Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Max Friesen
Max Friesen is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Rudolf Jaenisch’s lab studying cell metabolism and diabetes. We sat down with Max to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
My research focuses on type 2 diabetes, a disease that impacts the quality of life of millions of people globally. I have been working on developing a more accurate human stem cell-derived model of diabetes. Diabetes has always been a very hard disease to model in the lab. Metabolism really differs between species, therefore complicating animal models, especially with mice: they have a way higher metabolism, and way higher heart rates compared to humans. There are probably twenty different ways to cure diabetes in mice that have been published with all of them failing in humans. Furthermore, in vitro culture systems—cells in a dish—don’t properly recapitulate the disease either. In the Jaenisch lab, my work asks: how do we make stem cell-derived tissues function like they would in the human body? Hopefully we can generate a system that more closely recapitulates what diabetic patients in the clinic present with. To tackle this incredibly complex problem (typical of metabolism), I use human stem cells as a model system and differentiate these into metabolic tissues such as the liver, adipocytes (fat), and others to gain a better understanding of how metabolic pathways such as the insulin signaling pathway are perturbed in a diabetic model vs. a healthy control. Once we get this to work, we’ll hopefully be able to figure out how dietary insulin resistance develops and take our findings into the clinic to alleviate a health burden that continues to be a global epidemic today.
What did you want to be as a kid?
To be frank, I never really knew what I wanted to be as a small kid. I grew up in a very small, rural town in the Netherlands and I didn't really get exposed to science until high school. That’s when I fell in love with biology. As a young kid, I enjoyed playing with Lego blocks and building structures. When I started reading biology books in high school, that’s when I realized that DNA was the basic equivalent of Lego blocks in cells. From there, I imagined building cells and organisms from the ground up just as I would do with my Lego creations. I decided then that I had to go into science and this became my dream. This was a difficult process as I was the first in my immediate and extended family to finish college. The path of obtaining a PhD was quite foreign to me, but I had amazing mentors that led me to where I am today. It's been quite a journey, and I guess you could say I’m quite thankful to my Lego blocks for helping me figure out what I wanted to become.
How did you end up at Whitehead Institute?
Serendipity. I did my undergrad in molecular life sciences in the Netherlands at Wageningen University and then my master's in biomedical sciences. I became an expert in molecular biology and plant science, but I really wanted to work on human stem cells during my PhD because it's the most relevant to disease and I personally found this to be the coolest model system. To pursue this, I did an internship at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute at the end of which my PI invited me to stay for my PhD. Towards the end of my PhD, I wasn't entirely sure of what I wanted to do, whether to go to industry or do a postdoc, but I happened to see the most perfect job ad from Whitehead Institute. The Jaenisch lab was looking for a postdoc to work on diabetes and human stem cell models and the qualifications for this position checked each bullet point from my PhD resume. I was extremely lucky. I applied for the job, met with Rudolf, and got hired quickly. After I received my offer, I didn’t need to think twice.
What’s the biggest disaster you’ve ever had in the lab?
I think the best example of this was during my PhD. I was working with a technician doing Southern blots—this really long, complicated protocol—and we had huge stock solutions for this experiment on one of the top shelves of our bay. One of the glass bottles was an acidic solution and the other was a neutralization buffer, and we ended up accidentally tipping the container with the acid and it spilled all over the floor. The entire floor of my bay turned from blue to yellow because of the acid. In this kind of situation, you try not to panic, and of course our instinct was that we had to neutralize the acid—and we did exactly that by pouring neutralization buffer on top of the spilled acid directly on the floor (in retrospect, this was definitely not the smartest decision). We cleaned up the rest of the spill properly afterwards but to this day, no one knows what caused the change in color of my old bay.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
I'm a big foodie and I really enjoy trying different cuisines that the Boston food scene has to offer, so the pandemic has been especially hard because I used to go out to restaurants all the time with friends. Every week my friends and I would go explore Boston and Cambridge through the lens of different restaurants. In the last year and a half during the pandemic, we tried to support local businesses by ordering in and we took an adventure by ordering from places that were normally too far to venture out to through food delivery apps. But I have to say I love to cook, and I bake when I have more time away from the lab. Now that we’re starting to be able to go to restaurants again, I’m very excited about restarting our dining out culture not just for the sake of food but also as a way to bond with friends again in person.
How does your group decide on which restaurants to try?
In the beginning it was fairly easy, because we just looked at what the popular restaurants were that we hadn't been to yet. By now, we've gotten to the point where we've been to so many that we have to work harder to find good places around Boston/Cambridge. We cover the entire palette of different cuisines. We also, as a group, run an Instagram account called @TresLechesFoodies—there’s three of us and my girlfriend and our other friend really love tres leches cake—and we post everything there. Honestly, my girlfriend mostly manages the account, while I take photos and eat a lot of the food.
As a foodie, did you get into the baking craze in the early days of the pandemic?
Definitely. When you’re in a pandemic, there certainly comes a point where you feel the urge to go with the trend. I hadn't really baked before, but my girlfriend had bought overpriced yeast (due to the shortage in the pandemic) just for us to try and make bread and so we did that and failed the first time. However, I am proud to say that I made a lot of banana bread, some of which I sent photos of to the Whitehead Institute Instagram account when they posted about baked goods. My friends and I also made a Japanese soufflé cheesecake and that was definitely a hit.
What were you doing in the lab, and what was it like working there when almost everyone else was at home?
It felt lonely and despite the fact that I usually like working late nights when everyone has left the lab, being alone on the entire floor most of the time during the pandemic felt eerie. You could definitely tell that something was going on in the world. I had a lot of focus, but the anxiety built up as the Covid cases surged in Boston. I did appreciate the ability to focus 100% on my experiments because there was no one else to talk to, but my work involved maintaining a lot of cell lines and long-term differentiation experiments, some that have been going for months in my incubator, so I was mostly in the tissue culture room. During this time, I worked even harder on my project to keep progressing because the future was uncertain. However, I felt extremely lucky to be able to keep working in the lab and eventually I also worked on a Covid-related project that kept me motivated to be in the lab. However, because I didn't take a single day off, the burnout came a bit later when everyone else resumed work in lab, and it hit me that I had been there the whole time.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen in the lab?
Beating human stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes. You can make heart muscle from human stem cells, and they start contracting on their own, and then they beat at something that resembles an actual human heart rate that you can see under a microscope. There are many tissues that we can make from human stem cells, but that one is so stunningly visually obvious that it's really amazing.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Doing what I love most: science, ideally as a PI running my own lab within the Boston ecosystem. Hopefully by then I will have solved a part of what I think has got to be my life’s greatest puzzle: how to cure diabetes. The scientific ecosystem in Boston is something I have always loved, and I hope to continue to be a part of it in my future career as a scientist. The fact that I can walk to meet with someone who is the world's expert on a topic crucial to advancing my science is a privilege, and still leaves me in awe. So hopefully I’ll still be in Boston in ten years!
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