Postdoc spotlight: Justin Findinier

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Josh Findinier is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Carnegie's Biosphere Sciences & Engineering division.
Justin Findinier

What is the coolest thing you’ve worked on so far in your career?

I work in Arthur Grossman’s lab and my work centers on microalgae’s ability to adapt to the lack of carbon dioxide in its native environment, which is water. Carbon dioxide is less available in aquatic environments, and yet through a striking rearrangement within cells, microalgae have developed a special mechanism to concentrate and absorb CO2, which fuels photosynthesis. I am trying to understand how this mechanism works.

Did you always think you would be a scientist?

I’ve always been very curious about nature and my surroundings. From a young age I was very alert to my environment, which is ultimately why I became a scientist. My original goal, though, was to be a veterinarian because I loved animals. I grew up in the countryside in France and was always surrounded by dogs, cows, and ducks, so in university I initially followed that path. But before I finished my undergrad, I did an internship in a lab where I worked on bacteria that infected potatoes and I was trying to figure out what genes were causing the infection. Then, six months later I did a second internship with the same person, but at a different lab, where I started working on microalgae and that’s really when I developed a taste for research and the course of my career changed.

Who is your “Science Superhero?”

The closest thing to my “Science Superhero” is Arthur Grossman, my current supervisor at Carnegie. 

Do you have a favorite photosynthetic organism and why?

My field is really split between land plants and microorganisms and I clearly have a preference for microorganisms. They are so much more convenient to work with and it’s always fascinating to see how they adapt because they are in a contained environment, so they have to adapt to their existing conditions. I will say I have a favorite organelle, which is a sub-compartment within the cells, and that’s the mitochondrion. Mitochondria have tremendous structural diversity and plasticity, presumably always tailored functionally, which I found fascinating.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your career so far and how did you address them?

Personally, one of the most difficult things for me is writing about my work. In science, you do your studies and experiments and once you have a compelling set of results, the next step is to write and publish those results. My endless curiosity gets in the way of the writing because there is always one more thing in my research to investigate; it’s really difficult for me to step away from the lab and sit down to capture my findings in writing. I’m more attracted to the bench work, meaning I prefer the “doing” instead of writing about it. Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution to address this challenge. Ultimately, I just have to set my own deadlines. I will say that as much as it’s not my favorite thing, there is a lot of benefit to writing about my work because it allows me to step back from what I’ve been doing and get a new perspective, which often leads to more ideas. So, I guess it’s a Catch-22 because whenever I’m writing I start thinking about other experiments that make me want to step away from the keyboard and go back to the lab. I’m lucky because Arthur gives me a lot of freedom to explore anything I want to, so it’s really up to me to set deadlines, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to share my work.

Justin Findinier

There is a lot of benefit to writing about my work because it allows me to step back from what I’ve been doing and get a new perspective, which often leads to more ideas. 

What advice would you give to graduate students and others who are just starting their scientific careers?

One of the most important things is to know how to sell yourself and your research. I think it’s really important to build skills that allow you to present your work in a compelling way that conveys your own enthusiasm and also sparks interest from your colleagues and the community. Anyone can do cool research as a postdoc—all you have to do is pitch your idea to one person and get a green light. But it’s really important to be able to present your work outside the lab. If building a network and talking in a public forum about your work is not something that comes naturally to you, it’s important that you work on that as early as possible. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself at a disadvantage.

What do you think is the most exciting research direction happening in your field right now? And, looking 10 years ahead, what future development do you think will have the greatest impact on your field?

One of the ultimate goals of any research in the photosynthetic field is to increase the yield of crops. And right now, there is a lot of effort to take what we are learning about microalgae’s carbon dioxide-concentrating mechanism and apply it to improving agricultural yield. We’re not there yet; we don’t have a strong enough understanding of how algae maintain this carbon dioxide-concentrating function, but it’s a really exciting thing to work on and is a hot area of research in my field. Eventually when we do get there it will have an enormous global impact. It will increase agricultural productivity, help address world hunger, and much more.

Why did you decide to do a postdoctoral position at Carnegie?

I came to Carnegie for both personal and professional reasons. Throughout my years of research, I came across a lot of Arthur’s work and I always found it very inspirational, and it was clear that he was a great mentor. Then, I actually had the privilege to get to know him while he was on a six-month sabbatical in Paris, where I was a postdoc. A year before that, I met in Paris my now wife who's American and was looking to start grad school back in the U.S. I was very lucky that she decided on Stanford—where Arthur’s lab is located. So, it all worked out perfectly.

What has your experience at Carnegie meant to you?

What I enjoy the most about working at Carnegie is the freedom I get to explore whatever I want related to microalgae. It’s not something you find in a lot of labs. In Europe a lot of the research is very project-driven and you don’t have the freedom to explore anything outside your current project. At Carnegie, they give all the staff scientists money to explore anything they want. I’ve benefited greatly from that over the last five years. It’s also great to have Arthur as a boss. He’s very hands-off, not a micromanager—he really lets me do my thing. At the same time, he has been in the field for many years and has a lot of experience, so I can benefit from his wisdom. Also, he’s at a stage in his career where he is very well established and deeply respected, so he doesn’t have to worry anymore about building his reputation. This gives him the freedom to explore virtually anything that interests him, even if it leads to nothing. So, it’s a very open, exciting environment to work in.