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Meet SLAS Scientific Director Mike Tarselli

Take a little wonder and the desire to do good. Throw in meaningful research experience, honest commitment, science smarts and a whole lot of energy, and you've taken one step toward describing SLAS's Scientific Director Michael (Mike) Tarselli, Ph.D. The Boston (MA, USA) native started his position with the Society in September of 2018, and finds his new role yet another way to make life better for scientists, engineers and the world.

"In my career, I’ve worked in start-ups, academia, large pharma and biotechs,” says Tarselli. “At SLAS, I saw an opportunity to contribute in yet another way.”

And his new role as SLAS scientific director is quite different than being at the bench or leading a large tech team. But he believes there’s much to learn and much to leverage. In his first 90 days on the job, he has seen tremendous value in “…taking in the knowledge and the wisdom of a large global community and, together, looking for what’s next” – that meaningful idea or new discovery or passionate attempt to truly make the world better through science and technology.

“That’s always been the idea: I want to help the world through science,” Tarselli says. “That’s what drove me; that’s what made me go and get my degrees; that’s what made me join pharmaceuticals. I have attempted to do that a couple of different ways – by finding drugs at the bench, by developing new painkillers; by developing information tools and trying to help scientists learn more from their data. I’ve taken on high-risk government projects to help protect soldiers out in the field. So how do we move human society ahead and have scientific thought be the catalyst? Everyone has a different driver. Preachers do it with religion, insurance agents with risk tables. Hopefully, I’ll do it with science.”

Where He’s Been

Tarselli earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill in 2008. He worked in the lab of Distinguished Professor Michel (“Mike”) Gagné, and wrote his thesis on gold-catalyzed cyclization reactions.

“My professors at UNC emphasized and demonstrated the values of ‘open-door’ collaboration, humility and thinking outside of your project. I really enjoyed the collegiality of walking lab to lab to see advances in polymers, in new molecular methods and in new catalysts.”

Next on Tarselli’s career trajectory were stops as a postdoctoral fellow in the Micalizio group at Scripps Research (Jupiter, FL, USA), bench chemistry at PharmAgra Labs (Brevard, NC, USA) and senior principal scientist at Biomedisyn Corporation (Woodbridge, CT, USA). Prior to SLAS, Tarselli served as associate director, scientific information systems at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR, Cambridge, MA, USA). His team developed software to empower scientists to discover better molecules, faster.

“I led a diverse team of business analysts, data scientists, technical architects and informaticians across three corporate sites,” Tarselli explains. “Our projects ranged from creation of new systems to deployment of third-party licensed software, targeted data models, academic packages and tactical prototypes. My team helped chemists, synthetic biologists, automation scientists, data miners and NIBR management to learn from their wealth of data.”

At each stop on his career path, Tarselli learned important things from his amazing colleagues and added them to his personal toolbox. Perhaps most importantly, he learned to balance out his ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills so that he was comfortable discussing scientific research and applications in diverse audiences. He’s also adopted several helpful maxims, such as ‘Nothing refines like a deadline,’ ‘publish or perish’ and ‘give more to get more.’ He certainly lives by the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, ‘Nothing great was achieved without enthusiasm!’

Listening to SLAS Members

“There are thousands of sharp minds in the SLAS community,” Tarselli says. “I’m going to listen to them. . . a lot. I’ll be in full listening and sensory mode. There are ideas everywhere, and I want to make sure that I hear from all parties – the tech working in the ‘guts’ of the machinery all the way to executive directors and presidents who run our members’ institutes. Everyone has great ideas and offers a different take on what the Society means to them and how they want to use science to help improve their worlds.”

SLAS recently reformulated the scientific director position, which now involves elements of education, strategy, outreach and investment. Tarselli is analyzing current Society offerings, soon will be hiring a small team and is working with the rest of the SLAS professional team to deliver programs, products, services and events to meet the community’s needs.

“We should always be improving our offerings to the scientific community,” Tarselli says. “SLAS2019 will be my first and best opportunity to be among them and learn their needs. I am looking forward to participating in the conversations in the hallway, seeing which scientific presentations and posters capture the most interest and looking for connections between those presentations and journals science. What I learn and observe will inform the scientific direction of the Society: there’s always room for growth; always room to improve.”

Though SLAS2019 will be Tarselli’s first time at the SLAS flagship conference, he’d heard good things about it. “SLAS’s reputation seems strong. A couple of longtime members told me that SLAS has the meeting in the scientific technology space,” he says. “It’s where they go to see cool vendor demos, and collaborate with other members on bleeding-edge bits of their field. I thought, wow, that’s high praise! I belong to several other scientific societies, and I’ve never heard anyone say you must attend this conference.”

Tarselli cited three SLAS2019 tracks of personal interest to him.

“There’s the familiar – data analysis and informatics – where I feel comfortable, given my information systems role at Novartis,” he says. “I get why you’d want to automate your lab in this way, why you’d want well-curated data to learn from, why you want to push these data to central databases for re-use and why you’d want openness and transparency in your data architecture.

“Then, there is the new cool thing – biologics discovery,” he continues. “For a person like me coming out of organic chemistry, I lean towards small molecules – discrete things that you can characterize, stabilize, put in a bottle and know pretty well. Biologics are quite different. They vary in size, in composition, in complexity. They have different glycosylation patterns. They grow differently depending on gene expression, cell vector and culture conditions. They’re purified and produced differently. Everything about them is new and foreign and exciting to me.

“The last is assay development and screening, as I need to understand the core ‘meat’ of SLAS,” Tarselli says. “We’re known for this. It includes scientific profiling, next generation sciences, functional genomics, hit optimization, screening targets and identification technologies.

“Each of these tracks is interrelated and entangled with all of the others,” he summarizes. “When you get right down to it, many of them are about cells – cell architecture, what cells do, how to characterize cells. Others are about automation – how you move plates around, how you sample appropriately. Most have a strong data component – post-processing, data types, what and how you learn from it. This overlap of diverse fields is what makes SLAS hum.”

He’s More than Science

Tarselli actively helps others explore career opportunities and has been involved in a wealth of mentoring activities since his undergraduate days at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst (UMass). He was chair of the newly-created Philanthropy Task Force and a long-standing director of the non-profit UMass Amherst Alumni Association Board. He regularly leads and/or volunteers at UMass Amherst networking events.

“Providing career advice is one of the most powerful and easiest ways I can give back to a field I love,” says Tarselli. “SLAS’s well-established efforts to engage and encourage young scientists was a key virtue that attracted me to the organization.”

He also is proud to have established the Tarselli Family Research Award at UMass-Amherst – a program which funds summer research for undergraduate chemistry majors exploring biotech careers.

On the personal side, Tarselli “…married a beautiful redhead named Jess back in 2011,” and they welcomed daughter Maia to their family (which also includes a dog and cat) earlier this year.

“Maia is a Latin derivation for the goddess of the spring and the Earth and there is also a dinosaur called the maiasaura,” Tarselli says. “We’ve been taking pictures of her every month in a dinosaur costume. We live in a too-tiny apartment just outside Boston – only 850 square feet, so we are masters of small-scale living – the ‘simplify your life’ movement!”

Tarselli loves the New England Patriots (which he acknowledges may make some SLAS members hate him and never respond to his e-mails). He loves to play video games and grew up with Nintendo and Sega Genesis, now moving to Xbox and Nintendo Switch.

“I also love independent films, dark chocolate and singing and music performance,” Tarselli adds. “I’m a professionally trained concert vocalist, and I often sing in local choirs. Our family also enjoys traveling; in the past three years, we’ve hit up Scotland, Austria, Switzerland and Japan. Our next goals are Canada and South America, now that Maia’s passport has come through.”

Beef, fish or pizza?
None. My wife and I are predominantly vegetarian. Lots of curries, stews and roasts. I do indulge in occasional cheats of bacon and burgers when I travel. Actually, we’re food activists in a way – based on the United Nations’ 2050 Sustainable Development Goals, we’ve tried hard to buy local produce, and supplement our proteins with renewable sources like soy, mycoprotein (fungus) and yes, cricket flour. Bugs don’t taste that bad!

Scientific interests?
If I had to do my Ph.D. over again, I’d choose something that integrated the nascent (though fascinating) fields of redox photochemistry with synthetic biology. Making molecules with light and taking advantage of millennia-old biological pathways to help you sounds like an amazing feat.

Rock, pop, jazz or other?
Jazz and indie music, mostly. I prefer Emerson Radio 88.9 in the car – crazy college music, with special shows on weekends. And a lot of podcasts around innovation, science and storytelling.

Fiction, non-fiction or both? Paper pages or screen?
Nothing quite as good as a real live book – the smell, the physical pages, the typeface. That said, I haven’t used an ‘analog’ book in over two years. Most are Kindle now and tend toward novels and economics books.

Favorite holiday?
We’re Fall people, so it’s gonna have to be a tie between Thanksgiving and fall festivals. Anytime I can get a mug of cider, see leaves changing colors and feel the cool air is well spent.

Beer or wine?
Beer. Amber ales and lagers. Especially from independent breweries, like Slumbrew or Berkshire. Starting to appreciate dry hard ciders, too.

OK…. which video games?
I’m so glad you asked. We default to classic role-playing games series like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. But we’re enjoying the new wave of independent games such as Shovel Knight or Undertale, too. Anything with a catchy soundtrack, engaging story and slightly tough gameplay hits all the right buttons.

Favorite dinosaur?
Maiasaura, of course! Though, as a kid, I was partial to ankylosaurus, because in one of my first books one was drawn as whomping a T-rex in the head with its armored tail.

November 19, 2018