Text written by Nóra Lehotai and Thanat Chookajorn. Pictures owned by Thanat Chookajorn and Mahidol University, Thailand.
I interviewed Thanat Chookajorn, who joined the Billker lab at MIMS in March 2021. Thanat shares his life with his partner and their two dogs. Before this phase in his career, he studied or worked in several countries around the world: Thailand, his homecountry, the US, the UK, Spain, Israel (which he is very fond of), Russia and Cambodia.
Picture: Thanat Chookajorn. Credit: Mahidol University, Thailand.
Can you tell us about your role at MIMS, what are you working on now?
I am a senior research engineer in the Billker group. One of my projects is on developing a single-cell system to study mosquito organogenesis and evolution; how they make key organs and how they affect the transmission of malaria parasites. In parallel with this position at MIMS, I am also running a COVID-19 surveillance and sequencing team in South-East Asia. I am an assistant professor in Thailand and serve as the head of the Genomics and Evolutionary Medicine Unit at Mahidol University. We worked on malaria drug resistance in the past, and we used whole genome sequencing to understand the evolution of the malaria parasite in South-East Asia. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, we started to shift our focus to virus sequencing and surveillance.
What were you doing before you joined MIMS and what attracted you to start a position here?
As a PhD student, studying plant biochemistry, and a postdoc, I did basic research, which I am passionate about. When I moved back to Thailand though, I changed from doing basic research to doing malaria research in the field because that was needed. Malaria drug resistance is a major problem in the region; I did more and more research on this subject in order to understand what happened to the parasites in Thailand and why they are prone to develop resistance. The Wellcome Sanger Institute organized courses several times in Thailand. This is how I met Oliver Billker and Ellen Bushell for the first time, which later resulted in my visits to the Billker lab in the UK where I realized that I have missed basic research. I have been away from it for more than 10 years, at this point. It can be hard to pick up doing basic research again. So, I am very grateful that I got the opportunity to restart it when joining Oliver’s group here at MIMS.
I also appreciate the supportive environment at the institute, it is very helpful. Even though MIMS is quite a small institute, there are many excellent researchers here, working at the front of their respective fields. This has made me appreciate the opportunity to come here.
How was it to start at a new workplace during the pandemic?
I attended a UCMR event in early 2020, and Oliver offered me the opportunity to come and work at MIMS. That time, I thought that yes, it could be possible to move soon. I also told Oliver that I have heard that there is an outbreak of some sort in China, but probably it is not that bad. Soon, I got a lot of calls from Thailand and upon returning home, I got quickly involved in the fight against the pandemic. A year later, I arrived.
It was challenging to start working during the pandemic, but I noticed that people here tried to organize work and keeping each other safe at their best. With the established system within the group, it works well, I think. We take turns using lab space, so few people spent time together, and the group meetings on Zoom worked well too. The funny thing is that, by now, I recognize some people with mask on but not without.
If you would not have your current profession, what do you think you would be doing?
I have thought about this a lot, and I would be a professor in Classical studies, studying the Roman culture.
What do you do in your free time and what are you most enjoying in living in Umeå, Sweden?
I really like the winter here because it is so different from the Thai climate, which is very summery. I like to walk to the Bölesholmarna islet on the river. Interestingly, “walking” here can be quite a different activity than in Thailand. There it usually means taking a stroll in a garden. But, in Umeå, when someone invited you for a walk, it could mean hiking into the forest. After my first invitation for a walk here, I decided to buy my first pair of hiking shoes. Mosquitos in the forest are fine. I work with them, I don’t get bothered by them because, in Thailand, there are many pathogens transmitted by the mosquitos, but not that many here.
Picture: Connie, Thanat and Catie out on a walk. Credit: Theeraat Kochakarn
Is there a little known/interesting fact about yourself?
From my very first salary, I bought the video game “Zelda: The wind breaker” for my Nintendo GameCube. Finally, I did not need to ask for my parents' permission to get a game. I was very happy.
When the pandemic ends, and I have more free time, I might start to play “Zelda: Breath of the wild” (as recommended by Nóra as well).