Brewing Up a Career

Protein engineer Jasper Akerboom left his job as research specialist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI’s) Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, to pursue a career as a brewmeister. His most recent beer, Bone Dusters Paleo Ale—brewed with yeast extracted from a 35-million-year-old whale fossil found in Virginia—was released on 18 June. Akerboom discusses the Janelia Farm experience, yeast, and what it’s like to follow one’s microbiological bliss. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What brought you to Janelia Farm?

Eventually, every postdoc has to decide, ‘What are you going to do?’

A: I was doing my Ph.D. in microbiology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The focus was on extreme life, organisms living in very hot locations. I was studying the molecular biology and biochemistry of these organisms because their proteins had to be very stable to withstand very high temperatures and salt concentrations. We were collaborating with a postdoc at Stanford who later moved to HHMI. He asked me if I wanted to postdoc in his lab. There, we did protein engineering, measuring signaling and compounds in brain tissue.

Q: Tell us about Janelia Farm.

A: It’s a pretty incredible institution. Principal investigators (PIs) come in for short-term contracts. They can hire people—but not too many, so the groups are small. After 5 or 6 years, these group leaders are reviewed, and they might not be renewed, so new people come in. There is no teaching. Every year, there is a large amount of funding available, so it is a nice place to be.

Q: Would you say it’s beneficial to be structured in this way?

A: If you are a professor at Janelia, it is going to be very good for you. You can hire good people: Postdocs are waiting in line to go there. If you are a neuroscientist, it is a great place to be because the support there is fantastic. However, the downside is that Janelia is isolated and only neuroscience. It gets very limiting in that regard.

Q: How well did the Janelia experience prepare you for that future compared to a traditional academic institution? For example, because funding is so plush, a postdoc does not have to write grants.

A: It is really difficult because postdocs have to learn how to do that when they leave. There is basically no real infrastructure for that to help them.

Q: How did you get from tracking fetal neurons to brewing beer?

A: I started home brewing in the Netherlands. Lots of us were doing yeast research. When I came to the United States, I began isolating strains from the local area, and it turned out really well.

At the time I had no idea that in the United States there was this big craft movement. My idea was very much this Budweiser and beers like that. But things are changing in the U.S., and so I picked my hobby back up. In 2007, I approached these guys who had just started a local brewery, Lost Rhino Brewing Company, and I said, “I have these local yeast strains from the area. It would be great to collaborate.” I gave them a few tasters of my test batches. They were super excited, and so we did this together. It was a great success.

Q: Do you think your scientific skills make you a better brewmeister?

A: I definitely think so. The process of brewing is very scientific. There are enzymes that break down starches. There is a lot of thermodynamics and fermentation involved. I have been thinking about things here in a scientific way. Like, why are we doing this? Reading up on the background and having the drive to want to know more and more about it—that gives you an opportunity to make changes and do it a different way.

Q: What’s the most bizarre place from which you isolated yeast?

A: There is this archeological museum in Alexandria, Virginia. They found this really old barrel in a basement somewhere. I am trying to get some yeast from that. The great thing is if that works, we will have something from before prohibition.

Q: What made you decide to go from brewing beer as a hobby to brewmeister as a career?

A: Eventually, every postdoc has to decide, “What are you going to do?” Janelia Farm is a very prestigious institution, so people get very good jobs afterward. But I wanted to do something else—instead of becoming a protein engineer and maybe semicompeting with my former boss.

I saw people around me who were all very stressed. It was just very hard for them to get these papers published, as it was for me. I had been scooped many times, competing with people outside and maybe even inside the institution. And I was like, “This is not something I would like to do forever.” I thought, “Maybe I can just take my success with yeast and get some experience at this brewery, and then maybe move somewhere else in the near future.”

Q: Would you say the demands at Janelia Farm are too high?

A: This is of course the top. I would compare it to doing a postdoc at Harvard or Stanford. There are certain expectations. If you do not publish a Nature paper, some people regard your tenure or your postdoc as a failure—which is, of course, setting the bar extremely high. That is just how it is.

Some people thrive in that environment. The good side is that Janelia pushes people to the limit. You will enrich a whole group of people who are very smart. But the downside is that it can be a very hard environment.

Q: Do you have any regrets about leaving?

A: It was liberating when I made the decision to not continue there as a professor. At first, I felt like I let myself down. Your career path is always set, right?  First you do your bachelor’s degree. Then, you do your master’s degree, then Ph.D. Then, you go do a postdoc in a lab with a prestigious PI, etc. When you deviate from the path, you are breaking with what you were always planning on doing. But if I can say one thing that may be of interest to your readers, it is that they shouldn’t feel bad about themselves if they make the decision to step off the path, because it might be the right decision, although it might not feel right at the time.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: I am working on setting up a lab where I will be growing and isolating new yeasts for other breweries. I want to take that further and try to get new strains from local places. In the U.S., the homebrew movement is taking off, and people really want to know more and more about it. But if you look into the literature, the field it is still pretty young. I actually have been playing with the idea of putting simple procedures on paper so that people can understand why we are doing things in a certain way. Although there is a lot of money being made in this industry, there are a lot of things that people do not fully understand.

Q: Any advice for other scientists who want to pursue an alternate career path?

A: Take advantage of the freedom that comes with being a postdoc. Use that period to think about what you want. Everyone congratulates the person who gets the professorship at a big-name university or a huge grant. But that is not for everybody, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Elsewhere in Science, 20 June 2014

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