What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
We aim to understand cell differentiation in sufficient mechanistic detail to control cell fate at will. The goal is clearly ambitious, but by understanding key principles and how they can be applied to guide differentiation protocols, we will be able to generate more disease-relevant cell types and tissues.
Interacting with people, learning how they think, and enriching my own thought process is very satisfying. When people join the lab, there is a lot of input and guidance from my end. In these early interactions, I feel like an instructor. A few months later, we both contribute equally in the discussion. But there is an inflection point when it becomes clear they are outperforming me in every aspect of their project. Then, I become what I really am: an adviser. When a member of the lab goes through that process, becoming independent, it is by far the most rewarding aspect of my work. On a different level, I have a similar feeling when I teach. There is a moment when a concept “clicks” for students and I can see that in their faces. It is an extraordinary feeling.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I always like the interface between technology and humans. The idea of finding technical solutions to do something new fascinates me. Science allows me to do that every day. Stem cell biology bridges a few fields I find particularly interesting: gene regulation, developmental biology, and a bit of engineering. Additionally, I find understanding a developmental process well enough to be able to reproduce it is a phenomenal challenge. As a bonus, I believe applying developmental biology principles to produce clinically relevant cell types will eventually help people suffering devastating diseases.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
The most exciting aspect of my work is to discuss ideas, experiments, and possible outcomes after a new result. It is exhilarating; the imagination goes wild until we settle on a concrete hypothesis and a doable experiment. Then, the countdown to the next result starts, which will bring us to the following brainstorming session. This cycle “gives me butterflies” and keeps me eager to go to the lab every day!
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Do it! If you are interested in doing an exciting activity that might impact many people, join a lab. There are many fields and sub-fields, all of them with very interesting questions to address. Thus, besides the topic and experimental approach, I would recommend paying attention to the lab culture and environment. When we are happy and the project is producing meaningful data, we do well in many different environments. However, at some point, you or your project would go through a rough patch. Be sure that the lab structure has the support you might need for those days.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
I cannot begin answering this question without mentioning my former adviser Hynek Wichterle. While at the end of my PhD I was following the stem cell filed closely, I was not seriously considering joining a stem cell lab. But at a party, I met Hynek. We began talking about cell differentiation, developmental biology, and embryonic stem cells. After a long conversation, and a few drinks, his enthusiasm resonated in me. After that conversation, I joined his lab without ever applying for a postdoctoral position to any other lab.
After I joined the field, I met numerous people whose work or advice was instrumental to me. With the injustice associated with naming a few, I would like to highlight those that inspired me in the early days such as Fiona Doetsch, Lorenz Studer, and Yoshiki Sasai.
How do you spend your free time?
I like to play sports. Injuries and age are keeping me away from soccer now, but I still watch a fair amount of games. I play squash when I can and I do a lot of sailing these days. I enjoy cooking and more than anything, spending time with family is my favorite pastime.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
Because I like the human-technology interface, I have always been associated with car or sailboat racing. To win a race, the car or boat and the driver or crew must perform well. One cannot do well without the other. While I am not involved in any motor sport now, I am training to sail across the South Atlantic this coming October. I am very excited to realize a childhood dream of mine, leaving South America sailing east to Cape Town.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
The ISSCR has a collection of valuable features. I constantly refer students and patients to their resources. The annual ISSCR meeting is a fantastic event to learn about new discoveries and techniques, meet people and maybe find your future co-workers. But if I have to highlight one feature, it would be the opportunity to grow my scientific and social network in the field. ISSCR allowed me to meet amazingly talented and generous people.