Dr. Cesar de la Fuente is a Presidential Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He leads the Machine Biology group, which aims to expand nature’s antibiotic repertoire through the development of computer-made tools and therapies. His laboratory is based in the Department of Bioengineering and the Departments of Microbiology and Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine. With over 70 peer-reviewed publications and multiple patents, his main goal is to develop novel synthetic molecules combining diverse disciplines, to tackle a wide range of global biomedical problems, such as antibiotic resistance. He was named a Boston Latino 30 Under 30, a Top MIT Technology Review Innovator Under 35, a 2018 Wunderking by STAT News, and a Top 10 Under 40 by GEN. He was recognized by MIT Technology Review in 2019 as one of the world’s top innovators and was honored with the 2019 Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Young Investigator Award and the 2019 Langer Prize.
SoLS Corresponding Editor, Dr. Alba Timon-Gomez, Postdoc at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, spoke to Dr. de la Fuente.These are the excerpts:
AT: What inspired you to choose your current research line? Were you always interested in it or was it something more gradual?
CF: I think I was always interested in it, but it was a gradual process. Even before my PhD, I became fascinated by bacteria, these minute organisms that are incredibly good at adapting and surviving. I became interested in learning how they communicate to each other, share resources, etc. And finally, I became interested in how they become harmful to human beings. This led me to try to design molecules to target disease-causing microbes. However, it is essential to understand molecules very well to be able to design them. That is why I started incorporating concepts and principles from other disciplines such as computer science to comprehend them and, during my stay in MIT, I tried to combine diverse disciplines, such as synthetic biology and computational biology, to generate these novel molecules and techniques. With this interdisciplinary background in bioengineering, microbiology, synthetic biology and computer science I try right now to create in silico molecules to target harmful bacteria that are currently untreatable.
AT: For someone who does not know your lab, which scientific publication would you select as the most representative one? Why?
CF: I think I would choose the one in 2018, in which we built new antibiotics using computers. Basically, we took inspiration from molecules present in nature and we taught the computer how to evolve them. Then, using different algorithms, the computer was able to mutate molecules mimicking their evolution to create new synthetic variants. Once we had them, we could synthesize them, prove that they were active molecules, and try them in vitro and in mouse models. It was a beautiful project.
AT: Did you dream of becoming a scientist when you were growing up?
CF: Yes, I have been always very curious about the world, biology, human mind… and interested in how everything works. By learning some concepts, I quickly understood how complex it all is. Elucidating part of this complexity is a huge motivation. There is so much to learn.
AT: During your scientific career (grad school, postdoc…), had there been any instances when you suddenly had qualms about your chosen path? If so, could you recall what triggered that self-doubt and how you handled it?
CF: I always knew I wanted to do research. I love that every day is somewhat different. There is not much monotony. I devote my mind and my time to try to solve problems which I think are important. This is a privilege. I was lucky to be able to do research and I have always appreciated the freedom you get in Academia. There are, of course, lots of doubts along the way. In research we always venture into the unknown and this is a process full of doubts and questioning.
AT: As a group leader, do you still do bench research? If not, do you miss it? Or would you rather have transitioned into your current position and interests sooner?
CF: I like my current position, but I do miss bench research. I do less and less, because I do not have enough time to get involved. However, I love talking to team members to see how experiments are going and to provide feedback.
AT: What is the most important feature for you to have a good relationship trainee/mentor?
CF: Honesty, it is the key. Building trust is essential. Then, I always look to recruit individuals that think differently, are passionate, creative, driven and get along with others.
AT: Would you like to provide a motivational sentence that graduate students and postdocs can print out and post at their bench?
CF: I have two of them. One from Steve Jobs: Stay hungry, stay foolish. But I think the most important one would be: Find what you are passionate about. Everything else comes later. So, do not be scared of entering into new fields or trying new ideas.