This month we have not one but three trainers we would like to introduce you to. Meet Raffaele Calogero, Jeroen Krijgsveld and Lennart Martens, organisers and trainers at the EMBL Course: Analysis and Integration of Transcriptome and Proteome Data (2 – 7 February 2020).
What is your research focus and why did you choose to become a scientist?
RC: I have a background in molecular biology, but since 1999 I have been working in transcriptomics data analysis and tool development. I became a scientist because I loved the idea of investigating new unknown topics every day.
LM: My research focus is bioinformatics, which stems directly from becoming completely taken in by computers at an early age. Like many of my generation, I started out with a Commodore 64 when I was 8, and had written my first (very, very simple :)) program in BASIC after two weeks. But my link with science came about after I stumbled across an episode of Jacob Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’ a few years later (I think I was 10 or 11) on Saturday morning on television, and this inspired a lifelong interest in anything scientific. All in all, I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to combine my passion for computers with my passion for science, and make a living out of it!
JK: My research focus is on proteomics, where we develop and apply mass spectrometry-based technologies to understand the intricate machineries used by cells to respond to their environment. Curiosity to understand how things work is as an important motivation for our current research as it was for me during my studies. Becoming a scientist has always felt a natural path for me to follow, and I have never seriously considered doing anything else. Although at the same time, when looking back, I realise how fortunate I have been being given the opportunity to follow my interest and move between fields. This is due in no small part to having training opportunities and stimulating environments at the various stages of my career!
Where do you see this field heading in the future?
RC: Data integration is the new upcoming frontier for biological studies, and transcriptomics and proteomics are going to be important players in the game.
JK: Proteomics has come a long way in the last 2 decades, reaching its current ability to characterise thousands of proteins in a single experiment, and do this across multiple experiments. I expect that during the next 5-10 years we will see how these investments will pay off, helping to understand processes at the protein level very similar to the way this has been achieved in genomics. After transitioning from a technology exclusively for physicists to a useful tool used by biologists, the next big step to be made is to implement mass spectrometry in the clinical arena. Integration with genomic methods and data types will be key to drive this forward.
LM: Bioinformatics is slowly taking over much of large-scale biology. Of course, focused biochemical and molecular biology research will remain the staple of the life sciences, but our ability to process and interrogate very large amounts of (potentially even heterogeneous) data is transforming our ability to generate new leads, new ideas, and to shed a much more holistic view on life at the molecular level. And with the advent of extremely powerful parallel computing, the field of machine learning has received an enormous boost, further increasing our ability to spot previously hidden patterns in our data. So it’s an exciting time in bioinformatics, with lots of new areas of research opening up to us for the first time! We’re going to continue having a lot of fun for a long time!
How has training influenced your career?
JK: This has been fundamental, in different ways. One is in a formal way, where classes and courses have been key to shaping a foundation, and helping to fill specific knowledge gaps. The second is less formal, which to me has been at least equally important, where I got trained by working in different research environments together with people of different backgrounds.
RC: In my role as an associate professor, training is part of my everyday life. I am involved in many advanced courses through my university, both in Europe and in Asia, and I think that courses are useful for both participants and instructors. The former grab the knowledge from the latter and the latter get new fresh view points from the former.
LM: Many of the excellent teachers I have studied with have left a deep impression on me, and guided my career path indirectly. As to providing training, it is one of the aspects of my job that I most cherish. For me, the importance of sharing and spreading knowledge resonates very closely to the core principles of science: by sharing and exchanging knowledge, all participants in the teaching experience gain something. In all, the biggest contribution that training has had to my career, is in greatly enhancing my ability to be creative in a productive way.
What is your number one tip for people looking for scientific training?
LM: Go for it, and seek out courses taught by those rare experts that both intimately know their field, but can also clearly communicate about the essence of that field. You don’t want to only grasp the current ‘hot’ method at a user level, but rather want to understand how that field works, how it has evolved, and how the current methods fit in with this. Courses that focus on these aspects deliver knowledge that lasts for much longer!
JK: It is two-fold: find a course that gives you the theoretical foundation of an area or topic you would like to venture into. After this, I think it is essential to ‘internalise’ this knowledge, so I would advise you to find a collaborator or colleague to help you along the path to use the acquired knowledge. It is like driving a car: you need to get a driver’s license to be allowed on the road, but you really learn how to do it by practicing afterwards.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
RC: Definitively a Medical Doctor.
LM: Most likely a software developer or systems architect of some sort. I worked in industry for a few years after my Masters degree, and then chose to pursue a PhD rather than take a very nice position at Microsoft. So if I had made a different choice then, I’d probably still be in IT!
JK: I have never really been in a situation where I had to choose between being a scientist or do something else, but thinking about it now I would like to think I would be a writer, a novelist. The reason is that I like writing, and it is part of my every day job, however writing papers and proposals comes with a lot of constraints and requirements. Making up stories without the boundaries of page limits, allowing fantasy and imagination, in an expanded vocabulary and, above all, in my mother tongue sounds all very appealing to me. Maybe one day. 🙂
JK: The greatest benefit is that it allows participants to have a look ‘over the fence’: most participants usually have a background either in genomics or proteomics, and being exposed to both aspects – along with the technologies and methods used in these fields – allows them to ask questions they may not have thought about before. What we try to achieve is that they could even go a step further, and integrate the new knowledge in their research to gain a more complete picture of the biological systems they are using.
LM: The course is unique in that it brings together the two key fields of research to understand cellular functional: transcriptomics, which traces the usage of the information in the genome in a given cell, and proteomics, which shows the actual biochemical and signalling capability of a given cell. There is important information at each of these levels, and these are moreover more complementary than many might think.
Of course, gene regulation provides important insights into a cell’s internal processes, but proteins are not only made or broken down, they are also closely regulated at the protein level. A complete picture of a cellular process thus requires insight into (and thus data from) both the gene expression level as well as the protein level. This is where this course provides the right skills for researchers; teaching them how to integrate data from their transcriptomics and proteomics experiments.
The usefulness for the bigger picture is therefore more or less implicit: by combining transcriptomics and proteomics, a much more complete picture of cellular functioning can be obtained. And let’s be honest, isn’t that what all of us really want to obtain, after all? 🙂
RC: I think the phrase of Claudia Manzoni in the abstract of her paper in Briefing in Bioinformatics in 2016 (Volume 19, Issue 2, March 2018, Pages 286–302) “Our work intends to target students and researchers seeking knowledge outside of their field of expertise and fosters a leap from the reductionist to the global-integrative analytical approach in research” is a perfect explanation for our course.
Interested in this course? Apply by 10 November!