Jan van Deursen is an American scientist focused on developing innovative treatments for age-related diseases. He was born in the Netherlands where he completed his Ph.D. in 1994 and then, like many scientists, moved to the US to seek further research opportunities. During his Ph.D. studies, he pioneered the technology for stem cell editing in mice, and thanks to that unique expertise, he got an opportunity to start his own lab at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. After several years there, he was recruited to the faculty of Mayo Clinic to continue his research program and build a state-of-the-art mouse gene editing facility, which he directed for more than 20 years.
In 2020, Jan van Deursen completed his 8-year term as Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the largest basic science department at Mayo Clinic. In this role, he was an ardent promoter of diversity and equity among the faculty, filling 5 of 6 open tenure-track-equivalent positions with diversity candidates. He was considered a champion for the interests of non-tenure-track-equivalent faculty at Mayo Clinic, working tirelessly with leadership to improve institutional support, access to graduate students, and mentoring programs for these faculty. The makeup of his research lab was also highly diverse throughout his academic career, welcoming large numbers of high-school, undergraduate, and graduate students into his lab.
Jan van Deursen retired from Mayo Clinic and is currently pursuing entrepreneurial interests, taking advantage of the decade-long knowledge and experience that he gained as a founder of Unity Biotechnology (https://unitybiotechnology.com/team/jan-van-deursen/), a publicly-traded company pioneering medicines for age-related diseases caused by senescent cells.
Tell us a little about your industry and why you chose to be a scientist?
It’s very simple. I was thoroughly interested in biology. It came naturally to me, so I went to a university in the Netherlands and majored in it. There, I came to realize not only that I loved it, but that I was fairly good at it. My hard work paid off, and I had interesting job opportunities right after graduating. I then started my Ph.D., which allowed me to fully immerse myself in a challenging research project.
Besides all that, another thing in my background that affected my career choice is that my mother died very young. She had a disease called Pulmonary Fibrosis. Basically, for people with this disease, the elasticity of their lungs gradually fades until they can’t really breathe anymore. It started when I was about 11 years old, and she died when I was 17. This was an incredibly traumatic experience, watching my mother suffer through this disease for which there was and still is no cure… We went to our local hospital, then to a regional hospital, then to the best academic hospitals, and nobody could find a solution to stabilize the disease or even ameliorate her suffering. That always stayed with me. I wanted to do something for people in that sort of situation—people who hear from their physician that there’s nothing much left to do. I wanted to help understand those sorts of diseases, and help find cures for them. So, after I graduated from college, I made sure to work in hospitals where the research could have medical applications, trying my best to understand how diseases develop at the molecular, cellular, and organismal levels. That understanding is crucial because once the mechanisms of the disease are known and proven, it’s just a matter of experimenting and trying to find interventions that make a real difference for patients.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone starting in your industry?
To be successful in science, to make it a true career, you need to have tremendous passion. It takes long hours, and easy discoveries have already been made. Truly new discoveries are hard to come by, and you need to invest your time and effort into making them. And so, if you’re not passionate about your profession, cutting-edge science may not be the best fit, at least not in the long run. One can still have a career without that passion, but in our field, one is likely to plateau early.
In science, it’s not just about doing good work, it’s also about getting that work published. It’s very competitive to get your study published in a journal with high visibility. You submit it, and if they’re interested, they review it and they come back with a series of questions. And then you answer these, and then there are usually more questions. You can easily have a year or more of work to do, revising your study to submit it again, in the hope that they like it better. And there’s no guarantee that they will. So the point is, it’s a tough business and you have to be resilient, and you have to keep trying.
If you could change anything about your industry what would it be and why?
I think that the biggest problem in science is the funding issue. In order to practice science, you have to apply for grants. Often, the review panels select studies and proposals where they can see a high likelihood of success—where almost everything has been done already, or where the prep work is so promising that it’s like making a touchdown from the 1-yard line. Most funding agencies want guaranteed success. And that’s a problem because it stifles vertical innovation. High risk and innovation are often linked. So, the conservative and limited nature of funding is the biggest problem I see in science.
How do you maintain a solid work-life balance?
I’ve been married for over 25 years and I have three adult kids, which have kept me grounded. Working hard and still having a family life is sometimes a challenge. My solution: working in a small city. Rochester is a city of 125,000 people. For over 20 years, my commute to work was ten minutes. So, I didn’t have two hours of travel per day, and it was time I could instead spend with my family. It might not be the most inspirational answer, but something as simple as cutting out travel time can be huge.
What is one piece of technology that helps you the most in your daily routine?
Oh, it’s hard to give a particularly unique answer to that question, because what are any of us going to do without a cellphone and a computer? The ability to work from anywhere, and to get in touch with people even though you can’t be in the same room is instrumental for productivity in this day and age. Even after retiring from Mayo Clinic, I have continued to work with former colleagues, making important discoveries that advance our fundamental understanding of aging-related diseases. That would not have been possible without these electronic communication technologies.
Who has been a role model to you and why?
I think a critical person in my career was my Ph.D. advisor, for the reason that he was far ahead of his time in his thinking. He was fearless in pursuing high-risk research and he was dedicated to improving the understanding of genetic diseases with the goal to develop therapies. He was a thorough scientist and a very nice man. He was patient with me, as I was the kind of person who always wanted to move fast and have things done yesterday. I think he recognized and appreciated my talent, and in turn I learned a lot from him over the course of our relationship.
What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?
My Ph.D. mentor gave me this advice. He said, “Jan, you have helped develop this new technology and you are now one of the few experts. But, as you move forward in your career, don’t focus too much on the technology part. Focus on the discoveries you can make with the technology.”
That was outstanding advice. He was right, most new technologies that are worthwhile soon become mainstream and widely accessible. While I did utilize that technology, I made sure to always be thinking about what more could be done with it, what it could lead to. I dedicated the time to develop my own independent research program.
What is one piece of advice you would like to leave our readers with?
It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you are passionate about it. And through your professional and non-professional efforts, try to leave the world a better place than how you found it. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s what I hope to ultimately accomplish together with the talented business partners I have the privilege of working with.