Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Evgeni Frenkel
Evgeni “Genya” Frenkel is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member David Sabatini’s lab investigating mitochondria. We sat down with Frenkel to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What do you investigate?
I study mitochondria, which are the parts (organelles) of a cell best known for generating energy but they perform many other essential functions. Mitochondria are complex, with roughly one to two thousand genes (5-10% of our genome) specifically required for mitochondrial function. Most of these are well understood, but a couple turn out to have important and previously unknown functions, which we are characterizing.
What is your background in science? How did you get interested in your area of research?
In college, I became interested in evolution, which eventually led me to mitochondria. I majored in physics, but a professor encouraged me to enroll in a biology curriculum for students in non-biology departments (this was the then-brand-new Integrated Science Curriculum at Princeton). These courses inspired me to apply to biophysics programs for PhD (entering the one at Harvard). I wanted to study evolution as a way to deduce the architecture of biological systems from basic principles. I joined the laboratory of Michael Desai for my PhD where we performed theoretical modeling and experiments to evolve yeast in the laboratory to see how microbial populations adapt and diversify.
During this time, I got interested in mitochondria because their evolution has some of the most famous fascinating patterns. For example, mitochondria are best known for respiration but across species, their consistently-conserved function is something else entirely: a metabolic pathway known as iron-sulfur cluster biogenesis. In many eukaryotic species, mitochondria do not respire but when they do, they always contain a genome separate from the nucleus. There is a one-to-one correspondence between mitochondria having a genome and being able to respire. The mitochondrial genomes within a cell also undergo evolutionary processes, since they replicate independently of cell division. Accordingly, my initial focus in the Sabatini Lab was how autophagy (degradation and recycling of cell parts) and other mechanisms select functional versus dysfunctional mitochondria within a cell.
What is the first thing that you wanted to be as a little kid, and why?
First it was fireman, then astronaut, computer game designer, and finally scientist.
What led you to join Whitehead Institute?
When I was looking for postdoctoral positions, David Sabatini’s lab had recently published several great papers on mitochondria, including one that touched on this topic of mitochondrial genomes evolving within a cell, and they were pioneering CRISPR screening, which made genetics in mammalian cells nearly as tractable as genetics in yeast. So my interests fit some of the work in the lab, and it was clearly a place to learn the most up-to-date techniques for studying fundamental pathways and mechanisms within a cell. David has a reputation for scientific rigor and excellent mentorship and fostered a lab culture that is high energy and collegial. So I applied and fortunately he extended an offer!
What has been your experience of the Sabatini lab?
David's lab is an outstanding place for science. From students to postdocs, everyone is motivated by fundamental scientific questions, which inspires thinking and best effort for discovery. The camaraderie in the lab is especially noteworthy. The lab also draws many masters students, and I have been fortunate to mentor a couple who have helped me in my research and to hone my teaching approach.
What have you learned about how to mentor?
My guiding principle, which is ultimately shaped by my own mentors, is to always be available to trainees. Mainly, I've drawn two lessons: (1) Start off by repeating the key experiments that establish the basis of the project and work through the necessary troubleshooting. Ideally, subsequent experiments to test for unknowns can rely on these earlier ones as positive and negative controls. (2) Provide a self-contained project so that students can have ownership of their work and develop independence.
Do you find that doing research related to aging (a focus of the Sabatini lab) makes you more health conscious on a day to day basis?
In reality, yes and no. Intermittent fasting has gotten a lot of media attention in recent years given its potential to improve basic inflammatory markers and increase lifespan. More by accident, I do go through stretches of time not eating while at work. However, I do eventually break and succumb to the Pop-Tarts in the vending machine.
What is your favorite non-research-related memory at Whitehead so far?
The dance floor at the Whitehead Retreat is one of the best anywhere and a couple years back, at the end of the night, we kept calling for encores from the DJ. It turned out that she was a singer herself and sang a few dance songs for us after closing time.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
Postdoc life with a baby (now toddler) creates lots of time for hobbies, as long as they are all related to taking care of and playing with the kid, which are quite fun. Otherwise, “in my youth,” I hiked and danced salsa and tango. Now I try to run regularly as it helps to clear the mind and is a good way to get together with friends.
How do you balance the demands of postdoc life with your outside life?
In 2019, my wife and I welcomed our son, who is a blessing but also a huge responsibility. My wife is a surgeon and scientist, which are demanding jobs. Life is full of choices and challenges. We simplified our commutes by living close to work for both of us. We have a wonderful nanny and do a lot of tapping in, tapping out with baby care. She comes home, I go back to lab, vice versa. We love seeing our kid grow and making sure he's happy and learning. It is hard to describe the wonderment of a child seeing every aspect of the world for the first time.
Do you collect anything?
Fortunes from fortune cookies. They’re all cheesy and cliché inspirational but you can carry them in your wallet and pull them out to grin at when needed.
When did you start saving your fortunes?
It was a shared joke in grad school when something didn't work, to respond to it with the fortune from a cookie we got at a Chinese restaurant near the lab. They were all like "failure is the tuition for success," "every day is a day for growth," and "at the end of the day, there is always Chinese food."
What's the biggest disaster that you've ever had in the lab?
In grad school, I once set my lab bench on fire with the Bunsen burner and a reservoir of ethanol. After my PhD defense, my labmates gifted me a fire extinguisher.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
My aim is to lead a lab that contributes to our understanding of mitochondria, how they function and evolved and their role in disease. One of the most exciting moments in the lab was the validation that we had found something truly novel and unexpected in one of our genetic screens, which has opened up avenues for future work. I think mitochondria harbor many more surprises and want to keep looking for them.
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