Stem Cells in Focus

Member Spotlight with Salvador Aznar-Benitah, PhD

  • 17 April, 2017
Hometown
Montreal / Madrid.

Current Residence
Barcelona, Spain

Graduate Degree
PhD in Molecular Oncology

Current Position
Group leader at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona (ICREA Researcher)

What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?

We aim at understanding how adult stem cells maintain healthy tissues. We are also very interested in understanding why stem cells fail to maintain their regenerative capacity as we age, and how and why they are perturbed during carcinogenesis. 

One of the things I find particularly rewarding is that my lab is very heterogeneous. We study stem cell behavior from many different points of view, which results in some people in my lab working on circadian rhythms (i.e. timing of stem cell function), others on epigenetic mechanisms (how stem cells remember or change their function and identity in different circumstances), and others on metabolism and metastasis (i.e. how dietary lipids regulate metastatic-initiating cells). This creates a very challenging, but also highly stimulating and diverse scientific environment in the lab. 

The other thing I find most rewarding about my work is the day to day interaction with the Masters and PhD students, Postdocs and Research Assistants of my lab. Since I started my lab 9 years ago, I have been lucky to always have people in my lab that are very committed and passionate about science. The best moment of my day is when I meet with them to discuss their results. 

 

What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?

As far as I can remember, I´ve always been fascinated by science. I did however, hesitate between literature and biochemistry when faced with the choice of which undergraduate studies to take. I chose the latter, and I am glad I did, since being a scientist is perfectly compatible with my love for literature. 

And why did I become a stem cell scientist? During my PhD I developed several projects aimed at identifying transcriptional mechanisms important for tumorigenesis. However, I soon realized that if I was to understand cancer, I had to first understand how healthy tissues work. In fact, I became increasingly frustrated at how much of the cancer research done back then ignored this. How could we understand why cancer cells behave aberrantly, if we do not know how normal cells behave? I started reading about stem cells and immediately became hooked. Back then, research in the stem cell field was already responding to many of the questions I kept on asking myself during my PhD. It was during my postdoc years where I had the chance to get fully introduced into stem cell research. And since then, it has been the major topic of my research. 
 

How do you spend your free time?

I spend as much time as possible with my wife and our two kids. Barcelona is a great city to have kids, and one can have a nice walk through the mountains in the morning, and spend the rest of the day at the beach. We also enjoy very much meeting friends for lunch or dinner. The food and culture of this city ensures that one always has something new to discover.

What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?

I think many would be surprised to know that since I was 14 years old I have always played guitar in a band. I still dedicate every day some time to playing guitar. 

But I think what would mostly surprise people is my (secret) interest in the evolution of language. In my opinion, our ability to have developed such complex ability to communicate is the key (only?) distinction between us and the rest of animals. It is a fascinating topic. And I must say that although I have read much about it (and cherish my pretty decent library on the topic), it seems to me that we still do not understand how and why our ability to speak evolved.  
 

What do you value most about your membership with the ISSCR?

The ISSCR is the great plaza where we all get to meet and interact. It gives all of us who are interested in stem cell research the chance to learn what is new in our field, and what are some of the concerns and needs of our society that we could help solve. On a more personal note, it has also been the place where I have made great friends that I look forward to meeting every year.