What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work
My laboratory is focused on identifying mechanisms of brain development, and more specifically identifying factors that determine brain size and complexity. We are particularly interested in uncovering and understanding processes that are specific to human brain development and evolution. To do this, we use an in vitro model of human brain development, brain organoids. While I was a postdoc in the Knoblich lab in Vienna, I developed the first fully 3D self-organizing model of developing brain tissue, which we termed cerebral organoids. Now in my own lab, we are using this model to examine various aspects of neurodevelopment, from neurogenesis to neural positioning and establishment of connectivity. We are also comparing our findings in human brain organoids to those of other species or to organoids with mutations in putative brain evolution genes. In addition, we are continuing to take brain organoids further and improve their abilities to model later events in neurodevelopment as well as other aspects of brain function.
Probably the most rewarding part of my job is really the day-to-day experimental work I am involved in, both as a supervisor and through my own hands-on work. We are really a team in my lab and we all work together to try to tackle these really tough questions. It’s great fun to share ideas, expertise, and knowledge with one another in a really dynamic environment that also allows for quite a bit of freedom to really focus on the science.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I have always wanted to be a scientist, even from a young age, but I became more specifically interested in biology and the brain because of several key figures, including my own parents (my father is a biochemist and my mother is a psychiatrist) as well as a great high school biology teacher who combined art with biology to make it fun and interactive. I then became more interested in development during my time in Joseph Gleeson’s laboratory at UCSD, and realized that a great way to understand how something works is to understand how it is built. That led me to Juergen Knoblich’s lab who I admired for his work on neural stem cell fate decisions in the fly brain and I felt the kind of curiosity driven approach that he took fit well with my own interests. It was there that I began experimenting with neural stem cells in vitro and with human pluripotent stem cells that finally led to the development of the cerebral organoid method.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Without a doubt the most exciting part of my job is when the results come in for a key experiment. On a day like that when I know we can expect the results, I just can’t wait to get to the lab and find out. And of course the discussion and interpretation, theorizing and drawing models is great fun.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
One thing I did not appreciate coming in to this field is how technically tricky stem cell research can be. And when I say tricky, I don’t mean in terms of manual skill, but more in terms of having a discerning eye. I think the quality of any results in this field depends greatly on the quality of the model system, and spending the time to become really skilled in your particular stem cell model (whether it be organoids or 2D models) is really key to ending up with good quality data and findings that you can be proud of.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
There are so many in the stem cell field who have help inspire me or given me feedback that has enabled my research to flourish. Juergen Knoblich was and continues to be a key mentor for me, helping me to think about the bigger picture. But I’ve also had really insightful interactions with other stem cell biologists including Rudolf Jaenisch, Rusty Gage, and Francois Guillemot who have all helped me develop my understanding of mammalian stem cells and in the context of the mammalian brain.
How do you spend your free time?
At the moment I spend most of my free time with my family, which includes two rambunctious children (a 6 year old and a 2 year old) that take up a lot of my attention. But we enjoy traveling around Europe and going back to the U.S. to ski in Utah.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a (very) amateur artist. I enjoy painting and drawing, but particularly pen-and-ink, and part of my fascination with neurons I think comes simply from their sheer beauty. Some of my artwork is actually inspired by our research on the brain.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
The community of the ISSCR is really supportive. The other members of the ISSCR include a broad range of experienced and newbie stem cell researchers and the annual meeting as well as symposia give members a great chance to come together and discuss important aspects of stem cell research.