Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Monther Abu-Remaileh
Monther Abu-Remaileh is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member David Sabatini’s lab investigating the organelles that cells use to remove waste and recycle nutrients. We sat down with Abu-Remaileh to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What do you investigate?
I work on the lysosome, which is the recycling site in the cell, where macromolecules are broken down into parts — small molecules — so their nutrient content can be reused as building blocks. This is one of the major ways that cells can maintain levels of different metabolites that they will need when they are going through a starvation or nutrient-limiting condition. Also, the lysosome is where the cell can encapsulate and degrade faulty organelles or aggregated proteins in order to remove them and prevent them from causing damage. These lysosomal functions are essential for organismal health, and there are a number of diseases caused mainly by lacking certain proteins associated with the lysosome, including Gaucher disease, Tay-Sachs, and Batten disease.
When I started to work on the lysosome, the major challenge we had was studying it at the molecular level to find out what molecules are inside the lysosome. The problem was that lysosomes are a tiny fraction of the whole cell by volume, and so they were hard to purify while maintaining their small molecule content. We had to develop a way to purify lysosomes, which we did based on a previous approach developed in our lab by Walter Chen to study mitochondria using immunopurification. This allows you to pull lysosomes out of the cell as intact compartments, or organelles, and then you can proceed with any kind of analysis you are interested in. You can look at the small and large molecule content like amino acids, sugars, lipids and proteins. You can ask how their abundance or rate of generation changes in different nutrient states or even disease states. Now that we have this ability, you can imagine studying lysosomes in cells coming from patients that have lysosomal diseases, or patients that have health problems where we know the lysosome is important but we don't know the dysfunction. We have started applying our method to investigate these types of questions, and so have many people outside of our lab.
What are you most excited about in your research right now?
When I started to work on the lysosome I was asking very basic biology questions, which I'm still interested in, but I’m excited that we are now at a stage where we can study lysosome dysfunction in disease. Currently I’m studying Batten disease, which is an early onset neurodegenerative disease. We are trying to define the biomolecular function of the lysosome associated protein that is lost in this disease. Once we define this function, it may be possible to identify pathways that one can target to help treat the disease. Batten disease and others in this group are all fatal and none of them have a cure, so that possibility is very exciting.
What did you want to be as a kid?
I didn't know. As a Palestinian kid growing up in Jerusalem during the first and the second Palestinian uprising, I had not thought much about these questions; our school system was barely functional, and I never thought beyond high school. I was lucky, however, to have amazing and dedicated teachers. I definitely didn't think about being a scientist, because I never knew that was a career path.
How did you end up in a research career?
As a Palestinian, if you do well in the high school standardized exam then you can get a scholarship to go to either a Jordanian university or an Egyptian one, and I got a scholarship to do medicine in Egypt or genetics in Jordan. I knew I didn't want to do medicine, so I was left with the second option. I joined the program at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, and I really enjoyed learning about the molecular machineries in our cells. That was very fulfilling to me. I wanted to be more engaged in the type of research that made these discoveries but my school didn't have research programs that would allow me to do that. However, once I finished my bachelor’s, I came back to Jerusalem and realized that I could go to the Hebrew University, which is an option that is available for Jerusalem residents that I hadn’t thought of before. I ended up doing my master's and PhD in the medical school of the Hebrew University studying gene regulation, mostly in cancer and development. When I joined a lab there, I got to see that for my PI, science was her full-time job. That’s when I realized I could maybe be a scientist and decided to work for it.
What changed to make the Hebrew University an option?
Growing up I attended schools in the West Bank that had been administered by the Jordanian system and then in the '90s by the Palestinian Authority. So I was never part of any school system that would teach Hebrew or prepare you go to the Hebrew University. But after my bachelor’s, I was able to do an internship in a lab affiliated with the medical school of the Hebrew University, and I realized it was an option.
Do you enjoy the teaching side of academic science?
I love teaching. I used to teach when I was in my PhD. Then in David's lab I mentored many students at different stages. It was very fun and, I think, a huge privilege. Teaching is rewarding, especially with inexperienced students like undergrads, when you feel you are the first one introducing them to the scientific world. Watching them grow and then get accepted to good programs has been very satisfying. I think this is one of the major things, when you think about career options, that makes academia special: mentoring and contributing to other people's careers.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
This job is very demanding in time, energy, and brainpower. For the most part when I’m not in the lab, I am with my family. I have two kids, Malik and Hamzah, who are now nine and five-and-a-half. It's been amazing to watch them grow during the time since I joined the lab. When we came to Cambridge, my older son was a kindergartener and the younger was a baby. I enjoy playing with them a lot. I like to read with them and to chat about different things; they are very curious and they always ask questions. Sometimes I don't know how to answer. For example, when Malik was five he asked me, “How can you use mice to study human diseases? They are different from us; they have a tail and they don’t wear clothes.” I'm always trying to build an interest in science in my kids, and they actually really love science. My wife always complains that our freezer is full of cups and plates with colorful solutions. Hamzah always says that he is doing an experiment. I am still not sure what he is testing.
What’s the biggest disaster you’ve ever had in the lab?
I once turned on the fire alarm here by accident. It was a weekend, and I was leaning near the fire alarm and I am not sure how I pulled it. Everyone had to go outside and it was so cold out. I tried to tell people there was no problem, I went to the security guy, but of course they insisted on bringing the fire department. Everyone in the building had to wait outside in the cold. People still remind me of that all the time.
As you finish up your postdoc at Whitehead Institute, what are your thoughts on the experience?
Being at Whitehead Institute has been a really amazing experience. I've been doing a very multidisciplinary type of research, and for that you need a lot of support from different cores and different facilities on campus — and it’s all here. Whitehead Institute is a small building from the outside, but once you start to work here you realize that you can do almost anything in biology within the limits of this building. If you don't have what you need here, it's going to be across the street. It's kind of paradise for a scientist.
Then, David is a great mentor, and I’ve learned a lot from his example. He has created a great environment and culture in his lab. Every interaction with David that you have, you learn something, whether it's scientific, managerial, or how to deal with tough situations as a scientist. All together these things make working here really amazing. Even after four and a half years here, when I wake up all I want to do is come in to the lab to do my science and talk to the people.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Hopefully next fall I will be starting my own lab. I would like to continue to work on lysosome metabolism and the physiological function of the lysosome in health and disease states. I hope some of our findings over the next ten years will help to cure some of the lysosomal diseases. My feeling is that with these new tools and approaches that we have, we may add something to the great work that people in this field have been doing. I hope I will be someone who is contributing to or even spearheading innovation in this field.
Communications and Public Affairs