May 31, 2018 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! What I Wish I Knew in High School

Justin Reitsma shares what he wishes he knew in high school – and why curiosity leads to understanding the complexities of life.

Justin Reitsma, senior scientist, discovery, AbbVie

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of his or her labs to hear what makes them tick. This month, we met Justin Reitsma, Ph.D. Most people just think he’s a scientist, but he’s really a molecular biologist and geneticist applying advanced proteomic techniques to discover novel drug targets. And, boy, would his high school self think that was cool.

How did you fall in love with science?

I’ve always wanted to know how things work. Some of my earliest memories are of pretending to be a scientist: playing and mixing chemicals from my neighbor’s tractor shed, or dissecting toads and frogs that had already seen their last days. Something about discovery and exploring the unknown has always made me tick.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A scientist, a professional football player, or both! In the end, I found a balance by playing college ball, and on local flag teams during study breaks in graduate school.

What is your advice to children interested in a career like yours?

First, I like to nurture the mindset of a scientist. Be curious. Ask questions. Experiment. Adapt and try again. Second, I simply like to let kids know that science is a career option. Growing up in a rural community, a physician was the closest thing to a scientist. I never met a chemist or biologist, and the only famous scientist I knew of was Albert Einstein. There wasn’t a single mention of “scientist” in all of the career development events at my high school.

If we were to ask your family what it is that you do, what would they say?

It depends upon who in my family you ask. To my grandparents, I was a physician. They’d always ask me how to treat their various ailments. To the remainder of my family, I am a scientist working to cure diseases. To my wife – a fellow scientist – I am a molecular biologist and geneticist applying advanced proteomic techniques to discover novel drug targets.

What was the last science-related movie you saw? What appealed to you about it? How accurate/close to reality was it?

The last science-related movie that I saw was probably Interstellar. Two things appealed to me: (1) I remember working at Caltech while watching Christopher Nolan and Matthew McConaughey strolling around campus interviewing physicists like Kip Thorne. To me, this meant the creators of the movie were serious about incorporating real aspects of physics and quantum physics into the movie. (2) A movie based on aspects of real-life space travel really fascinates me. I have always imagined what it would be like to step foot on a different planet outside our galaxy; to be the real-life alien.

What keeps you coming to work every day?

Curiosity. At a higher level, the pursuit of moving science forward in a meaningful way that has the potential to alleviate human pain and suffering. These two necessarily work together to drive me to the lab and direct the focus of my work.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

There are so many reasons why science rocks! Science rocks because the enterprise focuses on figuring out some of the deepest complexities of life. Science fosters an environment that allows your curiosity to take control. Personally, it’s an incredible feeling when you discover a new protein or understanding of a mechanism that cells use to regulate their physiology that has been around for millions of years.

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