Dr. Robert Battaglia

By Ahmet Bakirbas

Dr. Robert Battaglia is a post-doctoral researcher in Prof. Gene-Wei Li's laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he investigates mechanisms of transcription across species of bacteria. Dr. Battaglia completed his undergraduate degree in Biology from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY where he worked in laboratory of Dr. Fernando Ontiveros. He greatly valued his undergraduate research experience and continues to “really admire Dr. Ontiveros' ability to take on and excel at different endeavors. I aspire to bring this can-do attitude to my own research." For graduate school Dr. Battaglia moved to Cornell University to study the structure and function of bacterial riboswitches in Prof. Ailong Ke's laboratory. He was drawn to his PhD research by the chance to use X-ray crystallography to see the RNA molecules no one had [yet] visualized. Because Prof. Ke “was always open to discussing new ideas and gave me honest feedback that helped me grow as a scientist," Dr. Ke’s lab was a great fit for Dr. Battaglia.

It was the notion that RNA structures could carry information, in addition to the information they contain within their sequence, that drew Robert to work on riboswitches. During his PhD, he successfully crystalized and solved the structures of several riboswitches using X-ray crystallography. His research demonstrated that T-box riboswitches can accommodate the binding of both uncharged and charged tRNAs. tRNAs are still Dr. Battaglia’s favorite RNAs because of how efficiently they facilitate the flow of information from RNA to protein. He says “tRNAs are the unsung heroes of the central dogma.” Dr. Battaglia’s work continues to be inspired by his deep interest in riboswitches and tRNA-related processes. As a post-doctoral fellow at MIT, the project that he is most excited about these days is to understand the implications of transcription and translation being mostly uncoupled processes in the model bacterium B. subtilis. "The idea that the translating ribosome directly trails transcribing RNA polymerase in bacteria has shaped our understanding of how a lot of gene regulatory mechanisms work in prokaryotes. Reexamining that paradigm by studying these mechanisms in bacteria with "runaway" transcription should reveal interesting new biology." In the future, as technologies advance, Dr. Battaglia’s dream project would be to observe a live cell perform transcription at a near-atomic resolution in real time. This would allow him to witness every key event during the ‘birth’ of an mRNA in bacteria.

"You never know where the inspiration for a breakthrough could come from."

While talking about scientific inspirations, Dr. Battaglia has some advice for graduate students in the RNA biology field. He strongly advises graduate students to stay curious. "It's easy to have tunnel vision on your current project, but I think it's important to keep learning about areas you find interesting even if they seem unrelated to your research. You never know where the inspiration for a breakthrough could come from.” He also emphasizes the importance of discussing your research with other people, especially other graduate students, and postdocs. Dr. Battaglia believes that explaining your research to someone else can help to clarify your perspective on your project and noted that listening to advice from someone else's perspective is often helpful for solving experimental problems. 

Dr. Battaglia has attended three annual meetings of the RNA Society. The most memorable of these was his first RNA Society meeting in 2017 in Prague. He recalls visiting his friends in the Czech countryside for dinner the night before his talk during a plenary session, which ended up calming his nerves before his big day.  Outside of the lab, Dr. Battaglia likes to run, read fiction novels, and go fishing. Readers can follow him on Twitter @RNABob.