Interview with José Polo

Epigeneticist on searching for life’s secrets, distinguishing stem cell science from snake oil and pondering the perfect size for a university

December 24, 2020
Jose Polo, Monash University

José Polo is a stem cell scientist and epigeneticist at Monash University. In 2016, he helped to devise a method for reprogramming adult cells, in a breakthrough that could eliminate the need to rewind cells to their pluripotent or embryonic stage before using them to fight diseases. This year, he co-led a research team that discovered a way to create stem cells capable of generating placental tissue, opening doors to new ways of testing drugs for pregnancy complications.

Where and when were you born?
Buenos Aires, 1974.

How has that shaped you?
I always wanted to be a scientist. As a 12-year-old, I had a microscope that I used to study bugs in the garden. I would ask my mother to pierce her finger with a needle and give me droplets of blood so I could look at them under the microscope. An auntie was a biochemist and she probably had a big influence. When I was 18 or 19, I was trying to choose between philosophy and science. For me, biochemistry was where I could basically find out how life works. I was always fascinated by how life is built.

Some South American universities are notoriously huge. What was yours like?
The University of Buenos Aires is not the biggest in Argentina, but it’s very big. My faculty, pharmacy and biochemistry, was the smallest and it had about 1,000 or 1,500 students a year. There were other faculties with something like 30,000 students. It was very tough at Buenos Aires. People had a constitutional right to enter whatever courses they wanted, regardless of their marks at school. There was no entrance exam, and you didn’t pay one dollar to study there. But over the first two years, the level of dropout was something like 50 per cent. We had exams where just 5 per cent passed. After three or four years, of course, those 1,000 students were reduced to perhaps 250 – like in other places. But the quality of education I had there was really good. I felt extremely well prepared for my PhD.

Buenos Aires to Melbourne via New York and Boston – how did that happen?
At the end of 2001, when I had already started a PhD, Argentina was hit with one of its worst financial crises ever. My supervisor told me I should consider studying elsewhere. An opportunity came up at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, so I applied and got a scholarship. Then came a postdoc at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston. After three years, I was offered a position in Australia. My Australian wife was pregnant with twins. We decided it was a good time to live near her family, and Melbourne is a great environment for science.

Genomics has proven vital in tracking the spread of Covid-19. Do you see a similar role for stem cell science?
Definitely. The main use of pluripotent stem cells is for the generation of in vitro models of tissues – lung tissue, kidneys, blood, cardiac cells, neurons. We can create models of these tissues, infect them with the virus and use them to test drugs and to study what happens when these cells become infected. Stem cell science probably won’t contribute to vaccine development, but it will have a big role in antiviral treatments – particularly their initial screening. It shows how important it is to have well-grounded and well-developed basic science in a country. When it’s required, you can deploy it very quickly to solve problems.

Stem cell science has attracted some dodgy players, from dubious cosmetic surgeons to the Japanese researchers with their claims about astonishingly easily produced “STAP” stem cells. Does this worry you?
STAP was a very sad story. In every field, there will be people who make the wrong decisions due to egos, due to power, due to pressure. But it is clinicians’ application of bad science that worries me most. They build up the hopes of people who are in great need, with techniques that clearly don’t work. In some cases, what these people do is dangerous. The public begins to associate the whole field with this sort of behaviour. In Australia, we have people who are leading the fight against it.

You’ve experienced universities of many different sizes, from a massive Argentinian institution to small, elite US colleges and now Monash, which is between those extremes. What’s best?
My university in Argentina was a big equaliser, in every sense of the word. It was utterly free, and everybody could have success. But because there was no initial selection process, it was very difficult. You had to be very passionate and determined to perform well. Small universities like Harvard are very selective, and the quality of the students is superb. You can keep track of the students and the quality of their research. Monash is a good size – it’s big, but people still know each other.

What do you like about working in Australia?
It’s really cosmopolitan. I see students from all around the world. It’s a real advantage of Australian universities. Meeting people from very different places with different ways of thinking enriches your experience. The other thing is how collegial the professors and researchers are. By default, we do it by collaboration, not competition. I’m a big believer that science should be done by collaboration.

What don’t you like about Australian higher education?
Research requires more money from the government. I’m not an economist or a politician, but the grant success rate is really low – we’re talking less than 10 per cent. Great science is not being done because of the low success rate, and it is very difficult to form a long-term vision. Excellent and innovative science is a long race, not a sprint.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what would you do?
Triple the education budget.


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Rachel Fernandez has been appointed associate vice-president for research and innovation at the University of British Columbia. She is currently a professor in UBC’s department of microbiology and immunology.

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