Moeez Ahmad Khan, a Ph.D. student in the UK, is a genetic researcher currently working to eliminate malaria by genetic manipulation of mosquitoes. He holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular genetics from King’s College London, UK, and a master’s degree in synthetic biology from University College London, UK. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the Pirbright Institute. In this interview, we asked Moeez Khan about his research work, his inspiration for a career in synthetic biology, the importance of science communication, and his experiences as a Pakistan student in the United Kingdom.

Spectra: Please give a brief introduction about what you are currently doing in your academic life.

Moeez Khan: Currently, I am in the second year of my Ph.D. in mosquito gene drives. Now before you start scratching your head let me tell you that the term “gene drive” is quite easy to understand!

You see, we all know that you get 50 percent of your genetic code from your mother and 50 percent from your father. So, in theory, half of your genes come from each parent. But in nature, some ‘selfish genes’ can break this rule and take over an entire population very quickly.

Now, imagine if I could make my own ‘synthetic gene drive’. Maybe a selfish ‘anti-malaria gene’ that spreads into the entire world’s mosquito population in a matter of months. Something like that could eliminate malaria from this world!

But you see, the strength of gene drives is also their biggest weakness. What would happen if Pakistan released an anti-dengue gene drive within its borders but the gene drive spread to India too? How would the two countries react? Do you see the issue? Our current world order just isn’t ready for this level of global environmental modification.

My job is to solve this problem. And so, I am working on a kind of mosquito gene drive that can be designed to spread in a limited geographical region.

Completing a bachelor’s degree in STEM is quite a challenge in itself. What inspired you to take a step further and pursue a Ph.D.?

STEM can certainly be challenging. After my bachelor’s in molecular genetics, there was a moment in my life when I thought about not being a scientist. I think I started science with the best of intentions, but the competition, the anxiety, the structure of academia, all of that can sometimes suck the joy out of it.
But I think one of the few things that saved me was science communication! I joined this organization called Science Fuse completely by chance and, through it, witnessed the incredible curiosity and wonder that gets kids interested in science. I think those kids rekindled some of that curiosity in me too and thus, I decided to give science another try and pursue a postgraduate degree.   

What were some of your expectations about grad school and how many of them turned out to be true/false?

I think, subconsciously, I did not expect to have the level of independence I’ve been given in grad school. The research project is truly yours, which means that the responsibility regarding whether it succeeds is yours too. It is both an exciting and terrifying realization.

I also didn’t expect to have my patience tested to this high an extent. It takes grit to be able to maintain one’s motivation after hundreds of ‘failed’ experiments and several weeks of not generating any data!

That leads me to my third point: I expected the most intelligent students to be the ones that are most successful at grad school but now I think they are the ones who have the most grit (or both)!

The UCL lab where scientists engineer microbes to do their bidding.Image Courtesy: Moeez Khan

Why do you want to work with mosquitoes? How did you get involved in this work? And what makes you excited about working on this project? It’s really unique!

I always knew I wanted a Ph.D. where I could use my synthetic biology skillset to solve the biggest problems that the world faces; mosquito-borne diseases are a massive problem just waiting to be solved!

You see, most people don’t realize this, but mosquitoes are the most dangerous animals on the planet. More people die of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue than by shark attacks, snake bites, or any form of human violence. In fact, one child dies of malaria every 2 minutes! What’s worse is that most of these deaths occur in poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. And the mainstream media thinks that the poverty of these countries implies that their problems are not worth talking about!
When I first learned about all this, I felt a bit of rage and I really wanted to help. At the same time, there was an exciting technology called a gene drive that gave us this God-like ability to alter our shared ecosystems on a massive scale. So, in some ways, this Ph.D. paired my wish to help humanity with my passion for synthetic biology, which is why I decided to pursue it.

What do you find exciting about synthetic biology? What do you think about the future of synthetic biology applications?

I find the interdisciplinary nature of synthetic biology extremely exciting. Most of the field pairs conventional molecular biology techniques with computer science, mathematics and physics and I’ve always been a bit of an interdisciplinarian, so I quite enjoy it.

I think what we call ‘synthetic biology’ is really this mindset that ‘I can solve the world’s problems by engineering biology’ and I think it is this mindset that is going to help us achieve some of humanity’s most ambitious goals like reducing carbon emissions, ensuring food security and improving global health.

Already, synthetic biology (synbio) companies are making renewable fuels from photosynthetic algae, synthetic biologists are working on engineering bacteria that can ‘eat away’ the plastic found in our oceans, and others are even trying to create synthetic living cells from scratch. I even met a few students recently who were engineering microorganisms that could make vitamin juice for astronauts in the International Space Station!

A lot of synbio companies are doing quite well for themselves. And governments (most notably the US) are increasing funding in synthetic biology research. So, I think the future synthetic biology is helping us build (which admittedly, feels a lot like a sci-fi movie) is quite exciting. And wouldn’t it be cool to be a part of that future?!

What were some of the initial challenges that you encountered when you moved to the UK? And how did you cope with them?

My biggest challenge was the dreaded visa which was delayed by 2 months so I essentially missed all my opportunities to socialize and had to catch up to the syllabus I had missed.

I also didn’t have any family based in London. The initial loneliness was a problem of course, but the issue of navigating this new education system in a foreign country was even bigger. I struggled to maintain good mental health too. In Pakistan, I had a support system, but it was absent in the UK and there was always this nagging feeling I had about being a migrant (whatever that means).

To be entirely honest, I’d be lying if I said I’ve solved all these problems. But I did learn to cope with them. For example, I forced myself to partake in extracurriculars and talk to people. I even entered my university’s kabaddi team and volunteered in student politics. And as a result, I found some lifelong friends.

Hoping to reach new heights in academia after graduation. Image Courtesy: Moeez Khan


What factors, other than academics, should one consider before applying to a Ph.D. program?

Think about why you want to do a Ph.D. in the first place? Is it because you’re not sure what to do with your life so you might as well do a Ph.D.? Also, is it the right time in your life to be doing a Ph.D.? Think about what impact the amount of work a Ph.D. demands will have on your mental health. Are you in a position to live on a student’s stipend for 3 to 6 years? Have you heard about the lab you’re applying to from someone else? Are the people in the lab nice human beings? All those are important considerations.

There is a general perception that scientists, especially PhD students, are quite loners. How difficult it is to manage an active social life with studies?

The thing with a Ph.D. is that you get as much out of it as you put in. So you get to choose how much time you want to put into your Ph.D. And if being a ‘loner’ who is committed to nothing else but science makes you happy, then so be it!

I personally like to do a few things outside of science too (in fact my supervisor actively suggests that I find new hobbies). Most recently, I have begun organizing an online Urdu reading group with some like-minded people and it’s a lot of fun!

I know a successful Ph.D. student who is also a massive meathead that loves weight lifting and another one I know is a tattooed Italian who enjoys going to rock concerts.

At the end of the day, it’s just about figuring out what work-life balance you’re comfortable with and prioritizing and planning your time beforehand.
  

What do you think about how the life of Ph.D. students have been affected because of COVID-19?

I think most students have been negatively affected. Most of my colleagues have had to apply for extensions but not all have been that lucky. In some cases, international students had to stay back home and others had to completely change their project from lab-based to theoretical or computational.

I’ve been relatively lucky since my institute was open throughout most of the quarantine. However, the social distancing meant that I couldn’t meet my colleagues in person very often and that certainly took a toll on me too.

But I and my fellow PhDs have found ways of coping. We started an online journal club where we could get together and nerd out over new synthetic biology research that gets published — we have a lot of fun!

Who are some people in science, or in general, that you look up to for inspiration?

There are so many! Most notably Dr. Abdus Salam. I think he is criminally underappreciated as Pakistan’s only Physics Nobel Laureate. 

Interestingly, I’ve found inspiration in a lot of my female mentors too. They have taught me commitment and scientific integrity and the excitement with which they discuss my quirky scientific ideas with me is infectious!

Outside of science, I have found inspiration in my parents. My father taught me the importance of devoting my life to benefiting humanity and my mother taught me resilience.

And then, of course, there are all the passionate science communicators I’ve worked with, most importantly Lalah Rukh, whose devotion to her work is breathtaking!

You are also working as a content developer and science communicator for Science Fuse. Tell us more about it. Why do you think public awareness and public engagement of science is necessary, and what is holding us back?

Ah! Joining Science Fuse was perhaps the luckiest coincidence in my life. The organization is aimed at promoting science literacy amongst kids in Pakistan. SF teaches kids how they can learn about science outside of school and have fun at the same time.

Of all our projects, I’m most excited about our Science Podcasts and stories written and narrated in Urdu and English by people from all walks of life. A while back, these stories were aired on a government radio channel in Gilgit-Baltistan. That was a particularly proud moment for me.

As for why public awareness of science is necessary, I think Salam said it best:

Scientific thought and its creation are the common and shared heritage of mankind.”

Dr. Abdus Salam

We are all affected by the scientific enterprise. Be it the science of COVID vaccinations or nuclear power that generates our electricity. So, it makes sense for people to know about something that affects their life so deeply.

Also, scientifically literate people make better decisions. They cannot be duped by a scammer claiming to have made a car that runs on water. And public engagement is good for scientists too! We, scientists, tend to isolate ourselves in our little ivory towers. By interacting with the public, scientists gain new perspectives on their own research.

As for what is holding us back, I think the government could invest more in science popularization. The current government has taken some minor steps in this regard, but I have seen private entities making more impact. Of course, the private realm has its own problems. There is a lot of inner politics, superficial projects that do not produce any real impact, lack of cooperation, etc. But there are also some incredible people on both sides, and I see some real progress. The government recently set up a science diplomacy wing and there are organizations like SF, PAMS, PSC, Exploration, KSS, and you guys. So, I’m mostly optimistic.

Moeez communicating the science of fire at the Children’s Literary Festival. Image Credit: Moeez Khan

What are your thoughts on research culture in Pakistan? What changes need to be made here in order to do meaningful research?

I think the primary concern for a lot of young researchers thinking about working in Pakistan is lab politics. It seems to me that we tend to see PIs as these authority figures whose favor students, postdocs, and technicians are trying to obtain. And that creates this slightly toxic culture. I think what we need is to replace that authoritarian culture with a more egalitarian one.

The other issue is the quality assurance criteria of our academic publications. Academics are judged by the number of their publications rather than the qualitative impact that their work has produced in the field. To some extent, this is a worldwide problem but in Pakistan, HEC’s incentivization structure exacerbates the issue. I think that HEC needs to reconsider how it incentivizes academic progress if we are to fix this.

Now those are all the issues. But there are a lot of good things happening too! We have some incredibly talented and passionate students in Pakistan and some very cool engineering and computer science schools like NUST, FAST, and LUMS. Most of these universities also have life sciences programs so there is a lot of potential for collaborative work at the interface of these fields. Just last year I was talking to ahead of the department who wanted to start a master’s program in synthetic biology! The current government has also allocated funds for partnerships between academia and industry which is great to see.

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