An interview with Mohammed Mostajo Radji

Posted by , on 7 March 2023

MiniBio: Dr. Mohammed Mostajo Radji is an Assistant Research Scientist at University of California Santa Cruz, where he leads a multi-disciplinary lab focusing on neuroscience and social impact, especially through cloud-controlled equipment, including microscopy. He is the Director of the UCSC Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Lab. In his work, he combines his interest in biotechnology, engineering, computer science, augmented reality and artificial intelligence, with his commitment to democratizing science be ensuring equal access and shared labs. He did his early studies in Bolivia, where he was born. He later went on to do his professional career in the USA, studying his undergraduate degree at Rochester Institute of Technology, his PhD at Harvard University, and his postdoc at UCSF. He created Clubes de Ciencia in Bolivia, and was one of the founders of the Braingeneering group in California. He has been the Bolivian Ambassador for Science, Technology and Innovation. Mohammed has received numerous accolades for his scientific and social work, including the Latin Maya Award, the Latino 30 under 30, and the Franz Tamayo Medal. 

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

I always knew I wanted to study something related to health, but I knew it wasn’t going to be Medicine. I found it too repetitive, and too linear: one treatment, one patient. I felt I wouldn’t have a major impact, and I realized I would probably feel frustrated. I was lucky that in 2006 (when I was 17 years old), I was chosen to be part of the Youth Science Leadership Institute – it’s an outreach program of the National Youth Science Academy that brings together students from each state in the USA as well as students from Latin America. It took place in West Virginia – it’s a 1 month-intensive course, where you’re speaking about science all day, and doing project-based practicals. There I met Holmes Morton, a geneticist who changed my life. I think this course, and this talk were pivotal in guiding my career up to this day. 

Mohammed is the founder of Clubes de Ciencia in Bolivia.

You have a career-long involvement in computer science, neuroscience and microscopy. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to choose these paths?  

After the course in West Virginia, I came back to Bolivia and started applying to Universities – I applied to study Biotechnology, because I wanted to be like the Geneticist I had just met. I got a scholarship to study my degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) – this institute had the longest history for the degree of Biotechnology. At the time I was also very much into Bioinformatics – which was another strength of RIT, so scientifically speaking I started gaining expertise in both areas together. Afterwards, I did my PhD in Molecular Biology at Harvard University and my postdoc at the University of California San Francisco. I always kept strong ties with Latin America, especially through the Science Clubs which I founded in Bolivia – Bolivia was the third country to implement it, after Mexico and Colombia. 

Regarding my interests, I am very versatile – I like a bit of everything: science, education, politics, engineering, everything. Regarding neuroscience, it was not a linear path: when I started my PhD I wanted to study any organ except the brain. It was by serendipity – by accident really – that I started working on neuroscience. I was researching a very specific question: do you need cell division to be able to reprogram a cell? There are only two types of cells in the body that don’t undergo cell division: cardiomyocytes and neurons. So that took me into neuroscience during my PhD. During my postdoc I worked on brain organoids. During the first few days of my postdoc, we created a consortium together with the University of California at Santa Cruz (while I was at University of California at San Francisco) called Braingeneers, combining brain, genetics and engineering. The idea was to combine these 3 fields to address unique questions about the human brain. The participant labs were distributed across both UCs. This is when we started creating the technology to do all experiments remotely, given the physical separation. Microscopy was the low hanging fruit. Among the 5 groups that came together in Braingeneers, I was the only postdoc at the beginning. I was involved in acquiring the funding that even now pays for my research. So everything came together very nicely. Microscopy allowed us to create low cost technology – we build 3D printed microscopes which cost, per camera, 84 USD, but they allow us to acquire z-stacks of tissue cultures in real time. We used it as proof of principle and then went on to explore doing electrophysiology and microfluidics remotely. The catalyst for developing this technology was the physical separation between the universities and the master mind behind it was Mircea Teodorescu, a professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Then we re-oriented this towards an education purpose during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first interactions we had with cloud-controlled microscopes in the classrooms were a disaster – we hadn’t considered the Internet-related issues or the different broadband in Latin America, as opposed to classrooms in the USA. We hadn’t expected this challenge so we were not prepared. We deployed this project in 7 Latin American countries simultaneously, so we had to address this issue urgently. As a group leader now, I find it vital that Latin American scientists are involved in this project, because they (we) understand the challenges best, and have experienced that reality. There are places in Latin American countries where the first challenge is to have access to the internet at all. The remote education we are doing is based on the same principles as the Science Clubs I mentioned earlier. In the past we used our own servers to upload images, and so imagine an average z-stack would consume all the monthly data plan of a student within minutes. With this feedback, we changed to do all the streaming via YouTube because they have already faced and solved this type of issue with low Internet signal: they compress resolution. So now we are generating new technology which goes to YouTube or Twitch. 

Mohammed is one of the founding members of Braingeneers, uniting 5 groups from the University of California at San Francisco and University of California at Santa Cruz.

Can you tell us a bit about what you have found uniquely positive about working as a researcher in Bolivia, from your education years?

I liked my time as a student in Latin America – I think that because of the fact that we have less resources, things are less structured. I learned the scientific method out of need as a very natural process. Now that I teach here in the USA, I feel it’s all very “cookie-cutter” – while access to very well-equipped labs is very good from a young age, I feel they have the freedom to discover and just explore and figure it out on their own. In Bolivia I had the opportunity to figure it out completely on my own: we had to present a project after 3 weeks in the lab and we had to figure it out some way or another. That’s the scientific method in action. Another thing I think is positive about studying in Latin America is that I learned a lot of social skills, which I now apply directly in science. There is a part of science that is done by networking – as the saying goes, some degree of science is done “with champagne”. It depends a lot on socializing and networking, and I think this comes natural in the Latin American culture. I feel this is one of the factors for the success of Latin American scientists when they come to the USA.

Mohammed at the microscope.

Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day as a group leader at University of California Santa Cruz?

My group is part of Braingeneers – involving 5 groups leaders in UCSC, and labs in UCSB, UCSF and WashU. At UCSC, we tend to share students among all 5 groups, according to the needs of the project, so we have altogether about 40 students. Right now, under my direct supervision I have 8 students (including graduate and undergraduate students). I don’t have any postdocs yet. In Santa Cruz it’s particularly difficult to hire postdocs because of the high cost of life – it’s very expensive, despite the lifestyle being that of a small town. So it’s difficult to target postdocs who either want to go to a big city (despite the cost), or those who want to go to a small town and reduce the living costs. Santa Cruz is prohibitive in both cases. Moreover, I’m a young PI – I just started one year ago. I am not yet on tenure track, so I still depend a lot on grants. I have students who focus mostly on education and outreach and students who focus 100% on lab work. So my day-to-day changes a lot. Sometimes I focus on discussing and figuring out with my group how to write grants for educational projects, for example last week I was holding discussions with a detention center that wants to implement remote learning and cloud-controlled microscopy in prisons – it’s something we had never thought about but we realized it’s a very important target group. Conversely, there are days when I only discuss and think about neuroscience. I share lab space with a professor whose expertise is electrical engineering. So, while my lab has everything that a molecular biology lab must have, because of it being shared with an engineering group, it means that within the same space we are doing tissue culture, and flying drones. This results in us all being constantly intellectually stimulated by the possibilities and very diverse range of areas of knowledge. One thing I’d love to do is that as the lab grows, I’d love to hire some researchers who focus solely on the social aspect: how to create better online communities?, how to apply sociology concepts to remote education?, – I’d like to hire people from computational media who can investigate how to create the best visualization and interaction tools for the experiments? Right now I’m working with Sri Kurniawan, a professor from computational media here at UCSC, we’re using augmented reality to process microscopy images. On the other side of the coin in my career, we’re trying to create organoids of different species and investigate differences in specialization given by different evolutionary paths. There’s a lot to think about! There’s a lot of variation from day to day 🙂

Mohammed and workshop participants and students at Clubes de Ciencia in Spain.

Specifically about your project on cloud microscopy, what do you envisage for the future of the project?

We are now at a stage where we have the technology we were aiming for, but we need more partners for beta-testing these technologies. Many of the good ideas we have implemented as the project progresses weren’t always driven by us, but by the community. I’ll give you an example: we have a project on glioblastoma which the students proposed altogether. What I would love is to start working more tightly with people in Latin America, and Latin Americans in the USA. To have a chance to diverge from the cookie cutter method, and give them a chance to really investigate their own questions. Another goal is to bring this technology to developing countries, regardless of region (it can be in Asia, Africa, Latin America, etc.), to give young students the chance to do experiments and see science in a way that perhaps would not have been possible otherwise- be this because such experiments are dangerous, or expensive or difficult in terms of logistics. My vision is that over the next 10 years we can have a true shared lab where as a researcher or student anywhere in the world, you can select the parameters you want to investigate and the experiment can be fully ran remotely. You can see the experiment running in real time and you can interact with the experiment using the augmented reality tools we are currently developing. We want to add a machine learning layer on top of that which allows you to do the analysis of the data you acquire. All would be integrated within a single protocol. That’s the long-term vision. In the short term, a main aim is to find partners who want to interact with us to remotely test the technology. I must point out that although I’d love to interact more with scientists in Latin America, I’ve faced a lot of resistance. There are researchers who understand the technology and see that the data they acquire through the use of the technology we provide is not “mine/ours”, but theirs. Others, however, feel that they lose ownership of their experiments and research questions if they are not physically present in their own lab or where the experiment is being ran. The idea of the technology we are developing is that it helps the scientific community, not have conflicts or doubts regarding intellectual ownership. I should point out, while we’re the only ones currently doing this type of project with a focus on education and microscopy, shared labs exist in other areas, for example neuroscience, agronomy, ecology -some of them have existed for a long time in fact. I don’t know why though, the environment in molecular and cell biology is not moving at the same pace as the technology being developed and what it’s allowing. It needs to catch up. Thinking of frugal microscopy, I should mention, a lot of the work we do is based on 3D printed microscope and off-the-shelf components – the camera of course is not 3D-printed as well as a few other elements. For tissue culture, the majority of components used for 3D printing, which are PLA-based, would melt at 37°C. As Mircea Teodorescu, the professor who created the Picroscope, pointed it out, they are basically made out of corn syrup. So he had the brilliant idea to strengthen these components with metal to keep them from melting. This brings me to another topic I think is important for the big picture:  sometimes I feel scientists everywhere in the world want to re-invent the wheel instead of collaborating with people who already have functioning equipment. This is true for the field of microscopy, where each lab wants change the prototypes, sometimes without a clear need to do so. Anyway, 3D printed microscopes are certainly something revolutionary, with an ever-growing number of applications. I know there’s a group in Cornell who developed a 3D-printed fluorescence microscope for calcium imaging. I think new technologies will continue to emerge- I’m looking very much forward. 

Have you had many opportunities to interact with other Latin American groups, outside of Bolivia?      

Yes, I have strong network with Colombia, and especially with the diaspora of Colombians living in the USA, which is very large. I feel Colombians keep very strong ties to their country. Many PhDs from Colombia come to the USA with fellowships such as Fullbright, so they go back afterwards and the connection remains both here and at home. Thanks to this we have managed to reach many universities in Colombia. Last month we did a shared-lab microscopy course running simultaneously in Universities in San Francisco, Colombia and Bolivia. The experiment was a model developed in San Francisco: a chimera of glioblastoma and macrophages. We studied how different Amazonian plants of Colombia and Bolivia affect macrophage activation in this model. We used the model and the substances and drugs of interest to each region. We created groups of students who interacted with one another and shared information in real time. This was the first time that the groups were fully integrated. This was unlike the work we presented in the paper, where although we joined 7 countries in Latin America, the groups were not interacting with one another in an integrated manner.

I think there’s lots of opportunities for science in Latin America. Bolivia and Paraguay either don’t have or only just started to build graduate programs. This results in a large diaspora of scientists who go abroad but then stay abroad to develop their careers. If you have to move constantly between countries, say, from BSc to PhD to postdoc, I guess there’s a high chance you’ll stay in the same place you did your postdoc, to establish yourself as a scientist. 

It’s easier to integrate Latin American scientists in Latin America than in the USA, because of the permits and legislation involved in the US. Interaction with students is very tightly regulated. In South America, while there are ethics committees regulating these interactions, they are less stringent and exhaustive than in the USA. So all the paperwork and permits might take 2-3 weeks in Latin America, and 6 months in the USA. Also, interacting with students younger than 18 years old requires a lot more paperwork in the USA. In Latin America, not so much. In the US you have first enquire with the University whether there are any students under 18, and if so it’s a whole different procedure to be able to teach. In Latin America, you’re considered a University student and that’s all that matters, pretty much regardless of your age. So these cultural differences manifest themselves in review boards. I think while the concept of consent form is not a problem at present, it will be in the future. Consent forms are currently only translated from one language to another, but they don’t undergo a cultural “adaptation” or fitting. This will have to be addressed for international science to become easier in the future.    

What challenges have you faced as a foreigner outside Bolivia?

I’m actually Bolivian-Iranian. My mom is Iranian. About challenges abroad, the first was language of course- I had to learn English and sign language simultaneously. The next challenge is funding: I’d say that the lack of grants for Latin Americans to establish themselves in the USA, and for foreigners to apply to US funding is a big deal. I’ve always been lucky to find a solution. But for example a foreigner in the USA cannot apply for NIH funding until they have at least a green card, and it is very hard to get a green card before you finish your PhD. Comparative to locals, it’s pretty late in your career until you are able to get your own funding. Nevertheless, there are foundations and funders who support the change of countries/continents, like the International Brain Research Organization for the field of neuroscience. Still, they don’t consider events such as someone doing their undergraduate degree in the USA. They only consider people who studied the undergraduate degree abroad and are contemplating to move to the USA for their next degree. Other grants are very small, and don’t cover even 1/3rd of the cost, so you still need funding from the USA. Another challenge is the schedule mismatch between funding acquisition in any country relative to the USA – so you’d need to give a reply to a funder before or after knowing the outcome of an application to US funding. So I’d say altogether this is a big challenge. 

Who are your scientific role models (both Bolivian and foreign)?

This is a very difficult question because I’ve learned to find role models who change with time. My role models are people who have created their own field from the interaction of two fields, and this interaction involves the science aspect, and the social aspect. For me this is key. This is also the role model I wish to be for the younger generation of students. 

Right now my role models come from various fields. Despite not having a direct link with him, Manu Prakash is one of them, due to the combination of skills he has, both in the scientific arena, as well as the social impact of his work. This is something rather uncommon in the scientific community. 

Also, now that I’ve entered the area of genomics, I see there’s a greater tendency to include a more diverse human population in genetic studies. I think people like Karen Miga and David Haussler working on the human pan-genome where the reference genome will have true representation of the human population, not just white Europeans. These scientists have been key for this work. From Latin America, Daniel Colón Ramos is a role model – he is one of the directors of the new Neuroscience Center at Yale, and he has done a lot of work for science in Puerto Rico, and creating the largest Latin American online scientific community outside of Latin America. 

I try to convey the importance of social impact to my students – yes, it’s important to focus on the science, but the big picture cannot be lost. I’m not saying we’re all going to cure malaria, but we can do something for the community such as projects to achieve equity in education. 

What is your opinion on gender balance in Bolivia, given current initiatives in the country to address this important issue. How has this impacted your career? 

When I led Science Clubs Bolivia, we dedicated one lecture each time on professional development.  One full day was dedicated to gender in science. We created a panel with scientists who were women and members of the LGBT+ community. We discussed the difficulties that each of them faced as both, Latin American scientists, and scientists in Latin America. This was not to discourage the students who attended, but rather for them to understand the realities of other genders. For example, I realized that students in Bolivia who were male and from a high socio-economic status had never asked themselves what the challenges of others might be. We now have data from polls we did amongst Bolivian students, whereby we asked them whether they thought there was a gender disparity in science, and many answered “No”. We asked also whether they though there was a racial disparity in science (for Latin Americans in specific) and they also answered “No”. These were students already in the 3rd year of their undergraduate degree. Through the panels and these open discussions we wanted to give everyone a reality check so that they have this in mind and consider it in their careers. In Science Clubs Bolivia we aimed at having equal gender representation, and socio-economic representation. Regarding country-specific initiatives that aim to address this gap, I think there are very few. And specific to science, well – there are countries in Latin America which are addressing the fact that science altogether, should be done. Although recently I read a paper by Silva et al speaking about gender in neuroscience in South America. One thing I’d love to see in Latin America and the USA, is better initiatives for motherhood and the scientific career. I see here in the USA that although the tenure process gives you an additional year for tenure if you had a child, this is limited. There are no options for child care for example. 

What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?

Two-photon microscopy is my favorite, because of the speed and penetration depth it can achieve. I think it achieves a good balance of both. But I fell in love with neuroscience when I used ultrasound-guided imaging and surgeries (it’s not microscopy per se, but still). I was able to see the developing brain and the heart beating – it’s like something out of a science fiction book. It’s difficult for me to choose between these two.      

What is the most extraordinary thing you have seen by microscopy? An eureka moment for you?

I worked on neural reprogramming in the adult brain. This was part of my PhD thesis. One day we went to the microscope and saw that neurons with over-expressed transcription factors had altered morphology and genetic markers, for me this was something extraordinary, like “wow, we did it”. It was an extraordinary feeling. 

What is an important piece of advice you would give to future Bolivian scientists? And those specializing as microscopists?

Don’t be afraid of inter-disciplinarity in science. Many times, I felt I didn’t belong to any particular area of science. I have been doing science but also social science, without being a social scientist. And I have published well in both sides of my research. At some point I wanted to suppress one of the areas, and I got depressed when I tried to do this because it’s part of my identity and what is important to me. For me the process of re-discovering that this inter-disciplinarity is part of me, and what I like to do, allowed me to re-shape my career as an academic, precisely playing to these strengths. I managed to overcome this initial depression and embrace the idea of creating my own field. I know that in Latin America, because of the way we are raised and taught, we have this inter-disciplinarity engrained, and sometimes the academic system forces you to suppress it. My piece of advice is don’t suppress it, but embrace it because it’s something unique. At the same time be careful to not get distracted. Being interdisciplinary is not the same as losing focus. 

Mohammed and hist group at Santa Cruz 🙂

Where do you see the future of science and microscopy heading over the next decade in Bolivia, and how do you hope to be part of this future? 

I’ll speak about Latin America in general rather than Bolivia in specific – for Bolivia I wish we can get a confocal microscope to start with. I’d love for Latin America to embrace things that are unique to us, in a way similar to what many African countries have done. For example, I was in Kenya a few months ago, and we were in a forum shared by the USA and Africa, and what I found impactful about the speakers is that they weren’t addressing the “usual” topics addressed by scientists in the Global North. They were, for example, addressing the diversity of fungi in Africa, and the talks were truly fascinating and unique – you realized you were listening to or speaking to the world-wide expert in the topic. There was no inferiority complex you sometimes see in other contexts.  

Until now I haven’t seen this in Latin America – there seems, rather, to be a trend to compete with the rest of the world, especially the Global North. We should “own it” – everything unique in Latin America. Bolivia for instance, has the most biodiverse region in the world, at Madidi National Park, which has the highest number of documented species in the world. We have very unique things such as the pink river dolphin, whose brain evolution is incredibly fascinating. In Central America, there are other interesting topics – for instance when weather is normalized, in countries like Costa Rica, which have access to both Oceans within a very short distance- this leads to different type of evolution. These topics are unique, there’s nowhere else in the world where any of this could be studied. My dream for instance, is to be able to bring cloud-controlled microscopy to sites like the Galapagos islands, Costa Rica, Panama, etc, and bring the wonders of these places, to the rest of the world in real time. 

Besides this, I learned another key lesson from working with African scientists: they centralize resources: there are resources that are available to the entire country – there are many African Centre for XYZ, and they often referred to African science. I think in Latin America we still refer to Brazilian science, or Bolivian science, or Argentinian science. I wish we could join strengths as a sub-continent, and think of the development of Latin American science, all together.   

Beyond science, what do you think makes Bolivia a special place to visit and go to as a scientist? 

Bolivia is the country with most official languages recognized by its constitution – 37. I find this fascinating. Moreover, you can go from the Amazonia to the Andes in less than one hour by plane, and see a complete change in biodiversity and species in this path. 

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Categories: Latin American Microscopists, Interviews

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