(This interview by Kathryn Senior originally appeared in Development
on November 23, 2010)
Patrick Tam’s research is focused on the cellular and molecular mechanisms of body patterning during mouse development. He agreed to be interviewed by Development
to talk about his interest in mouse development, new concepts in gastrulation, X-linked diseases and his dream of an African safari.
Did you always intend to have a career in developmental biology?
I was lured into science at high school as I listened to my biology teacher reminiscing about his romance with plant biochemistry during his university days. It was really no surprise that I chose biology over medicine as my degree and then headed onto postgraduate research without a second thought. It might sound incredible but there was not a proper course on developmental biology (or embryology, as it was known) in the entire Bachelor of Science curriculum of my university in those days. To fill this gap in my education, I made a definite decision to study rodent embryo development – first in Hong Kong, and later in London with Michael Snow. This was a time when research in mouse development was taking off in a big way in the UK and so the rest, as they say, is history.
What has influenced your decisions about institutions and locations?
Before I finished my PhD, I had already accepted a faculty position in the newly founded Medical School at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. Luckily, I did manage to squeeze in one year of postdoctoral training at the University of Texas at Austin. This proved to be critical for broadening my research experience and I learned a great deal more before taking on the job back home.
Joining a young institute happened to be a good decision: there were ample start-up resources and also the flexibility that I needed to be able to run the laboratory the way I wanted it. The academic appointment offered relatively stable support for my research during this formative phase of my career. The downside was coping with the demand of teaching commitments, and being the only laboratory working on mouse development made it quite hard to maintain research momentum. My next move to a research institute in Australia was a very positive one as it allowed me to develop further in a research-intensive and intellectually stimulating environment. Having access to first-rate facilities and interacting and networking with a larger community of developmental biologists enabled me to focus and move forwards much faster.
You have been a great pioneer in applying micromanipulation and embryo culture research for investigating early mouse development: how did you get into this originally?
My PhD project was to characterise the developmental fate of an active multiplying population of cells in the epiblast of the gastrulating mouse embryo. I had little idea how challenging this would turn out to be! Initially, we focused our efforts on developing a reliable whole-embryo culture method by tweaking the protocol established by Dennis New for culturing rat embryos. We then tried to apply the conventional `slash and burn’ and `cut and paste’ techniques to study cell fate and tissue differentiation. I owe Rosa Beddington an enormous debt of gratitude for introducing me to the art of embryo manipulation during my sabbatical at Oxford University in the mid 80s: my collaboration with her has had a lasting impact on my career. Ultimately, my postgraduate project evolved into a consuming exercise of fate-mapping all three germ layers and their immediate derivatives. The work took three decades but realizing that I had completed my original objective to the best of my ability was a very satisfying moment in my scientific career. Read the rest of this entry »
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