#WhyIScience Q&A: Meet a research associate with a passion for perfecting research methods

Naeem Nadaf talks about his work to improve single-cell research protocols and technologies and how he transitioned from dentistry to life in a lab.

Naeem Nadaf is a research associate in the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research
Credit: Allison Dougherty, Broad Communications
Naeem Nadaf is a research associate in the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research

Not many people can say that they’ve been trained in dentistry before joining the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Naeem Nadaf is an exception. 

After earning a bachelor’s degree in dental surgery from Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences in Karnataka, India, Nadaf decided to dip his toes in research. He started out as a research associate at Massachusetts General Hospital studying pancreatic cancer and quickly found a passion for exploring scientific questions. After many years, he transitioned to the Broad Institute where he now works as a research associate in the lab of institute member Evan Macosko at Broad’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research. There Nadaf hones research protocols and develops new methods to prepare mouse and human brain tissue samples for single-cell studies. Though he was planning to apply to dental school soon after joining the lab, he was surprised to find himself falling in love with single-cell research, and is coming up on his three-year anniversary in the lab. 

In this #WhyIScience, Nadaf delves into the challenges and rewards of switching from dentistry to research. We also spoke about his unique role as a research associate.

What do you do as a research associate and what is your research on?
I have worked on several projects at my lab. But I primarily work as a specialist on the wet-lab end of single-nuclei RNA sequencing. Since the first day I joined the lab, I was tasked with learning and executing the protocol for single-nuclei experiments. Over the years, I have been able to really optimize the protocol to a high level of quality and reliability. Now I use this expertise to help lab members in my group as well as the department. More recently, I have been spending my time helping to develop new methods in the single-nuclei or single-cell sequencing space. I also designed a tube for tissue samples where you can hold the tissue and store it for a longer period of time without degrading the tissue quality. One advantage of this is that you can transfer the tissue to collaborators without compromising the tissue condition.

What has been your favorite part of your job?
I think the amazing thing about being in my group — as well as the Broad in general — is that the samples we have access to and the data we generate are simply not available in most other places, or anywhere else for that matter. It is a truly privileged experience to be able to work with these samples and it thrills and motivates me to continue honing my skills. Seeing new marker genes and new cell types characterized is always exciting. The positive rush of emotion I get when I see an analysis of the samples I processed never gets old and I look forward to continuing to help discover new, cool findings.

Could you talk about your transition from dentistry to research? 
Initially, I joined the lab only because I wanted to have research experience as a dentist. I didn't have much experience and I thought that it would really help me to get into dental school, but I never thought that I would fall in love with research. I love the work I’m doing right now because there’s so much to learn. Hopefully if I get into dental school, I will carry over the knowledge I gained from here into the dental field.

The transition between full-time dentistry to full-time scientific research has been one of my greatest challenges so far. Having to use a different set of skills tested my ability to succeed, but I came out understanding so much about this area of research and becoming an independent and proactive researcher. 

How did you become interested in dentistry?
Ever since childhood, I have been acutely aware of the lack of local dentists available in my community back home in Bagalkot, India. Observing my family, friends, and peers being unable to get dental treatment in an accessible manner inspired me to want to pursue this profession. Moreover, the science of the field itself is very fascinating, so that also captivates my interest, in addition to being able to serve those in my community.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?
Other than the transition between dentistry and research, the greatest challenge has been the Mouse Brain Atlas Project, which is a large consortium that’s characterizing all cell types in the mouse brain. It has truly been an honor to work in such a massive, collaborative effort on a resource that would undoubtedly help fellow scientists for years to come. Ever since I first joined the lab, I had this drive to make the protocol as robust as possible so that I could produce better and better data. The end result of my effort was a protocol that produced some of the most consistent and high-quality nuclei. It has been both extremely rewarding and challenging to bring consistent and high-quality work to a project as massive as the Mouse Brain Atlas Project.

What advice would you give to young people interested in research?
Even though I’ve spent three years here, I still feel new, but if I had to give advice, I would say the most important thing is to be curious about science, be passionate about learning, and genuinely enjoy what you do. Whether it’s experiments, discussing science with others, or analyzing results, it’s important that you can be excited about this work. Enjoy and be passionate about what you do.