What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
Research in our laboratory is focused on understanding how regulatory information encoded by the genome is integrated with the transcriptional machinery and chromatin context to allow for emergence of form and function during embryogenesis and evolution, and how perturbations in this process lead to disease. With respect to the stem cell research, we are interested in two major areas. The first area encompasses investigation of fundamental regulatory mechanisms – such as long-range transcriptional regulation by enhancers, gene regulatory networks, chromatin modification, and folding - that govern stem cell self-renewal and differentiation. And the second major area of interest is centered on the cranial neural crest, a unique stem cell-like embryonic cell population characterized by an enormous developmental plasticity. Cranial neural crest cells ultimately give rise to the majority of the craniofacial structures and determine their individual and species-speciﬁc variation, and we are interested in understanding how regulatory information harbored by these cells is decoded into a diversity of functions, behaviors, and morphologies. Both areas have brought us many exciting discoveries. But the most rewarding aspect of my work is to see my students and postdocs grow and develop as scientists and come up with ideas that are better than my own.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I’ve been interested in science as long as I can remember. Already in primary school I ruined my Mom’s bathroom tiles while performing chemistry experiments. Ultimately though, it was an amazing high school chemistry teacher, Stanislawa Hejwowska, who solidified my resolve to become a scientist. None of my scientific training, however, was in stem cell research. What led me to stem cells was the realization that some of the most interesting gene regulatory mechanisms reveal themselves not in the maintenance of cell identity, but during dynamic cell fate transitions. And such cell fate transitions can be modeled using pluripotent stem cells.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
New data! I love this moment when new data come in, and we already know that the result is going to be exciting but we still don’t fully understand what it means. That’s the most exhilarating time!
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
It is not about fashion, it is about style. Namely, don’t follow scientific ‘fashions’, they are fleeting, and you may never catch up. Instead, follow your own passions and interests, but whatever you do, do it in style – high quality, elegant, and creative work will stand the test of time. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t get too attached to specific hypotheses. Go home wiser every day – design your experiments in a way that no matter what the result is, positive or negative, it brings you closer to answering your question. And keep your eyes open – see things beyond what you set out to look for.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
Nicole Le Douarin and Marianne Bronner, whom I consider grandmother and mother, respectively, of the neural crest field have both had a big influence on me. Reprogramming work from John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka has been really inspirational not only in the realm of stem cells, but it has also influenced my thinking on gene regulation and epigenetic states.
How do you spend your free time?
When I have a day off, a road trip is in order – driving up to some nice place, walking around, and exploring for hours, and finishing off with a nice meal. But too often, there is not much free time, and then taking a walk in our sunny California weather or curling up with a New Yorker and a glass of sparkling wine will do just fine!
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
I like really spicy food. My husband says that I am a capsaicin receptor mutant.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
Good company. Through ISSCR I’ve met fantastic colleagues, many working in areas of stem cell research quite distinct from my own interests, and they have greatly expanded my horizons. I also really appreciate ISSCR’s commitment to excellence, both in science and in translation, as well as its prominent role in shaping science policy surrounding stem cell research.