What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
My lab is focusing on heart development and on advancing new regenerative therapies to treat cardiovascular disease. I am particularly interested in pacemaker cells and the electric conduction system that regulates the heartbeat. Failure of the heart’s conduction system results in an irregular heartbeat and requires implantation of an electronic pacemaker device. While representing an effective treatment, electronic pacemakers have a number of disadvantages including the need for recurrent battery replacement, risk of lead infections and lack of adaption to growth in paediatric patients. My lab is working on establishing stem cell-derived biological pacemakers that could overcome these disadvantages and represent an attractive future cell-therapy.
We are using developmental biology-based approaches to establish strategies for the differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells into cell types of the cardiac conduction system including sinoatrial node and atrioventricular node pacemaker cells. By using pluripotent stem cells as a developmental model system we obtain new insights into human heart development in these projects.
In order to test the ability of the stem cell-derived pacemaker populations to function as biological pacemakers and regenerate the conduction system of the heart we are employing in vitro and in vivo assays including multielectrode arrays and small and large animal models.
I think the most rewarding aspect of the work that we all do in the stem cell field is the potential to move our discoveries into the clinic and improve the life of patients one day. Knowing this gives me a lot of motivation.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I was always fascinated by life sciences. I recall a high-school trip to the Max Planck Institute where I first saw axolotls that can regenerate their limbs. This blew my mind and was the moment I knew I wanted to work in science. My focus towards stem cell research and cell therapy evolved during my PhD when I was working on a project that aimed to regenerate the heart after a heart attack.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
When you are doing a new experiment you never know what the outcome will be and where the result will lead you. The most exciting days are the ones when you get a positive result.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
If you are driven by the idea to better understand human development and improve treatments of diseases than this is the right career path for you. It’s a very exciting profession but it is also very demanding. To make it, you really need to have passion for the cause.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
I met my first role model and inspiration during graduate school - Elly Tanaka. She is a successful woman in science running a great research group while also having a family. Elly made me dream that it is possible to do that myself one day. During my postdoctoral fellowship I met my second role model - Gordon Keller. Seeing all the achievements Gordon has made in his career, including all the great scientists he trained in his lab, has inspired me to set out on my own journey to have a successful career like that myself.
How do you spend your free time?
I just started my lab so there is not too much free time. However, I do like to balance the brain work we do in the lab with physical workouts like running or by channeling my inner yogi.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
I am super scared of heights, but I also like to challenge myself - so I went hang gliding on a recent trip to Switzerland. Experimental outcome: I am still scared of heights, but it was an amazing experience!
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
The membership is especially valuable to me for the access to talks, webinars, and the annual meeting. The annual ISSCR meetings are a great way to stay up to date with the latest progress in the field and to catch up with peers. It brings everybody together in one place, which is amazing for networking.