Why we research

Abdel Rahman AbdelFattah

Sand and Water: Carving a Research Legacy

I am a bioengineer working on understanding how mechanical forces shape tissues during human development. How I got to this point is a convoluted story, and I will use Sand and Water, two key attributes of Egypt, my homeland, to convey my love for research.

Act I – Origin: I was born in Egypt in the late 80s. As I learned about my ancestors, I was fascinated with how they organized themselves to be the first civilization lasting many thousands of years, bringing upon unparalleled achievements in science, justice, and medicine. Flashforward to the 80s and 90s, I saw only remnants of their legacy, few stones of peculiar arrangements that defy our understanding of a forgotten people. I wanted to bring back this legacy, see today’s world through their eyes, ponder at the workings of its nature in the pioneering way they acquired that knowledge. This made my ancestors unique, gave them an identity. I love doing research because of the sense of uniqueness it gives me and because the knowledge I gain becomes part of my identity.

Act II - Sandbox: Research for me is also about challenging the status quo, constantly trying new theories and going where no one has gone before. This demands a lot of exploring. Similarly, growing up I was exploring my research interests, I was drawn to astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mechanics, but I knew I hated biology. I became an expert at taking apart old kitchen equipment and when asked to put it back together, I often replied arrogantly “why? I already know how it works”. By the time I made it to University, my exploration led me to the Mechanical Engineering discipline. A field that branches off to many interesting fields from jet engines to microfluidics for biotechnology - multidisciplinary just like me. My research projects were extremely diverse, from creating a mechanical art piece with the Arts Department, to optimizing wind turbine blades, and I liked being versatile in my research directions. This versatility is important because at the beginning of every project, what I call the “Sandbox stage”, I need to test out new theories and be flexible in my approaches to answer fundamental questions. Failure at this stage is bountiful. It is not about minimizing this failure but rather spotting a way forward. As a consequence, a project’s direction is never straight.

Act III - Bends and turns: When the Nile is challenged by the desert, it doesn’t stagnate, it bends and flows finding its way to the sea. I too must know when and where to pivot during my research journey. But the time you spend going down one path, you’re not spending exploring another. How do you choose? I was accepted to a PhD program in Mechanical Engineering in Canada. At first, my focus was on synthetic materials. But when the opportunity arose to join hands with biologists, I suddenly forgot about my hate for biology: I dove right in, and became a bioengineer. This pivoting brought back the feeling of versatility but also the sense of being at the edge of the unknown - an uncharted desert and chance to explore. I pivoted once more, this time to Belgium. As a postdoc, I discovered how stretching organoids affect cell identity, a first in the field. I loved how a dynamic research journey can lead to such fantastic discoveries. I chose my field because it is new and there is a lot to discover. I know it will challenge me and, like the Nile found its way to the sea in bends and turns, my research will need to find its way in the sandbox that is my lab. With every challenge I learn new concepts that empower me to choose a path forward. I, therefore, learned it’s not about the right path itself, but rather finding new challenges that are worth solving.

Act IV - Erosion: The Nile doesn’t just bend its way through desert, it also erodes and carves its riverbed. Similarly, we carve our way through the boundaries of known knowledge. But erosion is sometimes irregular, and where you intend on going, may not be where you end up. Research can be spontaneous, and I learned to have the stamina to follow irregular paths. Perhaps the most joyful of all times, is sitting in a dark microscope room, the hum of machines in the background, reviewing my time-lapse, realizing that epithelial cells were moving their extracellular matrix to help them organize. My heart skipped a beat, this is new, I’m the only one in the world that saw this. I felt the boundary of science move - erosion. This for me makes all the hard work worthwhile. The feeling is indescribable, and I can’t wait to tell the world about my discoveries.

Act V - Legacy: Much like how I came to love research, every research project has an origin (idea inception), a sandbox stage (testing out theories), eventually you form a river through the sand with many bends and turns (change directions and expectations) and along the way you carve through the landscape and shape the project. We then craft our research legacies through scientific communications, something I truly cherish. Because of research, I know I am continuing a legacy left behind by my ancestors, a legacy of seeking the unknown. No matter how small or big a contribution, I was seeing my world through their inquisitive eyes. I can say to myself, I know the nature of a few things. But together we know the nature of many things, and we must work collaboratively and less egocentrically if we are to truly explore our universe.

Unlike the Nile, I’m not sure if I will ever find a sea, but I will continue to pivot and find new challenges and paths forward, leaving behind a riverbed legacy for future generations to use, navigate and carve their own. This is why I love research the most.

At the time of writing, Abdel Rahman AbdelFattah is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.