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José-Mac Techner

MD-PhD Candidate in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP)

Being at the forefront of a research field means most of what you do fails, and it can take a long time to develop an assay that works reliably ... Developing the patience and confidence to proceed among the large amounts of failing is probably the most challenging aspect of the work for me. ”

José-Marc Techner is a MD-PhD candidate as part of the National Institutes of Health funded Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at the Feinberg School of Medicine. He is pursuing his PhD in Chemistry in the laboratory of Milan Mrksich, PhD. His research focuses on enzymes that modify proteins with sugars in a chemical process called “glycosylation.” José-Marc is currently NIH NRSA fellow and was previously a Ryan Fellow at Northwestern University.

What were you doing before you arrived at Northwestern?

I was a Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics student at the University of Arizona. Early on, I decided to look for additional research lab opportunities, so I reached out to several faculty members who were doing work that interested me. I joined Professor Nancy Horton’s lab, where I studied DNA-protein interactions measuring binding strength using a combination of gel assays (Electrophoretic Mobility Shift Assay) and Fluorescence Polarization Anisotropy. My own work focused on an artificially designed zinc finger protein, Aart, and on a restriction enzyme SgrAI for my senior thesis. During my time at UA, I focused heavily on pre-medical and biochemical coursework, but also branched outside of the classroom to learn about economics, ethnodemographics, and public health.

What influenced you to pursue a graduate degree in Chemistry? 

I chose to pursue a PhD in the Chemistry department partly because of its strong reputation and partly because of the opportunity to work in a “tool-development” lab. Previously, I trained and worked in labs focusing on hypothesis-driven science. I wanted an opportunity to add to my previous skillset, so I moved to the engineering-driven, solve-a-problem science environment that I’m currently in. I loved Chemistry during undergrad, so this felt like a natural fit.

Tell us about your research. 

I currently study enzymes that modify proteins with sugars in a chemical process called “glycosylation.” Many proteins and structures in your cells are decorated with sugars, kind of like a ginger bread house, and these sugars have a lot of roles to play. For example, glycosylation is one way cells mediate binding to other cells, such as when white blood cells slow down and bind blood vessel walls to travel into a tissue where an infection is occurring. Specific glycosylation patterns are also one way infectious agents like HIV choose their cell targets for infection. Additionally, glycosylation mediates changes in cells that are intrinsically linked with the development of cancer.

Despite the importance of glycosylation in a lot of different biological processes, it has historically been challenging to study because of a lack of adequate analytical tools. My own work focuses on adding to this toolkit by combining mass spectrometry (a precise, sensitive technology that measures the masses of compounds in a mixture) with microarray technology to enable study of many glycosylation reactions (think hundreds to thousands) in a short amount of time vs current methods in the laboratory.

What is a rewarding aspect of your research?

Tool development is applicable to so many different biological and chemical questions because it is at the forefront of how biology and biochemistry might be studied in the near-future. To illustrate my own work is part of a large collaboration between my group and the Jewett lab, top experts at synthetic biology and cell-free protein synthesis, in an effort to develop a series of tools for the next generation of glycobiologists to exploit. I am learning so much from the Jewett group, and it is exciting to know that our accomplishments might help other researchers in their work on studying infection or cancer.  

What is a challenging aspect of your research?

Being at the forefront of a research field means most of what you do fails, and it can take a long time to develop an assay that works reliably. It requires a great deal of patience, and it is essential to have a worthwhile question or problem at the center of your work in order to justify the amount of effort we are putting into the average scientific project. Developing the patience and confidence to proceed among the large amounts of failing is probably the most challenging aspect of the work for me. 

Describe a typical research day.  

In the morning, I start whatever experiments I had planned that day. There is a large amount of variety here, since some experimental days can last from 8 AM to 8 PM, or sometimes later depending on the complexity. I try to carve out some time in the afternoon to catch up on little things like email, and I spend part of my late afternoon or evening planning experiments for the next day.

Sometimes I spend a couple hours reading papers or searching for an answer to a technical/scientific question via the internet. I keep these in a log that goes into my laboratory notebook. This helps keep me organized

Whats one thing youre passionate about beyond your research?

I spend a significant amount of my free time reading about economics, public health, general philosophy, and psychology. I love learning about how people work and considering ways to structure a harmonious society compatible with the inherent variability in people, both in their workstyles and the values they hold. I also try (and fail) to learn foreign languages, most recently French, but unfortunately don’t have much free time to devote to that. It’s a fun hobby, though!