#NewProfessor @MNF: Jason Holland


Jason Holland works at the interface of inorganic chemistry and medicine. His goal: develop new radiotracers and biomarkers for diagnostic and treatment monitoring purposes. 

Three of his markers are already in clinical use. Holland is now setting up his lab at UZH, a new radioactive facility, and holds both a SNF and an ERC grant. He wants to be operational within the next year. In his spare time he likes climbing mountains with his Swiss wife.

«Creativity does not come from 24x7 work», Prof. Jason Holland 

Why is there a need for new biomarkers? Are the current ones not good enough?

Jason Holland (JH): Let us take the current PSA-test which is used for diagnosing prostate cancer. This test is not specific enough. Some of the latest radiotracers that I have been involved in developing are now in phase II trials. Targeting cancer-specific membrane-bound markers has already proved much more specific at showing individual lesions. With such a imaging biomarkers we will be able to understand the changes in biochemistry of cancer and monitor cancer treatment more effectively, limiting the negative side effects. So the answer to your question is a clear “yes” – new biomarkers, and tools to detect them, are urgently needed.

Did you always want to become a chemist?
JH: I first started with physical geography, but then choose chemistry. The idea of studying volcanoes and glaciers was fascinating when I was a teenager but creating new molecules is even more exciting. 

Now this is quite a difference. What were the reasons for this change of subject?
JH: Because chemistry is difficult. I wanted to be tested and challenged in my studies. Furthermore, I wanted something to take forward into a career.

This sounds pretty ambitious. Do your parents have an academic background which made this move somewhat more evident?
JH: Not at all. I am the first person in my family to go to University. But I am a competitive person – not toward other people – but definitely with myself. 

The stations in your CV are manifold – from Oxford to New York to Switzerland back to US and then back to Switzerland. Was it difficult to match your professional life with your private life?
JH: Indeed. For quite some time my then future wife – a Swiss biologist whom I met whilst working as a Postdoc at ETH – where leading a long distance relation between Boston and Zurich. We often met in the middle in places like Iceland or the Azores. At a certain point we had to make a choice and the result was that I moved to Switzerland without having an academic position or a grant in place. The whole grant cycle from first concept to receiving the money typically requires two years. I even spent time unemployed whilst submitting applications but fortunately it turned out well. In the end, I was very lucky and was awarded both a SNF and an ERC grant. 

What about your work-life balance? Do you have one?
JH: Well, currently things are very busy at work. Setting up a new synthesis and radioactive laboratory, and recruiting the right staff, is pretty time consuming. On the weekends I spend time with my family. We enjoy hiking and climbing, and going for Geo-caching treasure hunts. A good balance is very important, because creativity does not come from 24x7 work. 

What advice would you give to PhD student of yours who are considering an academic career?
JH: The current climate should not be taken lightly as the chances of succeeding are small. You need to understand how the academic system works and should know that later you will likely face hard choices, often involving other people. Also, you should know that there is a fundamental difference between being a PhD and Postdoc. A PhD is a training degree, a time where you learn how be a scientist and hopefully have the freedom to try crazy ideas.  A successful Postdoc will obviously continue to learn experimentally and develop a strong scientific reputation, but should also seek to acquire other skills – practical career skills such as writing grant applications, being responsible for a budget and mentoring students. I’m still learning!


Interview: Dr. Calista Fischer, Faculty of Science