Alexander G. Beristain is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine. He received his Ph.D. (Reproductive and Developmental Sciences) from UBC Dept of OBGYN in 2007, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Rama Khokha at the Ontario Cancer Institute in 2012. He holds a New Investigator research grant from Sick Kids Foundation and John R Evans Leaders Award from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. He is also a Principal Investigator on research grants from CIHR, NSERC and BCCHR as well as a Co Investigator on a NIH grant with Wendy Robinson.
What is your day job?
I’m a researcher that is interested in how a mother’s immune system works in pregnancy. At the moment that means I am doing a lot of grant writing, supervising students, doing academic service (for UBC and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute), as well as being in the lab doing experiments.
What is your primary research focus?
My research involves immunology and placental biology. The focus of my research is to understand maternal immune function in pregnancy – specifically what allows tolerance (normal pregnancy development to term) and what causes intolerance (miscarriage, and pregnancy complications such as growth restriction, pre-term birth or pre-eclampsia).
What drew you to the subject?
As a graduate student I studied placental biology here, with Dr Colin MacCalman who passed away in 2011. I did my Postdoctoral work in Toronto on tumour stem cells in the mammary gland. It struck me how similar a tumour is to the placenta – both grow quickly, both require the development of many blood vessels and perfusion, and both evade the host’s immune system. One of course is pathological and causes disease and the other is essential to the development of a healthy, normal pregnancy. This made me want to understand maternal immune function in the context of pregnancy and the cellular mechanisms that drive placental development and function.
What do you find are the biggest challenges in pursuing research?
Money – Basic, discovery science is expensive and the current funding climate is challenging. I have been lucky so far, and I am focussed on maintaining my lab and my research.
Time – A full time academic appointment comes with many commitments. Many of the commitments are also part of the perks of the job – such as meeting people at scientific conferences that turn into meaningful collaborations, or sitting on an NSERC review committee that enables me stay connected with the basic cell biology field or sitting on a BCCHR student awards committee that allows me to see the amazing work that our students are doing. These commitments mean I spend less time in the lab and doing experiments, which is part of what drew me to this field, so the universal challenge is …
Finding balance – to focus the funds you have to do the work that you want to and to make time for the work that you want to do.
How do you ensure that you do get your own projects done?
It is about prioritization and timing activities with grant cycles and other cycles or review to demonstrate productivity. I’ve also established a dynamic in my lab that is similar to what I experienced in my postdoc supervisor’s lab in Toronto. That is that the entire lab functions as a team, able to divert resources and time to a particular project requiring that extra injection of productivity. For example, if we receive a decision from a submitted manuscript requiring a significant amount of experimental revisions, I’ll partition the workload amongst all members of the lab so as to increase the chances of being accepted and to improve the timeliness for re-submission. All benefit!
What are the greatest supports for your research?
I have two core collaborations that have really helped my research – Wendy Robinson at BCCHR and Julian Christian from SFU. We have shared interests and work really well together. Wendy is interested in the bigger genetic picture in pregnancy and Julian is focussed on the developmental biology of the placenta. Our interests and foci mesh well together and we have been successful in obtaining funding (NIH ROI with Wendy and Healthy Starts Catalyst Grant with Julian).
The BCCHR is also a great environment to work in! The core facilities and infrastructure, such as the Biobank and Flow Cytometry, are essential to basic lab and discovery science. Also there are good opportunities for mentorship and support. For example the Healthy Starts Developmental Origins of Disease group is hosting a brain-storming session for grant development. Not to critique or pull apart your grant to but discuss your idea and brain-storm ways to develop and strengthen it for a future grant submission.
The department of OBGYN has also been very supportive – the department head and MFM division head are both supportive of me and my work. The senior basic scientists in the department have also been very welcoming.
You’ve been successful in obtaining for funding for your research- what advice would you give to others?
The current climate is difficult. It is important to apply to as many opportunities as possible and diversify the places that you apply to. Even so, make sure that you have a mature and well put together story that demonstrates feasibility. And don’t take rejection personally! Be humble, the reviewers’ comments can allow you to develop a better grant and to become a better scientist.
What are your future plans and goals? What would you like your research to achieve?
In the big picture I want to understand how mom derived factors in pregnancy control placental development and how these contribute to a healthy pregnancy. Right now, I am looking at obesity. We have demonstrated that obesity modifies immune function – I want to understand what causes these changes; what is instructing these changes to occur at a cellular level. Once we understand that, there is potential for therapeutic modalities – not only in the context of obesity but for any chronic condition that causes inflammation and altered immune responses. I want my research to provide the knowledge that leads to therapeutics that help women who are at risk of having a poor pregnancy outcome.
When you aren’t busy being a researcher – what do you do?
I play squash, hang out with my wife, and go hiking with our dog. Lately I have been working a lot on home renovation projects.
If you weren’t doing the work that you’re currently doing, what career would you pick?
I honestly don’t know; I’d probably consider getting into politics and science policy. For nearly everything in our lives that we depend on there is a serendipitous basic science discovery behind it. Yet investment in basic discovery science has not been as well supported as applied research in recent years. A better balance needs to be struck in terms of public investment and public support of discovery science, and having an opportunity to demonstrate this at a policy level would be challenging and rewarding.