Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Arash Latifkar
Arash Latifkar is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member David Bartel’s lab studying RNA viruses to learn more about the lifecycle of RNA. We sat down with Arash to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
I'm broadly interested in RNA metabolism, which refers to events that happen in the lifecycle of ribonucleic acids (RNA). It is a really exciting time to study RNA biology. A lot of attention has been directed towards this field because messenger RNA vaccines played an important role in attenuating the impact of COVID-19. This success sparked a growing interest in using messenger RNAs in various therapeutic contexts, but to be effective, a messenger RNA molecule has to be translated to a protein, a process that involves a lot of steps that we don’t fully understand. Viruses, especially those like coronaviruses that use RNA molecules instead of DNA molecules as their genetic material, are a good model to teach us about the RNA lifecycle. I'm currently studying how viruses change their hosts’ cells to make them more accomodating for the virus to multiply. I think it’s quite fascinating that by studying what happens in viral infection, we can also learn more about ourselves and other diseases that affect us.
What did you want to be as a little kid?
I wanted to be an astronomer, and that's primarily due to growing up near the desert. The desert nights are associated with a lot of stars and the night skies are really beautiful. When we were young, we often used to go on stargazing trips and camp out in the desert. It's hard to not notice the star patterns, shapes, planets coming up, and all of that. I used to be really fascinated by that, and read a lot about it. I thought, that's something that I want to do in the future: learn more about all of this. If we went out when there was a meteor shower, we would stay for a while and just try to follow the sky. You have to observe carefully and be patient because sometimes it could be hours and hours that you don't see anything. Then suddenly, there's a burst of events that happen and you can catch them. I think being patient and observant is something I got from the stargazing experience that I have carried to the science that we do.
How did your scientific interests shift to biology?
I became interested in chemistry initially, and I think that's primarily due to a middle school teacher who showed us really fun and exciting science experiments. He would ask us questions and then do experiments, and show us how we could use what we observed to figure out the answers. Seeing that as young students was really fascinating, that we could interrogate nature in an experimental way like that and figure out more about it. I knew that was something that I wanted to do, to go out and learn more. I did my undergrad in chemistry, and then for grad school, I wanted to do chemistry that is animated, which would essentially be biology.
It sounds like mentoring was very impactful for you. Do you now enjoy being a mentor?
Yes, and I've done it throughout my educational training since high school. Right now, I'm mentoring an undergrad student. I always look forward to these opportunities because you learn more during mentoring. It's really productive for both parties, I think. For example, the undergrad student working with me right now is a real expert in computational biology, which I don't have a lot of background in. We go back and forth between things that I know that she wants to learn and things she knows that I want to learn, so it's a really fun and exciting learning environment for both of us.
What is the biggest disaster that you have ever had in the lab?
During undergrad, I was carrying some glassware in a Styrofoam box and one of the glassware pieces contained acetone. It tipped over and the acetone, which I didn't know at the time, dissolved the Styrofoam, which resulted in the other glassware falling out and breaking. We lost a lot of material that we had prepared over the last couple of months. That set us, me and the postdoc I was working with at the time, back for a couple of months. We had to regenerate all those materials. It was a learning moment and we learned the hard way, but it was so interesting to discover that you could dissolve a whole box of Styrofoam in an organic solvent.
What is a favorite non-research memory of yours from Whitehead Institute?
In our lab, we tend to do a lot of stuff together. Some people go running, some people climb, and there are a lot of activities. My favorite is that we go to concerts together, which has been happening more often recently as Covid restrictions ease up.
What are your hobbies?
Like I said, I go to a lot of live music events. I have a wide range of tastes in music, so I’ll go to classical music shows at Boston Symphony Hall and then the next day I can be in a music venue that is playing rock and roll. It's interesting to see a spectrum of different musical genres. I also try to go to art exhibitions. I draw inspiration from art. I feel like pieces of art are like science articles, in that they take a lot of time and effort and sometimes a lot of collaboration to make. It's interesting to see that similar type of effort being made in another field and see the product of that displayed in a concert or play or an exhibition.
How do you discover new music?
I like to sit down with people and ask what they listen to. When I was young, we used to make mixtapes for each other. Nowadays, you can just share playlists, and check out other people's favorite type of music that way. The other way to find music is to let the apps decide for you, to use the discovery mode through their algorithms. I do both.
Do you collect anything?
In general, I’m not a collector but recently, I’ve been collecting these Lord of the Rings figurines. I really like the Tolkien universe and Middle Earth, so I like having stuff related to it. I try to get one of these small figures every three or four months, so I can get all of the characters that were in the books or movies.
What is it you like about Lord of the Rings?
I generally like fantasy novels and fantasy worlds. I feel like there's a lot of creativity in them because the authors are not limited by existing laws and storylines. They can invent stuff, and it’s really nice to see the creators of these universes using that opportunity to create interesting characters, mix different cultures, and mix different historical events to produce their own thing. In science we have this term, “de novo,” meaning something is occurring anew or from scratch. It’s really interesting to see authors creating a whole world de novo.
What’s your favorite meal to cook or eat?
I generally like Persian food, but since coming to the US I've started to like Mexican cuisine, because it's somewhat similar in terms of spice and taste. I like enchiladas a lot. The first time I tried them was when a grandmother of a friend of mine in grad school used to make them and that got me hooked. I've never had another one that had that taste, I guess maybe because it was made in a special way.
Do you have any pets?
I don't have any pets right now, but I do have plants at home and in the lab. I'm quite proud of them, especially the ones that I keep in the lab. I started growing them during the pandemic, and they're blooming right now. I have a money tree that's kind of growing out of proportion. They're all next to my desk in the lab. It’s really fun to watch how they grow more and more every day.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I’d like to eventually be an independent investigator and to continue to have opportunities to mentor people, go about fascinating questions in biology, and basically be surrounded by great colleagues like I have now at Whitehead Institute. That would be the dream.
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