June Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Eliezer Calo

Photo Credit: E. Calo

June 28, 2019

Cultivating a new career path

Assistant Biology Professor Eliezer Calo's love for science lead him from his family's farm in Puerto Rico to MIT.

J. Carota | CSB Graduate Office

Located high in the mountains of Puerto Rico, the town of Barrazas is not easily located by GPS.

Here on this rich farmland is where Eliezer Calo--and his family for generations before him-- grew up. Memories of his childhood include harvesting crops of lettuce and cilantro with his four younger brothers, caring for livestock, and riding horses. Calo describes his upbringing as simple and humble. “Resources were limited, and we didn’t have access to many things that other children did.” Calo and his brothers attended public schools and did not have access to computers growing up; Calo admits he wasn’t drawn to his science or math classes. “I was just having fun with my brothers on the farm. I never thought for a second that I would be a scientist.” Though Calo loved the countryside, he felt the need to deviate away from farming. Finding the courage within himself, he decided to change his career path through education.

Calo was the first in his family to attend college. He attended the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, and it was here that he was first exposed to science. His chemistry instructor, Dr. Rosa Flores, was completing her postdoc and encouraged Calo to work with her on the role of purinergic receptor signaling in the central nervous system. Through his work with Flores, Calo fell in love with science, but he still wasn’t interested in becoming a scientist. “It was not necessarily my intention to continue on in science, particularly because I was not planning to do a PhD in Puerto Rico [because] resources are limited in Puerto Rico and PhDs take very long time,” Calo explains.

While studying as an undergraduate, Calo needed to secure funding for himself in order to focus on research. He applied and was selected for two NIH-funded programs, Research Training Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC). As a fellow, Calo was required to attend a conference once a year, and it was at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in Dallas, Texas that Calo learned about the research his peers were performing across the United States He describes this experience as eye-opening for him, but he was still not convinced he would be become a scientist until he met Dr. Mandana Sassanfar and learned about the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP Bio). This MIT program admits talented underrepresented minorities and underserved undergraduate students and provides each student with research-intensive summer training. With encouragement from Dr. Sassanfar, Calo applied and was selected into the MSRP program. If not for the financial support of these programs, Calo would have needed to obtain a job and predicts that he may not have finished his undergraduate degree.

Despite his excitement, he was also nervous about moving away from home for the summer and performing research he was unfamiliar with; however, he pushed his fears aside and came to MIT in the summer of 2005.

Entering the MSRP program was a game-changer for Calo. “In MSRP, I could see for the first time how science can be done with the right resources. It makes a difference because then you can see the sky is the limit.” With this new perspective, Calo now could see himself as a scientist. After MSRP concluded, Calo arrived back home eager to complete his senior year and apply to graduate school.

After applying to several graduate schools, he received numerous invitations, including one from the MIT Biology department. Calo felt comfortable here at MIT and he knew that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join MIT for his PhD, which he began in the fall of 2006.

Even though MIT was familiar to Calo due to his participation in the MSRP program, he remembers his first semester at MIT as very demanding. “I had to put a lot of effort into studying, as the classes at MIT are challenging.” He also points out that the education system in the US is different than that of Puerto Rico. The shift from studying solely textbooks, to analyzing primary literature and problem solving were methods that he had to adjust to.

Knowing his own strengths and weaknesses in the classroom allowed him to ask for help when he needed it. For example, Calo did not have strong background in genetics, so when he enrolled in the course, he sought out a tutor. “I think one of the most important things I tell my students today is that if you are trying to achieve something and you need help, ask for it. Don’t worry what others may think.”

What made the biggest difference his first year at MIT was the support he received from Prof. Stephen Bell and Dr. Mandana Sassanfar, as well as his classmates. “The way the Biology PhD program is structured you spend so much time with your classmates that it makes the difficult classes more bearable. Having my classmates for support was really helpful,” Calo recalls.

When Calo first arrived on campus, he was sure that he would enter immunology research. He performed his three required rotations with two immunology-focused labs, but the work in his third rotation with Jackie Lee’s lab drew him to cancer biology.

The project that Calo took on in the Lees lab was investigating the role of the retinoblastoma (Rb) tumor suppressor gene and its control of stem cell decision. Specifically, Calo was looking at mesenchymal stem cells (precursors of the bone, muscle and fat lineage) and how mutations in the Rb gene shift the fate of those stems cells, resulting in tumor formation. Although he wasn’t sure of his next steps after graduating, Calo’s thesis committee encouraged him to do an academic postdoc. Ready for a fresh experience, Calo began his postdoc in the lab of Joanna Wysocka at Stanford University.

His project in the Wysocka lab focused on RNA metabolism; Calo researched the RNA helicase DDX21. At the time, the function of this protein was unknown, but the Wysocka lab found that this enzyme involved in regulating the ability of the cell to make ribosomes. A mutation in this gene causes developmental disorders associated with ribosome dysfunction. The key to Calo’s success as a postdoc is due in part to the knowledge and confidence he gained at MIT to tackle biological questions experimentally. In addition to his graduate training, Wysocka’s mentorship also played a role as she encouraged him to be creative and to approach scientific questions in unconventional ways.

As the end of his postdoctoral training neared, Calo was uncertain of the path he should take due to his own self-doubt, but Wysocka encouraged him to apply to faculty positions and test the waters. Calo received several offers in California as well as one at MIT in the Biology Department. Ultimately, Calo chose to return to MIT once again for two reasons: MIT’s commitment to teaching as well as research, and their community of exceptional students.

Calo joined the MIT Biology department as assistant professor in January 2017. Located in Building 68, the Calo lab studies how cells make ribosomes and why deficiencies in ribosomes affect some cell types but not others. His lab is particularly interested in understanding the underlying mechanisms of two rare childhood disorders: Treacher Collins Syndrome and Diamond-Blackfan Anemia. Treacher Collins Syndrome causes cranio-facial abnormalities and Diamond-Blackfan Anemia causes the body to create fewer than normal red blood cells as well as causing cancer in adulthood. Because the genes that are mutated in these syndromes are known, the Calo Lab can use them as a platform to study how ribosomes are maintained. The lab generates models in zebrafish so that they can further develop tools to understand ribosome maintenance in specific tissues.

Calo has been fortunate to have experienced MIT on multiple levels—as an MSRP student, a graduate student, and now as a PI. He believes MIT is a very special place with a greatenvironment for training and collaboration. “I think that the students are given a very unique opportunity to come here and do something important for science. We take our students very seriously here and I think that the support that the students receive is very unique and allows them to flourish and move forward. I think that’s what distinguishes MIT from other schools.”

Calo expresses his immense appreciation for the MIT Summer Research Program by participating every year. “MSRP gave me an opportunity to discover that I really like science and could continue doing science. I have committed to host MSRP students so that they can have the same experience,” Calo states. He finds giving back to MSRP incredibly rewarding, and has hosted two MSRP students since starting his lab. Both students have gone on to graduate school.

A piece of advice that he imparts on the MSRP students is to “go to a lab that you love and find the science interesting, but keep in mind whatever you are interested in at this moment might change once you start rotating. You might find that after practicing at the bench what you thought you liked is no longer what you want to do. It’s fine to change your mind.”

Many of the MSRP students can relate to Calo as they share a similar background--and share the same feelings of inadequacy Calo once felt. “Many are afraid of what is out there and worry if they good enough. I encourage them to not worry about what other people think--just do you.”