about the data. However, I worry that this feeling of uncertainty will get worse as the lab grows and I have more administrative roles that take me away from the bench.

Did the project run as planned?

Absolutely not - literally nothing worked as planned! It took over a year to get all the equipment we needed set up, and we kept finding that we didn’t have the necessary reagents to complete our experiments. Because all these things took up so much time, I felt like we weren’t making any progress. However, thanks to tremendous help from the Moerman lab at UBC – who we share a lab space with – and the efforts of all the authors on the paper, we managed to publish our findings within a reasonable amount of time.

Since the paper has come out, how has this impacted your research?

Getting our very first paper out made me feel that I was finally an independent scientist, and it has helped me recruit a talented postdoc to the lab. However, when I was undergoing the reappointment process and applying for the renewal of my salary award, I was surprised to receive negative comments about publishing in eLife. Some professors (not many I believe) respect legacy journals over newer journals such as eLife and rely too heavily on impact factor. Actually, several different faculty members advised me that if I wanted to publish open access, I should submit the paper to an open access journal owned by one of the famous publishing groups.

Do you wish you had published the article elsewhere?

No, I still believe I made the right choice. Like many of my friends and colleagues I believe in open access, and I am proud to be part of a group of researchers that support eLife’s mission. Also, eLife has published some of my favourite papers, and it’s nice see your work published alongside other papers you have enjoyed reading. As my career progresses I want to keep publishing in journals such as eLife, and to continue supporting the movement towards a more open style of publishing.

How do you hope your group will develop over the next few years?

I started my lab with one masters student and several undergraduates, none of whom had any practical research experience. So, at the start I was often the one guiding the projects and choosing what to do next. But now I have PhD students and a postdoc who can design their own experiments. As the lab develops I am looking forward to hearing about their ideas and the results of their experiments.

What is the thing you enjoy the most, and the thing you find the hardest about running your own group?

I enjoy talking to the talented students in my lab, and watching their confidence grow. However, working out which students will be good, and how to provide each student with the right style of supervision is difficult. You can decide how good a student may be based on their student record, but there are a lot of excellent students who don’t have good grades, and vice versa. Other faculty members have told me, when it comes to selecting students you just have to ‘trust your gut’, which I’m still learning how to do. And even if the students are good, they do not always fit my lab’s style, and I am still figuring out how to tailor my supervision style to each student.

At the start of your scientific career did you already know you wanted to become a PI?

Even when I was at school I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I did my undergraduate studies and PhD in my home town in Japan, and just always thought I’d stay there. But in 2007, my life plan changed. I attended a conference in San Diego, where I ended up having lunch with a PI called Kang Shen who ran a lab at Stanford. After the conference, I sent him an email requesting to join the lab, and within a day or two I got a response saying, ‘yes, get fellowship if possible’. I never imagined I would end up doing a postdoc in the US, and go on to have my own lab in Canada.

Did you consider returning to Japan after your postdoc?

When I was looking for faculty positions, I did consider going back to Japan. In the end, however, I stopped applying due to the limited number of faculty positions available, and I had lost contact with the Japanese scientific community. At the same time, I was also applying for positions in North America, and I ended up taking a position at UBC, which is one of the best institutes in Canada. I also had started liking the easy-going lifestyle of the west coast, and was told that Vancouver, where UBC is based, had lots of good ramen restaurants.

As an early career researcher how important do you think it is to use social media sites such as twitter?

When I first started using twitter I was surprised by how many benefits it offered. It’s helped me stay in contact with former colleagues, find new collaborators, and connect with researchers from all across the world. I am actually right now working on a secret project I started with a friend on twitter.

What advice would you give to someone who is about to start their own lab?

Make sure you ask the right people for help. For example, if you are facing a big issue, such as an urgent need of money to buy or repair equipment, a senior faculty member can probably provide you with the best advice. Whereas, more junior faculty members can help you with the smaller practical issues involved in kickstarting your lab, and getting settled into a new place, since they just went through the same experience. At UBC, we have a Slack group for new PIs where we can share information and provide support for each other, which I’ve found really useful.

Kota Mizumoto CV

2015 – present: Assistant Professor, Life Science Institute, University of British Colombia, Canada

2008 – 2014: Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Biology, Stanford University, US

2007 – 2008: Postdoctoral Fellow, Riken Center for Developmental Biology, Kobe University, Japan

2004 – 2007: PhD in Developmental Biology, Riken Center for Developmental Biology, Kobe University, Japan

2002 – 2004: MSc in Plant Genetics, Kobe University, Japan

1998 – 2002: BSc in Agriculture, Kobe University, Japan