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Postdoc Spotlight: Adnan Syed

Postdoc Spotlight: Adnan Syed

Postdoc Adnan Syed of the Losick Lab is community-oriented in his approach to academic life, as well as in his research on bacterial biofilms. He is a founding member of the Harvard’s FAS Postdoctoral Association (FASPDA) and became one of the first postdocs to co-lead the Harvard Microbial Sciences Initiative (MSI) in 2018. His efforts to foster communities both within and between departments have led to awards recognition and an appointment to the Board of Tutors in Biochemistry. Now, Adnan is shifting gears toward a career in industry by joining the startup Wild Microbes.

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Adnan had an interest in experimenting from a young age. His parents remember him mixing together leftover foods to see what would happen, showing a curiosity that prompted his mom to wonder if her son would become a chemist. Instead, biology was the subject that most captured Adnan’s interest in high school and college at Eastern Michigan University. At the time, Adnan was very interested in plants’ potential to produce biofuels, which many people saw as a promising path towards sustainability. This fascination prompted Adnan to spend a summer at Michigan State University studying plants. He followed up with undergraduate research looking into the ways plant cells coordinate the synthesis of polysaccharides in their cell walls.

However, Adnan does recall a fateful day in an undergraduate microbiology class, when he learned that many microbes grow in community structures called biofilms. Biofilms constitute entire ecological systems, complete with bustling nutrient exchange economies and internal protection from rival microorganisms. “I’m fascinated by these ‘simple’ organisms that don’t communicate as we do, and yet their interactions seem just as complex,” Adnan says. “These bacteria and other microorganisms can coordinate behaviors, they can talk to each other, they can move together, they can move away from each other, they can recognize each other and then decide whether or not to separate; they can do all kinds of amazing things.”

Adnan pursued biofilms during graduate school at The University of Michigan. His thesis was an open-ended exploration of Staphylococcus aureus. Adnan recalls, “When I started in the biofilm field, there were so many unanswered questions, and luckily I had an adviser, who was like, ‘Go answer as many of them as you want!’” Many of Adnan’s graduate school projects were collaborative efforts. By teaming up with environmental engineers, Adnan was able to show that the once widely-used antimicrobial triclosan encourages the growth of S. aureus biofilms by enabling the bacteria to attach to surfaces. “We found that low levels of triclosan were absorbed into the human body and present in nasal secretions, and those low levels of antimicrobials actually promoted biofilm formation or attachment of the cells to surfaces,” Adnan explains.

For his postdoctoral work, Adnan’s interest in probing the genetic underpinnings of biofilm formation led him to the Losick Lab. MCB faculty member Richard Losick is well-known for his work on the genetics of Bacillus subtilis, and his lab was starting to branch out when Adnan arrived in 2016. “Having spent almost all of my career studying a humble and harmless soil bacterium (Bacillus subtilis), I switched direction in the final phase to tackle a human pathogen (Staphylococcus aureus) but with Adnan, a expert on this bacterium, at the helm,” Losick says. “His thinking and experiments uncovered a previously unknown pathway that explains how cells of the pathogen congregate in multicellular communities known as biofilms.”

Reflecting on Adnan’s time at Harvard, Losick adds, “As I close my laboratory in the coming months, I do so feeling privileged to have Adnan close the book on the final chapter of my research. Adnan is an outstanding microbiologist.”

Besides his scientific curiosity, Adnan was always interested and engaged in building communities, so when he arrived at Harvard in 2016, one of his first meetings was with MCB Scientific Director Polina Kehayova. Adnan says, “During that meeting I asked her, ‘How do I get involved with the postdoc association?’ “Polina responded with, ‘There’s no postdoc association.’ Surprised Adnan responded, ‘How is there no postdoc association at Harvard?!’” Kehayova put Adnan in touch with the FAS Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and a handful of other postdocs who were interested in forming an association, and soon the FAS Postdoctoral Association was up and running with Adnan as an integral figure. From its inception, FASPDA has worked to bring together postdocs from across FAS departments for social events, career development activities, and advocacy efforts. Early goals included setting up social events where postdocs could get to know each other well and organizing career development workshops based on postdocs’ input.

“The other main goal of the postdoc association was to advocate for postdocs and their needs at the university level,” Adnan says. “This was fighting for access to resources, fighting for childcare, fighting for equal pay among postdocs, fighting for a minimum scale of pay, which was just instituted [in fall 2022.]”. Adnan adds,“Much work remains to be done. Although the NIH minimum was just adopted in the FAS, we are still leagues behind paying postdocs what other Boston area institutes are paying, including Harvard Medical School.”

Issues that Adnan sees as particularly crucial include the availability and affordability of childcare. “Being an academic, especially at the postdoc level, is challenging enough. 90% of your job is failed experiments and trying to figure out how to get them to work,” he says. “And then you’re also worried about: how can I afford childcare this month? You shouldn’t have to worry about these things. Harvard envisions itself a meritocracy, and it is at many levels—but not for postdocs. After my six years here, I’d like to say it’s getting better, but it’s getting worse. It’s becoming harder and harder to be a postdoc and have a personal life.”

Adnan also got involved in the Microbial Sciences Initiative (MSI), where he soon became a co-organizer, which up until that point had been run by faculty. His responsibilities were to coordinate with a group of postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates to organize seminars, host events around fermented foods, and to connect microbe enthusiasts within Harvard and the greater community.

Further, in 2018, Adnan was invited to join the Board of Tutors in Biochemical Science, a prestigious organization that provides tutoring to MCB and CPB concentrators. Mentoring undergraduates has been a constant for Adnan throughout his graduate school and postdoctoral career. “One thing I really love about science is teaching other people how to do science,” he says. “Mentoring has always been something that’s really important to me and always will be.”

Now, after “six years of extremely academic stuff,” Adnan surprised many by transitioning into industry and joining the startup Wild Microbes. The company’s mission is to use synthetic biology to develop non-model organisms for biomanufacturing. Adnan says after much deliberation he decided that he needed to refocus his career to get back to what got him started in research in the first place, climate change. He is looking forward to wearing several hats at an early start up while developing microbes that can produce any compounds. “I’m going to have a perspective and hopefully an impact that I could never get in an academic setting, and that shouldn’t be something that’s frowned upon or that people should be scared of,” Adnan adds.”It should, in fact, be something that’s celebrated. In science, we’re always looking for a diversity of ideas, and this opportunity is going to give me great exposure to a totally different set of ideas.” Adnan says that many colleagues have treated this as the end of his academic career. “This isn’t the end of anything,” says Adnan, “ this is the beginning of learning something new, and who knows, maybe one day I’ll be back in academia sharing a new perspective.”

Despite his many on-campus activities, Adnan has also made time for a family. Going on adventures with his wife and daughter is a priority. Several of his hobbies involve microbes, such as baking, gardening, and making fermented foods. Although Adnan is moving onto his new adventure, you will still be able to catch him occasionally in the biolounge mentoring his tutorial students.

Adnan Syed

Adnan Syed