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Juan Mauricio Pérez on Teaching Tissue Culture

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

After attending a Harvard Stem Cell Institute training during his time in college on the promise of sharing what he learned with others, Juan Mauricio (Maurice) Pérez realized that not only did he love working with cells, but he was also passionate about teaching. Now, he enables scientific translation by training Wyss researchers in tissue culture, biosafety, and lab best practices – all while keeping a smile on his face and bringing joy and laughter to others. Learn more about Maurice and his work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.

What does your job entail?

Juan Mauricio Pérez on Teaching Tissue Culture
Juan Mauricio (Maurice) Pérez , Research Assistant III – Senior Tissue Culture Technician. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The most important thing I do is train Wyss personnel in cell culture, so they have the confidence to grow cells correctly. Cell culture is the process of growing cells in a controlled environment where they wouldn’t exist naturally, so outside of a living organism. I also help with microbiota training. My other very important job is teaching safety techniques and good lab practices – once you have those two things, everything else will go smoothly. This year alone I have trained 200-300 people. We always have visiting graduate students rotating through, so there’s always someone new to teach. That’s what I love. I also want to make cell culture fun! I know that people are working hard, and they can be in the tissue culture rooms for a few hours. I want them to enjoy this time. I arrive every day with a smile because I love what I do, and I want them to feel that way too.

How does your job support scientific translation?

Everybody at the Wyss must be trained and prove they have good techniques before they can start growing cells to use in projects working towards scientific translation. Every day we have between 20-30 people from various Platforms coming in and out of the cell culture rooms. They are all working on different experiments. The training I provide is essential because if something goes wrong, it could negatively affect not only their experiment, but multiple experiments across many Platforms.

For example, cells grow in a special medium. If you don’t change the medium, they can start to release contaminants that can be toxic to cells in your project and other projects. Also, you might think that not wearing a lab coat only negatively affects your own safety, but your skin cells could fall into your experiment and contaminate your medium, killing your cells. You might also have contamination if you use glass that hasn’t been cleaned properly. These are just some reasons why it is so important that people learn proper lab protocols.

Luckily, with the training we provide, things usually go right. People I’ve trained have seen great success developing impactful technology and some have even left with Wyss startups. This wouldn’t be possible without the foundational knowledge of how to grow cells and how to work safely in the lab.

I arrive every day with a smile because I love what I do, and I want them to feel that way too.

Maurice Pérez

What inspired you to get into this field?

I was working in retail when I decided I wanted to finish my college degree, so I went back to school to study biotechnology. At the same time, I worked as a lab technician. I learned fermentation and how to work with cells and microbiota. Cells fascinated me, and I found a one-week intensive stem cell training through the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) that I wanted to attend. Initially they rejected me because I wasn’t enrolled at Harvard, but my professor wrote a letter to HSCI explaining that I wanted to learn new techniques so that I could teach others and they admitted me. I later took another hands-on one-week intensive course at HSCI. There, I learned theory and the ins and outs of working with stem cells. This was the first time I knew I wanted to teach people, which has become a huge motivator for me. I was grateful for the opportunity and knew it was my turn to pass on the knowledge to others.

After I got my degree, I briefly worked with fermentation for a few years, but then I realized I really like working with cells. Growing cells is fun. So, I started looking for jobs where I could do that. I spent time working in biotech and at the Broad Institute perfecting my abilities. The Wyss allows me to combine my passions for cells and teaching others.

Why did you want to work at the Wyss?

Because of my experience with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and the University’s reputation of course, I always dreamed of working at Harvard. HSCI were the ones who first taught me, and I wanted to use that knowledge to teach others. At the time, I was looking for jobs in biotech companies, but many were hiring short-term contract positions. Tired of these types of opportunities and the cold weather, I was considering giving up and leaving Massachusetts when I saw that the Wyss was looking for a lab assistant. As I learned more about the Institute, I knew I’d be a great fit. Luckily, the hiring managers saw something in me and offered me the long-term position I wanted.

We started organizing things and shaping the way lab operations would work. We were able to be part of the growth and development of the organization, which was incredibly motivating.

Maurice Pérez
Juan Mauricio Pérez on Teaching Tissue Culture
Maurice with his colleagues Rob Rasmussen and Mike Carr. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The core research operations team, Rob Rasmussen, Mike Carr, and I, began around the same time. Working with them is amazing and strengthened my desire to be at the Wyss. We started organizing things and shaping the way lab operations would work. That was the best! We were able to be part of the growth and development of the organization, which was incredibly motivating.

What excites you about your work?

Training people to perform cell culture processes correctly and to eventually be self-sufficient is exciting. I especially love working with inexperienced people, but teaching anyone is fun. Also, knowing that my job is making an impact on all the other projects is great – I teach people from the Brain Targeting Program, the lung team, the intestine team, and more how to grow their cells and then I get to see them succeeding.

What are some of the challenges that you face?

I’m not here to try and change people’s existing habits, but they must follow the safety standards we have for everyone at the Wyss. Occasionally someone thinks they are above the rules. They’ll ask Rob Rasmussen if they really need to wear pants, for example, or if shorts are okay, but they must have their legs covered. These rules are for everyone’s safety and help ensure the success of their experiments. For the most part though, everyone at the Wyss is very flexible and willing to learn. We have researchers from all over the world, so everyone is coming to the table with their own experiences. Typically, they are eager to learn how things are done here and follow our safety protocols.    

What is unique about the Wyss? How does that impact your work?

The variety of projects and how it is always growing and changing. I may be teaching consistent practices, but it’s different every time I teach it because I’m working with a new person on a new project. The changes bring new learning experiences, which is very exciting. My time at the Wyss is never boring and is always fun. I love being here every day and helping people. It’s great to be in a place where you like coming to work.

How have your previous work experiences shaped your approach to your work today?

Juan Mauricio Pérez on Teaching Tissue Culture
Maurice loves making cell culture and lab safety fun. In 2019, he dressed as a biosafety contamination for the Wyss halloween party. Here he is pictured with some colleagues. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The skills I’ve gained, like how to recognize different shapes of cells and recommend different media, inform what I do every day. One important ability is that I can translate a complicated protocol into an easy one. I’ve set up a simple protocol to train everybody. My approach is to teach everyone proper techniques, without shortcuts. Then, when they’re doing it by themselves, and they get more comfortable, they can truly understand what they’re doing and alter the protocol to add different things like viruses or pathogens or apply the methods to a new project.

I’ve had to work using Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and can recognize them. I’m also a trained FDA Clinical Investigator. While I’ve never officially worked in this capacity, the knowledge is beneficial when researchers come to me and ask for help troubleshooting what is going wrong with their cells. It’s fun for me to incorporate all my previous experiences across industry to teach them to grow cells and help solve their problems in the lab.

Also, based on my own learning style and educational experiences, my approach is to make training fun. I create graphs and try to make the protocols accessible for visual learners. I use hands-on instruction. I like to make jokes and create a joyful atmosphere.

When you’re not at the Wyss, how do you like to spend your time?

Traveling. I haven’t always done this, but one day I decided that instead of going back home to Colombia all the time, I should go explore other destinations. Every time I go to a new place it’s beautiful. I recently went to Stockholm, and I loved it. Visby was beautiful. Venice was beautiful. I also like quiet places you can discover, like Montenegro, where there was beautiful crystal-clear water. I enjoy going to the beach to swim. Of course, I still help my family as much as I can, but after being trapped for two years because of COVID-19, I have an even greater appreciation for travel.

Even when I’m local, I’ll go to the White Mountains or to a lake in Vermont or go have coffee in a different café. I love to see new things every day. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking down an unfamiliar street. When I’m going on my adventures, I enjoy taking photos and sharing them. Back at work, people are always asking me where I’ve been. I love that.

I want to continue to discover new things and see as much as I can now, not wait until I am retired. Life is short and I think we should enjoy it.

What is something interesting about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resume?

Juan Mauricio Pérez on Teaching Tissue Culture
Some pages from Maurice’s postcard collection. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

I collect postcards, coins, and paper money from around the world. I have postcards dating back to the 1990s. It’s really great to work somewhere as diverse as the Wyss, because people will bring me postcards from their home country or their travels as well.

If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?

I think I’d like to work for a travel agency or as a flight attendant. I’d like a job that would bring me around the world. This world is so beautiful, or at least what I’ve seen of it so far.

What does it feel like to be working to support cutting-edge research that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?

When I know that people who arrived at the Wyss with no cell culture experience, then learned from me and are now doing great work and making a big impact, that’s incredible.

Maurice Pérez

It makes me so happy. I always tell people who are leaving, remember who trained you. I want to empower people to solve problems when I’m not around. Their success means that my training is having a huge effect. For example, I can think of one woman who started at the Wyss as a Research Assistant having never worked with cells before. I instructed her, she had great success here, and recently spun out as an Associate Scientist with a Wyss startup that will have a positive effect on the world. Seeing that is amazing. When I know that people who arrived at the Wyss with no cell culture experience, then learned from me and are now doing great work and making a big impact, that’s incredible.


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