22 Il Était Une Fois
For our second episode of Season III, I spoke with Black In Immuno co-founder Dr Joël Babdor, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Califormia, San Francisco, researching interactions between the human immune system and the microbiome. During our conversation, Dr Babdor shares his infectious excitement for his work and for the second annual Black In Immuno Week, which starts on November 14th, 2021. One of the charming anecdotes that Dr Babdor shares during our conversation is about what got him excited about science as a child. He tells the story of watching the French animated series, ‘Il était une fois... la vie’ or ‘Once Upon a Time... Life’, a science program from the late 80s that creatively uses anthropomorphic representations of cells within the human body to teach biology to a young audience. In homage to Dr Babdor’s origin story, I thought it would be more than fitting to title this episode ‘Il Était Une Fois’.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we'll be chatting with Dr Joël Babdor, a postdoctoral researcher studying the interactions between the human immune system and the microbiome at the systems level at the University of California, San Francisco. He previously completed his Bachelor's in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Paris-Est Créteil University, his Master's in Immunology at Pierre and Marie Curie University, and his PhD in Immunology at Paris University. I'm very excited to chat with Dr Babdor today about his work, and one of the initiatives that he's co-founded, Black In Immuno, which is due to have their second annual week-long celebration of Black immunologists from November 14th to the 20th. And be sure to read his latest publication in Nature Reviews Immunology titled ‘Black In Immuno: harnessing social media and digital platforms to connect the dots.’ But let's start from the very beginning, Dr Babdor, what's your story?
Dr Joël Babdor: We can start by saying that I'm a Black man, living in the US, currently in California, and I work as a researcher at UCSF, in San Francisco. And I'm Caribbean. My parents were born in Martinique, a small French Caribbean island, but I was born in Paris, in Paris area. And I grew up around Paris, went through the school system there and at some point started to be in love with science. Yeah, we can talk about that more in particular.
AB: Yeah, let's definitely talk about that! Do you remember a class or a teacher in particular that opened your eyes to the world of being a scientist?
JB: I think my biology teachers were always interesting, or maybe I was always interested in what they had to share! I don't know; I was always a little bit excited about going to my biology classes. Actually, if I'm being totally honest, I think we can track back where my first excitement for science started. I think it comes from a cartoon that was playing on TV! <laugh> And I don't know if people know that cartoon, it's called 'Il était une fois...la vie', and so I'm guessing the translation is like 'Once upon a time... life' in English. The show walks you through the human body. You follow these small characters that are in the human body, and they're part of the human body--you can see the immune cells, walking through the vessels and they're encountering some dangers or, you know, bad guys or the bacteria, or the viruses, and they fight them and they get them out, right? They protect the body. It was interesting because you were zooming in [on] the body and you were seeing all these small characters, but you were also zooming out and you would see what gets you to, you know, get infected, for example. You would have a kid playing around, getting injured or wounded, and then you would zoom in to the skin and see what's going on. I think it was the first time that I could really understand what's going on at the microscopic level within the body.
AB: That speaks to the work that you do now quite perfectly. You described, you know, fighting against the invaders in the form of the immune system, and you study the immune system, and you also study the microbiome at the systems level. Can we talk a little bit about the research that you're doing right now?
AB: All right! Tell me about it. What is it that you actually study? I used all these really broad terms, but if you could kind of dive us in a little bit more, what is your research project, or your research projects working on?
JB: I would say that my research interest is to basically understand better how the immune system works. And I think, you know, that's probably the goal of all immunologists, right? [Addendum] I approach it through a biomedical perspective. In the last decades, the number of immune-based therapies has literally exploded, and the reason is that we realized that the most powerful therapeutic agent that we could use for a lot of diseases is, in fact, the immune system, but there is a lot of work to be done to get to efficiently and effectively harness the power of the immune system, and to modulate it the way we want and to get it to do the things that we want it to do. And this will be the next generation of drugs that modern medicine will use to treat patients, but it has already started, and we can learn from the current generation of immunomodulatory drugs to design the next. [End Addendum] And across the board, you have strategies where you activate the immune system. Vaccines are one of them, right? And they are pretty robust. Those ones are the most robust that we have. But you also have cancer immunotherapy where we try to activate the immune system to fight cancer. And those are working, but in a minority of people. And so we're trying to expand that and we need to understand why it's not working in some people and why it's working in other people, so that we can improve those treatments.
On the other side, you have autoimmune diseases where we use immunosuppressants, and we also have organ transplantation where we also use immunosuppressants because in those two different clinical contexts, we need to reduce the activity of the immune system to protect the organism. The way that I'm trying to approach understanding the immune system better is really thinking of all these different contexts where we try to modulate the immune system and learn from it.
I have set up a research program where I basically have clinical samples from these different cases that I mentioned, where we try to modulate the immune system. And we try to look at the immune system of these patients and try to understand how they respond to these treatments. And so to make sense of, or to characterize the immune system, we use methods that can look at cells one by one. Those are single-cell phenotyping methods, single cell RNA sequencing. And another one is mass cytometry which is basically the next generation or the new generation of flow cytometry, looking at the protein on the surface of the cells to characterize what they are. And so basically, with these methods, we can look at millions of cells and we can look at them from multiple angles, and those angles help us to understand what the cells are. And we can try to understand what the global configuration of the immune system of an individual at a given time point is. I don't know if it's a lot of information!
AB: No, it makes a lot, a lot of sense! I'm going to say a little bit of it back to you just to make sure I really understand it, to kind of like sum it up into one sentence. Essentially, what you're doing is you're characterizing these immune profiles of individuals who have been either undergoing a treatment or have a stochastically different immune system configuration, because we don't have a lot of data of what happens to the body, what happens to these immune profiles of patients. It's wonderful that you're working with clinical samples! This is really cool... I thought maybe you did a little bit of preclinical work with mouse models and things of that nature, but you actually have such forward facing work since you're working on samples of patients who have already undergone some kind of treatment.
JB: Yes, absolutely. It's a great summary! And yes, the aspect of really directly looking at the immune system of patients is, for me, a super important part of why I do research. I really want to be investigating in the context where we can really find out what's not working or what's working because it's much easier to translate what we're seeing directly in humans. I would say that having both backgrounds is very useful because there are a lot of questions that you can't really answer by looking at the clinical samples, and so in that case, making observations in the clinical setting, on clinical samples, and then investigating deeper using preclinical models is a model that really works for me. And I think it can really help to accelerate discovery to help us to improve treatments for patients.
[Addendum] The microbiome [also] plays a role in shaping the immune system. All these microbes that live in our body, they talk to the immune system, and we need to listen to these conversations in order to understand how the microbiome influences the immune system at the molecular level, and at the cellular level. And [what's] most interesting is that everybody has a different microbiome that produces various amounts of microbiome-derived molecules, which may explain why people have different immune configurations, and might explain why people respond differently to immunomodulatory treatments. So, on top of looking at patients' immune systems, my research also looks into patients' metabolome, for molecules produced potentially by the microbiome. And in some projects, we also look at the microbiome itself, using whole shotgun metagenomic sequencing to profile the patient's microbiome. [End Addendum]
AB: Are you planning on staying in academia--do you want to start your own research group or are you thinking of switching gears and doing something else?
JB: Yes, I'm absolutely planning to continue to do research in academia and as of very recently, I am on the job market. The Babdor’s lab is looking for a home!
AB: I'm not sure if you want to go into this at all, but I'll pose the question and then we can switch gears afterwards, if necessary. I'm curious about your experience moving from France to the States, because I imagine there are some not only cultural differences on the grand scale, but just academic differences. Did you notice any of those differences in the culture, or the work-life balance, in the labs that you were a part of when you were still in France versus the lab that you're a part of now at UCSF?
JB: Yeah, there are absolutely differences! I don't want to upset anyone! So <laugh> I mean, research in France has advantages and inconveniences, and same here in the US. I would say one thing that I really like in the US is that people are definitely supporting projects that sometimes could feel a little bit… ambitious. And I think that that is a very important component for pushing research toward discovery and progress in medicine. I think a little bit of risk in what is being funded and the projects that are supported is super important. And I think that in the US we do find a lot of sources to fund projects that are high-risk, but also high-reward. So I think that that is a very important component of things that I've seen here in the US and that I like a lot.
AB: Is there anything that you miss about France? I mean, you were there for so many years, and I know your parents are based in--are they based in the Caribbean or are they just from the Caribbean?
JB: Yeah, my parents are from the Caribbean. They moved to France when they were young and they had me and my brothers in France. So we were born there, but now that we're all grown-ups, they went back, and they're now living back in the Caribbean. My parents have this interesting, you know, moving to a place and then moving back which, which questions me a lot in my own trajectory, right? I was born in France and I moved to the US, and I can understand where they came from to feel like 'I wanna go to a different place and see what's there and, you know, build a family over there and have a professional life and develop a career over there.' Definitely, I feel like this experience of moving to a place and trying to find a place where you're welcomed and where you're considered part of the group or part of the nation, I think is definitely something that is a dominant factor in having people trying to move from one place to another.
AB: Yeah! And I imagine that's also the basis for something like Black In Immuno, because it kind of [ticks] off all the things of wanting to feel like you're part of a community and part of a home. Can we talk a little bit about that too? I know your week-long celebration is coming up, and I'd love to hear about that origin story! I imagine I know a little bit of it just from living on social media from time to time, but I'd love to hear the story in your own words. What brought about Black In Neuro--Black In Immuno? Sorry, I'm so used to saying Black In Neuro!
JB: <Laugh> I'm not offended because Black In Neuro is so cool that I feel like being compared to Black In Neuro is awesome! It started back in 2020 when things got rough, you know, in terms of racism and we'd seen a lot of things going on in the media, seen a lot of police brutality that had been very triggering. Interestingly, I think it has been triggering for [many] more people than it used to. And I think that has been part of the factors that have shown that, well, maybe this is the time, right? I mean, it felt to me at least, I don't know about all the members of Black In Immuno, but it felt like the reaction to what was going on was appropriate and was showing that people were ready to move a little bit further and take a little bit more action.
I'm very happy, or comforted I think I would say, to see that people were marching all over the country and that people were in the streets and, you know, reclaiming the streets and saying that Black lives matter. I think that has been one of the factors that drove us to create Black In Immuno. And I don't know if you remember, but there was the Shut Down STEM Movement to say that our experiences in academia and STEM matter and that there is systemic racism in academia and in STEM that has a tremendous impact, negative impact, on research, and researchers, and individuals, and we should do something about it. I remember #BlackInTheIvory was at the same time, right? If you remember the hashtag... #BlackInTheIvory was such cathartic experience because, you know, every time someone would share about their experience, encountering someone that would consider them in a certain way or being treated in certain way because of the color of your skin in the academic system, I feel like every experience that I read in these threads was resonating with me and resonating across countries, because most of my research experience was in France, right? So, I've had many years there and things that people were experiencing in the Ivory Tower in the US, other Black people like me in France were also experiencing the same exact treatments, which I feel is really interesting and says a lot about our society in general and the way that modern societies are not very dissimilar.
One thing that has been a long quest for me has been to try to connect with more Black researchers, and I actually started social media, kind of seriously, in 2020. One of my goals was to see other Black scientists doing interesting and cool research and connect with them. At that time, I actually started a Twitter list and I just called it 'Black Immunologists', and I was basically adding the different Black immunologists that I was coming across on Twitter. And I think I added some of the folks that then became members of Black In Immuno because they got excited by this list! They were like, 'oh, this is really cool and we need that list! We need to know each other and we need to be able to connect.' And so this 'Black Immunologists' list started to actually, I think, create some excitement with other folks. And at that time, the #BlackInSTEM movement started with Black Birders Week. And then, Black In Cardio, Black In Neuro, Black In Robotics, and I don't remember exactly which one was the first, but we've seen many Black In STEM weeks started and starting. And so the people that I added on the list were like--we were messaging each other on Twitter and sometimes not only DMs, we were actually pushing ourselves through timelines! 'We need to do Black In Immuno Week! Yeah, let's do it! It's time, let's connect.' And so, I opened a Slack and I added a bunch of the folks that were the most excited, and were sending those messages. We just met on a Saturday and we never stopped. I mean, we're still meeting every Saturday and I haven't missed one Saturday. We're still connecting with this group of fascinating and amazing organizers. It is a family, it is church, it [was] everything for me at that point.
AB: That's amazing. And look at you guys now! You're now a group of thousands of followers. Last time I checked, it was over 4,500 followers, so the community that started with your list is now, like, a small town of people who can come together, and rely on each other, and support each other. And now I'm thinking, what's next? What do the co-founders see for the future of Black In Immuno?
JB: I think we want to continue to have Black In Immuno Week be one of our central events and one of our central, I would say, activities. And it is also a place where we question the current environment--what makes a better research environment, what makes it a more welcoming place for scientists? So really, this mix of science talks and panel discussions, I think, is really wholesome and is a place for discussion, for amplification. And so, this is something that we want to continue as long as we can. Another aspect that we're working on and something that is equally important for us as Black In Immuno Week, is what we call Black In Immuno Hub, which is a platform [where] we want to make a central place for the community, the whole scientific community interested in immunology, to be able to access and give some resources for students that are interested in getting into the field.
We want this hub to be a place where we can have a job announcement board, and people can come [to] support trainees who are doing research. We want to highlight fellowships and different opportunities for people to get funded. And so we want also to have a database of Black immunologists that can be accessible, for people to connect, for people to know each other, and to know about the science that Black immunologists are doing. So, really, Black In Immuno Hub [would be] a central location, a one-stop shop for everything Black In Immuno, really connecting the whole science ecosystem and allowing connection between Black Immunologists amongst ourselves, but also connecting Black immunologists to other immunologists in the field that are interested in their research, that want to hear their stories and hear about the research that they do.
AB: That's definitely one of the aspects that I think is so valuable with the hub that you're describing. It's not just about community, it's also about career opportunities for everybody who's a part of the hub. And I think that's so, so special. I do want to wrap up and I always love asking for advice; when I speak to individuals, they have a breadth of experiences that they've been through. And it sounds like you've had quite a few yourself--if you could talk to your younger self and say, 'Joël, don't do this,' or 'make sure you do this,' what would you tell him? What would you say to little you?
JB: That's an easy one because there's been some recent things that I could have avoided. I would say to my younger self, 'back up your data!' <laugh> I had, let's say, a bad experience with some data loss but I'm working through it. It will be fine in the end. But yes, I think having a good backup system is important. It's not only having the system, but actually doing the backups! <laugh>
AB: That is so true because, yeah, you can plan to have the Google drive and the physical hard drive and the backup to that one, but if you're not doing it on weekly basis, it's nothing!
AB: That's really sweet advice. And with that, I will end with a thank you. Thank you so, so much Dr Babdor, and I wish you all the best in all of your future endeavors.
JB: Thank you so much for having me. And I'm really happy to be here, and happy to share my experience.
AB: Happy to have you.
Her Royal Science jingle
In loving memory of Dr Bashir's grandfather, who passed away while this episode was being prepared.
إِنَّا لِلَّٰهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ