Our interviewee today is Martin Toul, a Postdoctoral Researcher from the Loschmidt Laboratories at Masaryk University Brno, Czech Republic; and VIB-UGent, Belgium. Martin is a founding member of the ČSBMB Junior, the Junior section of the Czech Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ČSBMB), a FEBS Constituent Society.
What motivated you to pursue a career in science? Why did you choose this field?
Already as a child, I was excited about exploring and trying to figure out how things around me work, which is the basis of scientific work, in my opinion. Since this curiosity stayed with me during my school years, it was pretty clear I wanted to keep exploring and do research. I became fond of my elder sister’s chemistry notes long before my first chemistry class, and I immediately fell in love with the formulas and equations. When selecting the right field for my university studies, I saw a higher potential in connecting chemistry with life sciences, which is why I pursued my degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and moved to the field of proteins and biocatalysis.
Briefly introduce your research topic. What is the purpose of your research?
Our research group is focused on protein engineering, meaning we modify sequences of existing proteins to improve their properties, such as thermal stabilities, solubilities, or enzymatic activities, for their practical application. I am mainly focused on the detailed kinetic characterization of proteins, allowing the identification of their biggest limitations. Thanks to that, the process of engineering is not 'blind' but more targeted to specifically remove the unraveled limitations, increasing the success of protein improvement. Specifically, I am involved in designing (i) new and more effective thrombolytic proteins used as drugs for treating ischemic stroke and myocardial infarction and (ii) improved luciferases capable of bioluminescence used in diagnostic kits and potentially as alternative eco-friendly light sources.
What excites you most about your work or research?
I am super excited about how many new things we can still learn about all the objects directly surrounding us and how nature could generate such creative mechanisms during evolution just by the trial-and-error method. Discovering the molecular basis of living organisms and later using the knowledge for our own benefit is so exciting!
Among all the scientific discoveries of all time, which is your favorite? Why?
The process of revealing a detailed molecular mechanism of the luciferase enzyme was probably my favorite project to work on. It is mainly because it required very creative thinking, applying custom experimental methods and strategies, not just standardized approaches. It was so much fun working highly creatively and unraveling the mechanism step by step, nearly as solving a mystery puzzle or a criminal case. Furthermore, luciferases are bioluminescent enzymes, so you can watch amazing colorful flashes of light every time you work with them, which makes it even more fun! I believe that the results of this project will also lead to the development of modified luciferases that could be used in modern diagnostic kits or, hopefully, even instead of light bulbs in the future.
What do you do as a scientist to make your work interesting and accessible to the public?
I regularly participate in science popularization events (e.g., European Researchers’ Night or Brain Awareness Week), and I joined several TV and radio interviews to deliver the results of our research to a broad public and emphasize the importance of our work. I also assist with organizing public events and summer schools for young students to support and develop their interest in science and grow a new generation of young researchers.
What do you like to do in your spare time? Do you have hobbies?
There are so many interesting things to do out there, so it is always very difficult to select only those activities I can find time for. Currently, I am enjoying mainly snowboarding, photographing, hiking, and ballroom dancing with my partner. I also like spending my free time with my friends, family, or our family dog.
How did you learn about the FEBS Junior Section? What motivated you to become a member?
I got into close contact with our national society (Czech Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology – CSBMB), which was already considering founding a junior section at the national level to increase the interest of young life scientists in the society and to extend their portfolio of activities. At that time, the FEBS Junior Section reached out to expand the number of countries involved in this initiative so it was a perfect time to establish ‘CSBMB Junior’ and become part of the FEBS Junior Section.
What is the importance of getting involved in FEBS Junior Section activities for students and young scientists?
There are multiple benefits of getting involved in FEBS Junior Section and national societies. First of all, joining monthly talks organized by the FEBS Junior Section is a perfect chance to broaden your overview of scientific problems and gain an interdisciplinarity mind. It is also a unique opportunity to meet like-minded peers and extend the network of possible future collaborators, colleagues, and/or friends. Furthermore, being part of FEBS comes with many possibilities, including options to apply for various travel grants and bursaries or attend specific events for young researchers (e.g., the FEBS Young Scientists' Forum).
What advice would you give to aspiring students and scientists?
If you are passionate about science, just keep doing what you love, don’t give up, and never forget why you started a project (or your studies) and what you liked about life sciences. It is often easy to get frustrated when things do not work as we would like, but this is basically the essence of scientific work. However, once everything finally fits together and you reach the desired discovery, that victorious feeling is irreplaceable. Our society needs more passionate scientists so don’t forget to enjoy what you do and have fun!
Where do you see your career going next?
I have recently finished my PhD so I am moving abroad for a postdoc position to join a group at the VIB Center for Inflammation Research (IRC) in Ghent in a couple of months. So far, I enjoy working in the academic environment, so I would like to later return back to my home country, ideally establish my own research group, and become an independent principal investigator.