Thomas Zwaka, MD, PhD
Apr 9, 2018
Hometown: Raciborz, Poland
Current residence: New York
Graduate degree: Cardiovascular Sciences
Current position: Professor, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
Shortly after I began my independent research career, I discovered that key components of the programmed cell death system “attack” and inactivate self-renewal factors in stem cells, leading me to develop a new conceptual framework for how to draw out the most critical constituents from the “haystack” of candidate biomolecules. This line of inquiry led me to uncover Ronin, a member of the THAP domain class of proteins, which constitute a substantial group of DNA-binding proteins. My lab also works on evolutionary biology-related topics, including the development multicellularity. Indeed, by transposing a D. discoideum screening system into mammalian embryonic stem cells, we discovered a gene network that safeguards cooperation among primitive cells.
What’s most rewarding is that I get to choose important questions and learn whatever I need to tackle them —I get to always be learning!
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I have always been drawn to fundamental questions about life, as I suspect most stem cell biologists are, but I am particularly hooked if the questions have resisted conventional approaches and I think the field is missing the bigger picture. My father, a physician, set me on this path early with bedtime stories about the discoveries of Kekulé, Pauling, and the like.
How do you spend your free time?
Collecting funguses and slime molds. I also have a menagerie at home with three children, two dogs, and a lizard, so I don’t actually have that much free time!
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
My family escaped in the middle of the night from communist Poland when I was ten years old. We landed in Germany and spent months in a sort of refugee camp while my father looked for work as a doctor.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
The community and the effort that goes into promoting the best science.