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  • Writer's pictureZalli Foundation

Making a Significant Impact in Space Scientific Research

Professor Joseph Borg is an academic, molecular geneticist and principal investigator at the University of Malta. His primary interest is the understanding of the development globin gene switching, regulation and control of erythropoiesis and the use of next-generation sequencing tools to uncover locked secrets of life. He leads the Borg Group at the University of Malta – with most of his students reading for M.Sc and PhD degrees focusing on life sciences.


Joseph, welcome to the leaders' show. It is a great honour to have you here. As a scientist interested in space research, I am very much inspired by you. How did you start your scientific career? Did you always want to be a scientist?

My scientific career was inspired by my brothers. I have two elder brothers, Arrigo and Adrian. In terms of science, they both have different areas of interest. My elder brother works at the air traffic services, and my middle brother works for an electronics company. While growing up, I used to see a lot of chemistry sets and tiny experiments being done at home, so I think the environment was there. I always wanted to become a scientist. The idea of working in a laboratory, doing experiments, and identifying new discoveries is something I always wanted to do.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

I think my greatest accomplishment in the context of science was a major breakthrough that came during my PhD year when I was working on a very specific family study. This was all about haemoglobin gene switching. As part of my research, I discovered and identified a novel or new DNA mutation that caused a shift in the balance of the haemoglobin levels in the blood.

This discovery led many other research groups in Europe and elsewhere to also look at these gene mutations and variants. In fact, many research groups were identifying these variants. This original discovery that I made was published in Nature Genetics, one of the greatest scientific papers, together with my mentor and also my research team. It is something of which I am very proud.

What are the most important attributes of successful leaders today?

I think there are many important attributes of a successful leader. Today, we live in a challenging time. These challenges come, ironically enough, because of the fast pace and the rapid developments that we experience day in and day out. Now we live in a time where sequencing the human genome no longer takes many years, just like we did in 2000 and 2001.

Nowadays, we can sequence genomes in a span of a few days, maybe a week. We also live in a time when we are rapidly producing data, but that data is being analysed and interpreted at a much slower pace than we would like. This highlights the significance of informatics, bio-informatics, and systems biology. I think in order to be successful as a leader in this day and age, you need to keep up to date; that is a prerequisite. Otherwise, you are stuck in a rut or kept way behind.

Also, I think it is extremely important to delegate, network, and collaborate. For a person to be successful and a great leader, he cannot be a jack of all trades and a master of none. You have to excel in an area, but you also have to delegate and discuss with your colleagues and peers in order to move forward. An interesting quote or something that comes to mind is that people, scientists, and leaders can move very quickly, especially when working alone.

However, we really want not just to move fast but to arrive at the destination, reach objectives, and achieve the scope we want. To achieve this, we need to run together. Together, we can run—maybe not fast, but we can run very far. Your ultimate objective is the most important attribute. So, be humble, always attentive, and listen to your peers. There’s no room for egos.

What are your current goals?

There are many goals that I have, but I believe that some of the most important ones are to understand life in all its glory, which includes not only human life but also the intricate mechanisms that allow a cell to live. This is always an ongoing goal, so I'm not sure when I'll reach its conclusion. It will most likely be years before I reach that point.

Other goals are to fully elucidate these intricate mechanisms that control red cell production and haemoglobin switching. It is a goal that I’ve been working on for many years. Lastly, together with my team, we have a number of other goals that, if we roll the mouse, should become world firsts, and we are really working hard to achieve those goals. We are hoping to make them public and rolled out to the community at large soon. It should have some meaningful impact and repetitive effects, not just on the community of people who work in space biology per se, but also on space in general.

Can you tell us a little more about your involvement with Spaceomix and other Studies?

Space omics is something that I have founded, and supported by colleagues Gordon Grech and Justin Fenech, who come from the private sector, and co-founded Arkafort, which is a data technology company. In fact, Arkafort, with space omics and my academic studies, helped us with the data connection from Malta to the International Space Station when we sent our first and second Maleth programme missions. We have sent two Maleth programme missions so far. The first Maleth, was in 2021, and it was the very first space bioscience mission sent from Malta to space. We sent our second follow-up mission in the summer of 2022, and we are, of course, now conducting our experiments in the lab to see the results and to see whether we manage to replicate the findings.

Through the support and collaboration with Dr Wasim Ahmed’s Metavisionaries and other partners - a third, possibly final, mission under the Maleth programme will be sent this year in March on SpaceX CRS-27. This third mission is very important. I'm very excited about it because, for the first time, we have some very interesting international collaborators who are also putting in their samples on this mission, so I'm looking forward to that.

Other studies, such as the blood project on SpaceX / Polaris Dawn crew also taking place this year is an impeccable studies. It has been devised and planned by Jared Isaacman and his team based in the United States. There is Chris Mason, who is, of course, a leading and authoritative figure in space science. The idea here is that, in the past, we have seen published studies about how space affects the human body, and destroys red blood cells at a faster rate. We have also learnt so much from NASA's identical twin studies. Mark and Scott Kelly, so that was one study on one pair of twins.

The idea is to have many more private missions sent to space so that we can replicate, validate, and conduct even more extensive biological studies in the context of blood and other biochemical and other measurements important for space bioscience, this time making use and capitalizing on the state-of-the-art tools and methods available to us. The Maleth Program forms part of a doctoral degree for Ms Christine Gatt, whilst the blood project is the very first mission under the newly created Pleaides Program and is led by senior post-doctoral scientist Dr Josef Borg and his young team.

What advice would you give to young inspiring leaders?

I think what I have personally learnt over the years is that it is important to have multiple ideas. I also believe it is also important to have one or two overarching key ideas, with your other mini-ideas serving to help you achieve your primary goal or two primary goals. You don’t want to have too many goals because it will cause you to lose focus.

I have had many rejections in my scientific career so far, just like any other research scientist. If you apply for a grant to get funding and don’t get it, the rejections or inability to attract large grants will most likely outnumber the number of times you get an answer.

However, if you are persistent, and believe in your projects and ideas, you will get there finally, and receive funding, even if it is a one-time or limited-time event. It will be sufficient to achieve your goal, which means you should never give up. Even, if you receive a failed or negative response to your pitch, project, or idea, do not give up!

Probably the other person on the other end is not seeing the same thing or is not in sync with your own ideas, so try to move on and identify other areas or other people who can sort of subscribe to your idea, your pitch, or your overall goal.

I think an important word here is perseverance. If you believe in what you are doing, then ensure that you remain perseverant throughout, and ultimately you will achieve your objectives. You will arrive at your destination, and then you will see that, when you arrive at the finish line of your destination, in reality, your journey is about to begin.


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