A Conversation with Dr. Manuel Ascano
Interview conducted and transcribed by Alexandra Blee
For this installment of our blog, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Manuel (Manny) Ascano, an Associate Professor of Biochemistry here at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Ascano had some illuminating views to share; we dove right into a discussion of imposter syndrome within the context of DEI before reflecting on his career path and sharing insights on how to engage in more meaningful conversations. We ended by returning full circle to the importance of self-confidence in order to overcome doubt and feeling like an imposter.
MA: I have been thinking about the idea of DEI and how individuals may or may not be able to relate to the experiences of different groups and populations. What I was trying to understand is, what does a person feel who’s not being included? How can we connect with and understand traditionally excluded groups? I don’t want to take away the racial and ethnic component or disregard those differences. But fundamentally, a lack of inclusion means that someone doesn’t feel like they belong, obviously, and that eats at your confidence. I think that regardless of your background, we can all recognize this. For some, this is called imposter syndrome—where you feel like you just don’t belong, or you have a feeling of inadequacy. In my experience, imposter syndrome pervades at every level of your career. I have always felt it to some degree. I don’t think I’ve been challenged to the point where it’s been debilitating, but it’s been close. Hopefully folks who may be traditionally included can relate to that same imposter feeling and recognize that it is a terrible feeling. This then allows them to relate to others who are experiencing their version of inclusivity issues that may take on a different dimension. A lack of inclusion comes in so many forms, but in the end, it’s a similar emotional feeling. I may not have felt like an “other” in the same way as someone else, but I have had imposter syndrome. I know what that feels like. That’s a universal feeling and it is totally relatable across the board to every person.
AB: The issue of imposter syndrome isn’t what pops into my mind right away when I think about how to better understand inclusion, but I think this is a valuable connection and one that immediately helps me to place myself in someone else’s shoes and have more empathy.
MA: I can add that one way to tackle imposter syndrome in science is by recognizing that you are the expert in the room on your research and that you can converse intelligently about it. Once you recognize that, you realize that you start to feel more of a sense of belonging. There are other obstacles to belonging and inclusion beyond this which is what we’re here to talk about, but this is how I approach the topic to better understand and relate to it.
AB: Speaking of the topic of our conversation today, we should back up a bit. Could you tell us a little more about yourself?
MA: Well, I grew up in Queens, New York. I’m from the Philippines originally, but I grew up in Queens. We moved around because my mom and dad are physicians. We lived in Queens, the New Jersey area, and then Chicago. From there, I went to school at the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign and studied microbiology and chemistry. The whole time, I thought I was going to be a physician.
AB: Watching the example of both of your parents!
MA: It was actually my dad who in his hubris to try to get me to join medicine, would say certain things like, “You see, that’s science, that’s being scientific.” I got turned onto science and I started doing undergrad research. I had been reading up on motor proteins. At some point my dad had called me and asked if I had heard of paclitaxel which at the time, I didn’t know the trade name for. Eventually, I figured out that he was talking about taxol and later told him, “Dad, this is taxol, the active in paclitaxel, taken from a Pacific Northwest yew tree,” (which I looked up pre-Google, by the way)! Labs had been using it for some time to study microtubules. This was 20-year-old research by that time, but my dad was telling me it was new clinically. Through this conversation, I realized a physician’s idea of new is very different from new in research. I recognized at that time as an undergrad that I was turned on to science, but I wanted to go upstream and uncover the newest of the news. I really wanted to be at that cutting edge of the difference between not knowing and knowing. That’s why I ended up in science. Maybe it’s always the compulsion to be the first to know, maybe it’s conceit and arrogance, but I caught the bug from that point on.
AB: That’s an important point because scientists, as evidenced by the last couple of years, all need to be better at communicating and sharing cutting edge information. Even if we are the first to know, we need to interpret and translate that information so that others can use it before 20 years goes by.
MA: It is. When I was a graduate student and certainly a postdoc, scientific communication as a career wasn’t as well advertised even though it is so essential. COVID really is a perfect example. A lot of the major outlets have bloggers and scientific writers now with formal research training who recognized that this is an area that traditional scientists are not good at. Good communication is hard because as career scientists we don’t always realize how different our awareness is of a certain level of research.
AB: After focusing on something since your late teens, you really lose your perspective on how much you know, especially if you carry feelings of imposter syndrome with you. Can you talk a little bit about your research interests? And, congratulations on your recent promotion to Associate Professor!
MA: Thank you. Well, you know, tenure is a path. That probably explains the circuitous place I find myself now. I studied microbiology as an undergrad under Ralph Wolfe, who together with Carl Woese was the first to discover archaebacteria. When I was in their lab, I had to make these serum bottles that contained pressurized methane because we studied methanogens. They were fun but also scary because the way to make media was like making a bomb. The bottles had liquid media, but methanogens will use hydrogen or methane from air as a carbon source for energy. So you need to have a high pressure of methane, hydrogen or both in a closed bottle. You create these bottles while boiling them from the bottom and bubbling in methane or hydrogen from the top with an open flame. Then you put a rubber stopper on, crimp it, and stick it in an autoclave!
AB: Wow! What kind of test did you have to pass to get permission for that?!
MA: Right! The reason why I’m mentioning that is because I was attracted to the unique biochemistry of these organisms and looking at pathways that basically bypassed all traditional biochemistry. That interest in unique biochemistry carried through to my time as graduate student where I worked on signal transduction and the Hedgehog signaling pathway in Drosophila.
As a PI I have been able to combine what I did as an undergraduate and graduate student into what I do now, which is looking at the unique biochemistry of viruses and RNA from a signal transduction pathway lens. A lot of the work done on RNA including what I did as a postdoc tends to focus on equilibrium states, but not on regulation such as by signal transduction and phosphorylation. I decided to focus on dynamic states and the immune system as a PI. Viruses use totally different biochemistry. That brought everything together; it combined my curiosity and all my scientific passions from the very beginning into what I do now.
AB: It sounds very fulfilling to be able to come full circle.
MA: It’s a long arc. It wasn’t manifested because I had some awesome master 20-year plan, but I always had different likes and dislikes that I was eventually able to bring together at the right time. When I hear postdocs or graduate students lament and wring their hands about what will make them unique, I want them to stop worrying! You’ll get there and it will be natural. Your life experiences will shape you in ways that you won’t necessarily appreciate until the moment comes.
AB: I think that’s a good transition to ask about some of the things that you enjoy outside of the lab that balance you and help you return to work each day fully charged.
MA: My hobbies have gravitated towards things that are process oriented or that involve data acquisition, like photography.
AB: I have noticed the photos of Nashville in your office. Are they yours?
MA: Yes! My photos remind me where I am now and where I was in the past. Photography is very process oriented. There’s a lot of geekiness to it. Getting everything right has a physics to it. And there’s an actual protocol to follow. I used to do street photography in New York. I would join walkabouts where you meet up with a group someplace and start taking photos for a specific assignment. You get to walk around, make new friends, and take pictures by playing with light. Photography is like science in that you collect data, process it, and generate a final image. I haven’t been able to do that enough since I became a PI, but I do still have my cameras. I don’t know if you know, but there’s quite a few PIs here who I have discovered are also shutter enthusiasts. I’ll let them out themselves!
AB: Clearly someone needs to start a Vanderbilt photography walkabout group!
MA: I got into photography during the hardest time of my postdoc, so that became one of my strategies to manage my stress.
AB: I see photography as being very meditative in that it forces you to focus on your subject and pay attention to the camera settings, not your experiments.
MA: Exactly. It took away my idle thoughts and focused me in a way that was still comfortable because it was a process that I could control and I would get data that would make me immediately happy. The outcome of a photo was fundamentally under my control, whereas you can’t control biology. The biology is what it is.
I’m also a foodie.
AB: Is there a specific type of cuisine that you like to eat or make the most?
MA: Smoked meats! The former chair of the department, John York, got me into smoked meats. I was working in his lab space at the time, and there was a little kitchenette. One day I smelled the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever smelled and thought to myself, “What is this!? What miracle is this?” I’ve had barbecue before, but I haven’t had that kind of barbecue. So, I got into smoking my own meats, which is also very process oriented. A lot of people like to say that baking is science and I would agree with that, but we can’t forget about cooking. You follow a protocol and recipe. Many things can go wrong really quickly, and you have to adapt and make the ingredients you have on hand work. Improvise.
AB: It’s very rare that I follow a recipe and have every single ingredient on hand.
MA: It may not be what you wanted, but you ended up somewhere you needed to be. And that can be a happy surprise or bad mistake.
AB: Well, I love that. It may not be what you wanted, but it might be what you needed. In life and cooking! Speaking of stress relievers, is there a specific failure that you learned from and wouldn’t mind sharing?
MA: Yes. It’s very indelible in my head. During my postdoc there were three or four of us working in parallel to develop and use PAR-CLIP technology, which is a method that I have since changed up in my own lab. When we first started, we chose our own personal proteins of interest. I was studying Fragile X Mental Retardation Protein 1, or FMR1. This protein was the nightmare of nightmares. Part of the biochemistry work required pure protein. I recall a two-year period where I was trying to purify it, but it wouldn’t behave. I tried every possible bacterial approach, in vitro transcription and translation, everything that I could think of, and the one thing I wanted to do was using baculovirus, but my PI was resistant to it at the time. Meanwhile, the other postdocs who were working in parallel needed help in purifying their proteins and asked me for assistance. I lapped myself working on other people’s projects.
AB: Ouch, that would feel bad.
MA: All the tricks and funny little rules or shortcuts that didn’t work for my protein did work for theirs. Not only that, but the lab was set up so that postdocs were assigned technicians. I trained their technicians to purify their proteins too! Again, theirs all worked like boom, boom, boom! Inside I’m thinking, “What am I doing wrong? What is going on?” Obviously, that felt like a real stick in the mud.
AB: As an outsider, it doesn’t sound to me like you were doing anything wrong per se, because you were involved in multiple projects and most of them were working very well. But it is hard when you’re in the weeds with your primary project.
MA: Admittedly, their papers were coming to fruition and mine was still stuck in this spot without biochemistry validation. I started thinking about how I could continue without the biochemistry. For what it’s worth, if you look at the field, no one else could do it. But I was very egocentric or type A, and I was determined to do it. Eventually I did set up a baculovirus system and it worked! It still took about half a year, but I remember seeing that first Coomassie gel that had a giant band. For real?! Finally! It took another six months before we had the manuscript submitted.
I spent a lot of time wondering if I was cut out for this. On one hand, I felt like I had what it took but on the other hand, surely there’s going to be other dead-end projects and I wasn’t sure how I would be able to handle that. When I finally got my work submitted and accepted, I remember one of the first questions I got from someone in the audience (who I eventually became good friends with) was, “How did you purify this?” That was a loaded question, obviously. I knew then that I had reached a level that had been insurmountable for quite a few years, so I felt good about that.
AB: Based on the start of our conversation, it seems like that might have been an experience that allowed you to change how you look at feeling like an imposter.
MA: At the height of that time, I felt inadequate. I’ve never been very outwardly emotional about my work, but when that first gel came out, I broke down on my way home from work in the stairwell. This was a real personal breakthrough. I tell my trainees when they’re in the weeds that it won’t last forever and that there will be a breakthrough, but this is their journey. I can help them as far as I can, but they’re still going to have these bittersweet moments. That’s just the way things are. You have to balance knowing that with being aware that you are capable. Those experiences are so necessary to build your thick skin and resilience. Of course, this is not considering the perspective that for many, there are also systemic issues in place that hold people down.
AB: You have described inclusion versus imposter syndrome on a personal level, but on a broader level within our science community, are there activities or practices within DEI that you find valuable or want to see improve?
MA: I think overall we are well meaning. More than ever before in my professional career in science, DEI is now front and center. We have committees in place and are working to build communication. Normalizing these conversations in and of itself is already a great thing. Are we done? No. What’s interesting is that we have more work to do to understand how to converse with each other. I recently had a conversation with a good friend of mine about how to approach racially sensitive topics to a person of that race when I am not of that race.
AB: It can be uncomfortable because no one wants to cross a line or make someone speak on behalf of every other member of that group, but you also don’t want to exclude someone because of your own discomfort. I relate to that.
MA: Exactly! Even setting the ground rules for each person and interaction helps with that. I honestly still think is a good first place to start. I don’t think we should skip or rush that.
AB: Do you have a general framework for these types of conversations about boundaries and ground rules that you find effective?
MA: I have approached people and communicated that I’m genuinely coming to the conversation with full humility. I usually start with, “When I am speaking with you about x, y, or z, I’m not trying to offend you, but I want to know how I should talk to you about this.” Usually, we can have a frank conversation after that. This has happened quite a few times. I will say, don’t ever cold call someone and demand a chat.
AB: It is important not to put the burden of your own education onto someone else, but I see what you mean.
MA: It’s more organic; if we’re on a related topic, I’ll bring it up. My goal is to take away as many taboos about these topics between a specific person and myself. As an example, one of the most beautiful things that I have appreciated about becoming a PI is having dinners with faculty where you can transition from talking about kids going to college, to smoking meats, to having a frank conversation about science. Those conversations vacillate across all these topics very fluidly. It becomes less fluid when you remember there’s still some 700-pound gorillas in the room that we tiptoe around. Not because I don’t want to talk about them, but because I don’t know how to talk about them with the other people present. That’s why I want to be very open and air out these topics in a place where we all recognize and respect the goal at hand. When the right moment in a conversation presents itself, I just try to make it happen; there’s no rubric. Obviously, you need to have some rapport with folks first.
AB: What has struck a chord for me from our conversation is the idea that there is an important balance between recognizing the parts of someone that society may view as “other” but simultaneously not allowing that to dictate how you interact with them. We are all multifaceted human beings and bring value to the table in more ways than checking a box about race or orientation, for example. Having that mindset when you enter conversations is important.
MA: Yes. I’ve witnessed examples of this throughout my career. This is not my story to share in detail, but I have witnessed colleagues who may be the sole member of their race or gender experience a specific phenomenon. Many students recognize these underrepresented groups within faculty and then actively seek out those individuals as role models.
I didn’t fully appreciate what that meant, but I would see huge numbers of students asking these faculty to be on their advisory committee, often as the sole representative member of that race or gender on the committee. Many faculty members in that situation would feel compelled to serve on every single committee, but by doing so, they are risking being viewed more and more as tokens and not as full human beings.
AB: That’s a huge tax to put on someone. I can see how you would want to serve as that role model for the next generation, but there is an unfair price to pay as far as your own productivity and mental health.
MA: It is not fair. I’m not saying that we should ignore what makes each of us unique, but there are other qualities and expertise that add value to the contribution of these faculty on committees.
AB: There is also some pressure at the institutional level to ensure your hiring practices and the culture of your departments do not force your trainees and faculty to have to suffer this type of situation.
MA: That’s a great point. At any given institution you’re going to have moments in time with imbalances, but overall, this needs to be part of the conversation.
AB: I agree. I hope readers take away more empathy for how each of us might feel singled out or “othered,” and try using the strategy you highlighted to approach colleagues in conversation. You’ve shared so many insights with us already, but I’m wondering if you have any last advice you want to impart?
MA: During the pandemic I learned that one of the most essential components of your training is how to build confidence sustainably. This is true for trainees but also for faculty. Confidence is so essential to our success in everything. It impacts the way we interpret data, the way we attack a problem, how we get up in the morning, our morale, how intense our feelings of imposter syndrome are, everything. How any one of us builds confidence in one’s abilities is going to be different, but this is a collective hurdle for the scientific enterprise right now and something we need to focus on.
AB: That’s great advice to end on. Thank you!
I enjoyed learning more about Dr. Ascano’s journey thus far and appreciated his frank insights into inclusion and navigating uncomfortable conversations. Please comment below with your thoughts. If you know someone who you would love to hear from, or want to share your own perspectives, email Alexandra Blee: at email@example.com.