Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Jason Matos
Jason Matos is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Jing-Ke Weng’s lab studying how plants make medicinal molecules. We sat down with Matos to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What do you investigate?
In Jing-Ke’s lab, one of the main things we do is try to find out how plants make the molecules that they make, many of which are useful to us. Historically, many medicines come from plants, and often the way that we get them is by extracting them from the source. But for a couple of different reasons, like the difficulty of extraction procedures and the small quantities of the molecule that plants produce, we want to improve on how we get these molecules. We do that by figuring out all of the enzymes involved in the pathway that makes the molecule. Then we can take these enzymes and put them in another organism that can then make large amounts of the molecule more efficiently, like yeast or tobacco.
What I'm working on specifically is a molecule called resiniferatoxin. It comes from a resin spurge called Euphorbia resinifera, and it's involved in treatment of pain. This is a good example of a molecule where we can't get enough of it from the source, so we're trying to find how the plant makes it so we engineer the pathway elsewhere.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I really enjoy the day-to-day, solving problems in the lab. The things that we don't talk about in conferences or even present necessarily, but just fixing things and finding problems that don't make sense and going down the rabbit hole to see if you come out the other side with something interesting having happened. I think if you're doing something that you know how it works, and you can do your experiments with the highest level of predictive power that you can think of, then you're not really doing the interesting problems. In science, you're kind of always looking for a little bit of trouble.
How do you approach those moments when your experiment does not go as expected?
Almost every project I’ve been involved in has not turned out how we first envisioned it, and things that were problems have actually been signs of something interesting. Initially, you're frustrated and you want the problem to go away, but as it persists, you accept it and pursue the mysterious, and sometimes good things happen. Of course, when people talk about how a mistake or a confusion led to great results, this is true, but it's also overly romanticized. After you get the great result, you feel exhilarated, but in the beginning, you're so frustrated that you consider quitting. These situations always look better in hindsight.
What did you want to be as a little kid?
The first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a doctor, and I think that was really driven by social pressures and family pressures. There was this idea that you can be the family doctor, that MDs are every parent’s dream. As I got older and started making my own decisions, I deviated from that but I still liked science. I was good at science classes, and when you're young and you're good at something, you also enjoy it, right? Often skill and enjoyment go hand in hand. So I decided to pursue science, but in research, not in an applied career like medicine.
What does your family think of your career now?
For the most part, they don't understand what it is. I grew up in Puerto Rico and there are not a lot of big research efforts there, it's not shown on TV, so people don’t always understand when you say you have a doctorate but you're not a doctor in medicine. I think in general, we as scientists have a communication problem. It’s hard to bridge the gap between us moving small amounts of liquids from one tube to the next and public interest, but we should figure that out because we’re doing this for everybody’s benefit. That’s something I think about a lot.
What are your hobbies?
I like to watch horror movies and read. I try to watch movies or read books based on eras, like a certain decade, because I feel like it gives me a glimpse of how people were thinking. For example, you can't make a horror movie now where someone can’t get to a phone and that's part of the horror, right? How we live our lives determines what's scary. Similarly, I like to read history books and learn about some specific event that someone found that they could write 500 pages on and just see how nitty gritty they can get into it. I don’t remember everything but I enjoy the experience. Also, I like going outside and hiking, kayaking. For more intense exercise I've been trying to do squash. Squash is indoors so it hasn’t been possible lately because of the pandemic, but I'll get back to it.
What’s your favorite meal to cook or order at a restaurant?
I like to cook my favorite Puerto Rican dishes, so rice and beans, and mofongo, which is mashed green plantains.
What’s the biggest disaster that you’ve ever had in the lab?
I used to work in this lab that had an infrared spectroscopy instrument, and it would heat up significantly, so you would have to load up liquid nitrogen inside of it and you would have to pour the liquid nitrogen using a funnel that would go into the instrument. The container that you use to put in the liquid nitrogen is called a Dewar, and one time I was pouring liquid nitrogen into it and I kicked the Dewar a little bit as it filled. It fell on its side and shattered and exploded, and shards of steel and glass went everywhere. It was loud and kind of scary but luckily, I didn't get hurt.
You mentor students in the lab. What have you learned from that experience?
I have realized that every time I think I know how to perfectly mentor people, I have to throw that idea out, and get to know the new person and see what they would benefit from the most. I kind of have to build their track from scratch each time, instead of developing a perfect methodology and then applying that to everybody. At least in my experience, the social component, more than the science, is important: what the person feels comfortable with matters a lot for them to get the most out of mentoring.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I haven't thought too much about that yet, but I would like to keep doing science or be involved with some sort of leadership role in science, be it in industry or academia. We'll see how it plays out.
Communications and Public Affairs