A Research Journey on Four Continents

NYU Abu Dhabi Professor Youssef Idaghdour reflects on his research journey across four continents.

This story was first published in Nature on January 17, 2022.

Growing up as a birdwatcher, I naturally had an interest in the life sciences and studying organisms in their environment. Subsequently, I was trained as a molecular ecologist and worked on conservation of wildlife in Morocco, before completing my MSc training in molecular genetics in the United Kingdom. It was an exciting time in the field of genetics, and I found great satisfaction in appealing to insights from the field to inform ecological questions.

After I worked on wildlife conservation as a research assistant in Morocco for three years, the opportunity came to join Greg Gibson’s group, then at North Carolina State University, to study nature–nurture questions under a Fulbright fellowship and to become part of the outstanding training program in quantitative and statistical genetics there. As a family with a 2-year-old daughter, we decided to move to the United States and start a new chapter of our lives.

Working as part of an evolutionary quantitative genetics group was a transformative career and personal experience that broadened my understanding of the field of genetics. In my first year, research in the lab on transcriptomes of red wolves in North Carolina revealed an extraordinary gene expression signature of differentiation between captive and free-range animals. What started as random Friday afternoon discussions on Drosophila bristles, red wolves, canalization and college basketball turned into a PhD project investigating the sources of differences in disease susceptibility between peoples who lead traditional and modern urban lifestyles. The aim of the project was to determine whether there is a signature of this shift in gene expression. The work involved field trips in the Amazigh villages of the Moroccan Atlas, encounters with nomads in the Sahara Desert and sleepless nights in the lab. A great part of these fabulous field trips was the combination of theory and practice. The fundamental concepts I am learning in the academic field and from doing experiments in the lab are great, but they became even more meaningful when I saw bridges between research and people’s lives and experiences. It was also terrific to be able to develop a close connection with the people; their hospitality and generosity touched us deeply — these were truly moments of my PhD to remember. The findings of this research demonstrated that environmental effects dominated genetic influences in the human leukocyte transcriptome. Importantly, this work re-awakened interest among geneticists in using designs that jointly account for genetic and environmental effects in studies mapping complex traits. By the end of my PhD, the seed had germinated, and I made the decision to devote my career to work on complex traits and gene–environment interactions. During my family’s journey in North Carolina, our circle grew to include a son.

I was subsequently fortunate enough to pursue postdoctoral research with Philip Awadalla in Montreal on the international 1000 Genomes project and on environmental genomics of the Quebec population. There as a Banting fellow I consolidated my experience and took the opportunity to initiate work on host response in human malaria in Africa. Both my PhD and postdoctoral work laid the foundation for the next five years of my career as an independent investigator.

In Canada, my career faced a dynamic tension between the temptation of accepting offers to establish an independent research program in North America and my desire to move back to my home country in the spirit of the Fulbright program. I wanted to make a difference in the nascent genetic community in Morocco, but I was hesitant given the limited research funding opportunities. As I was exploring both options and preparing my job applications, I received a call from one of my former professors. “NYU what?” I asked. “NYU Abu Dhabi, a new liberal arts research university in the UAE and part of the NYU Global Network. They are hiring and you should consider applying,” he replied. Having experienced training and culture on three continents, I was open to the idea of moving to a fourth. Fifteen months later, I moved to sunny Abu Dhabi to start my lab on a brand-new campus on Saadiyat Island. Before my move, I visited Jane Carlton, who is a renowned malaria biologist at NYU (New York University), and we talked about malaria for hours. I very much appreciated her guidance, and before I left her office to catch my flight to Abu Dhabi, she gifted me a copy of the booklet Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16007670-making-the-right-moves). It made my 15-hour flight a whole lot more exciting.

The move to NYU Abu Dhabi was exciting but not without challenges. Being the first human geneticist hired by my institution meant that I had to help build institutional capacity for human subject research and navigate the complex landscape of ethics approvals and institutional agreements. Fortunately, as a trainee I was trusted by my advisors to take charge of similar tasks, and this experience came in handy at this point of my career. Another challenge was hiring. The pool of local and regional postdoc applicants experienced in genomics and computational biology is limited. Fortunately, two young talented African scientists were brave enough to move from Montreal to settle in Abu Dhabi and start a family here. Later on, a bioinformatician from India, a postdoc from the United States and a graduate student from Egypt joined the lab, and with half a dozen undergraduates we reached the optimal composition for our group. To stay productive during this difficult period, I relied on collaborations on other topics, finished another major paper from my postdoc and used this time to write grant proposals and develop new courses and research ideas. The transition from postdoc to PI was challenging but positive and exciting. As a PI I do experimental work in the lab only occasionally, but I do not miss it, and I enjoy field and computational work more.

As we took the risk to establish a field-based malaria research program from scratch and explore ambitious research ideas, the trust and patience of my institution and my mentors were reassuring. The challenges we faced in the field tested our resilience and provided means for us to grow up, both in science and on a personal level. Most of my work was on transcriptomes, but I had a sense that studying metabolism in malaria would be revealing.

A mosquito carrying the malaria disease.

The study was a fantastic opportunity to take some risks and integrate metabolomics in our work. The most exciting insight that came out of this research was published recently in Nature Metabolism (W. Abdrabou et al. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42255-021-00404-9), where we report the identification of an immunosuppressive role of endogenous steroids that are induced by Plasmodium falciparum infection. Embracing variation in genetics, environment and lifestyle in African populations helped us illuminate the mechanistic black box linking host–pathogen metabolism, transcription and immune response. The work marks the beginning of our effort to delve deeper into population-scale studies of immunometabolism, where we see many interesting open questions. I am most proud that this work is the result of the collective effort of a young, highly diverse team of trainees from all walks of life, led by a talented graduate student who was awarded the Charlotte A. Pann Memorial Research Award for his work.

NYU Abu Dhabi campus.
NYU Abu Dhabi students on campus.

The NYU Abu Dhabi campus is home to over 140 nationalities, and the composition and culture of my lab are built on diversity. Over the last five years, 24 nationalities have transitioned through my lab. The close contact with faculty, staff and students from all over the world is a major feature of my work environment and adds a lot of value to my professional and personal life. Training of students and scientists plays a central role in my research program. I see mentoring as both the most challenging and the most stimulating aspect of my work. I try to nurture my students at all levels to become independent thinkers and to help them achieve their goals.

As I write this, I occasionally take a glimpse from the glass wall of my office at birds in an olive tree outside. Over the last few years, checking out the tree was at the center of my attention every morning, as it is home to a few bird nests. In many ways, starting a lab is like building a new nest. It requires a lot of attention, effort and patience, but nothing is more rewarding than seeing the young occupants of the nest hatch, build strength, fledge and fly to build their own nests.