What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
One of my main fascinations is to mechanistically understand how cells regulate their fates and how they control the transition between fates when homeostatic conditions change. The way we approach this question in my lab is by focusing on identifying the cellular and molecular regulatory principles that govern tissue homeostasis and regeneration and how these change in disease, mainly in cancer. For that, we study liver and pancreas and combine the use of animal models with organoid models that we have developed over the past years and that recapitulate key aspects of liver and pancreas development and regeneration in a dish. There are many aspects of our work I find most rewarding. The ultimate, providing our little contribution to the answer of outstanding biological questions, such as our recent discovery that adult differentiated cells actively remodel their DNA methylome to change their fate into a stem/progenitor cell and activate the regenerative program following tissue damage. The exquisite regulation of this process fascinates me and even understanding only a little bit of it is most rewarding.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I probably became a scientist without realizing of it. During the last years at secondary school I became very curious as to how things in our body worked, and specially how drugs worked. Particularly, I wondered how painkillers knew I had a headache and how they would relieve it. The need to understand that made me enroll as an undergrad in Pharmacology. While I got some light into the question, the Physiology and Pathology lectures I attended brought in more questions than answers. I became extremely curious as to how diseases emerge and how we can treat these. To find some answers I enrolled in a PhD at the Center for Genomic Regulation, in Barcelona, Spain. When I was finishing, it became evident to me that to treat a disease I needed to understand it first, but before that I needed to understand how the normal tissue was working. It was evident that stem cells were playing a role in tissue homeostasis and disease. So, I decided to apply for postdoctoral positions in stem cell biology. I was lucky to attend a Stem Cells and Cancer conference organized by Hans Clevers and Eduard Batlle in Barcelona in 2007. There, the finding that adult intestinal stem cells could be marked and that these were the ones contributing to the homeostatic turnover of the tissue deeply impressed me. I immediately wanted to know more. How were they regulated? Were they contributing to disease? Were these unique to the gut or could they also be found in other tissues? I approached Hans asking for an opportunity to learn more about it. He kindly agreed and the rest is history, I guess. That was my initiation into stem cell research.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Basically, I am in love with how cells look and behave, both in the tissue but mostly, in cell culture, where you can see them live. Every time I look through the microscope I can only think how beautiful they are, and when I see them as organoids I am still amazed they can make these complex structures. Even today, I still get fascinated with the fact that we can grow human cells from a real human being. Probably this is the aspect I find most exciting of our work, the possibility of growing human primary cells (healthy and diseased) and exploiting them to gain further understanding on tissue biology, especially human biology. I find our recent findings extraordinary (also found by others) that our organoids recapitulate many aspects of regeneration in a dish. To me, we are now in the position where gaining deep mechanistic understanding into how human tissues organize and regenerate is possible, and I find this prospect extremely exciting.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
My area of research is organoid cultures and tissue regeneration. As a general guidance that applies to all fields, is that you need to have a great dose of curiosity and probably the same of perseverance. Experiments with organoids and tissues are not simple and they require skills, patience (as they tend to be long), and good planning. Documenting every observation, even the smallest detail can be essential later. Being open minded and not accepting the conventional wisdom is a must. Challenging your results or even your supervisor’s thoughts is needed. I would say, follow your instinct but only allow the data to tell you what the result is.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
Yes, indeed, many. It is difficult for me to name stem cell biologists I admire, as there are many, but here goes my humble summary. The first stem cell biologist who inspired me (and still does) and who I consider my long-standing mentor is Hans Clevers. I learned from him most of what I know about stem cells and, more importantly, how to be a good scientist. In addition, I have had the honour of meeting extraordinary scientists that I tremendously admire and that have had a huge impact on the field and on me and my research. These include John Gurdon, Ben Simons, Austin Smith, Anne Grapin-Botton, Bridgid Hogan, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Jim Wells, Cedric Blanpain, and Alfonso Martinez Arias, among many others. All of them, in one way or another, through personal and scientific interactions have inspired my work and I feel very honoured to have had the chance to interact and have scientific discussions with them.
How do you spend your free time?
With 2 young boys, aged 4 and 1, I like devoting all my free time to them and my husband. I love walking with them and our dog along the Elbe river and enjoying its beautiful scenery. Nowadays, one of our most popular hobbies is going to the forest to look for flowers, bird watching, or collecting nuts. When weather allows us, we also enjoy taking the kids for a bike ride in our big cargobike. It’s rewarding see them developing and growing.
In the past, I also used to spend my free time playing piano, but not anymore. Unfortunately, it requires a time and dedication I do not have these days.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
Probably that I love dancing to Latin music.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
The ISSCR enables meeting fantastic people that I have admired a lot and for so long. It also creates a sense of community where everyone interested in stem cells is welcomed and is equally listened to. I also value a lot that it keeps us updated on the latest news on stem cells from policy to scientific events.