Celebrating 10 years of Chromatin and Epigenetics

Our upcoming EMBL Conference: Chromatin and Epigenetics is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year! Although this year’s conference will be very different in format (yup, you guessed right: virtual!), the topics to be discussed will be as exciting as always.

We spoke to Asifa Akhtar and Geneviève Almouzni, the scientific organisers who have been there since the beginning of this conference series. Read on to find out what inspired them to organise this event in the first place, and what highlights can be expected at the virtual conference!

The Chromatin and Epigenetics conference is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. How did it all start and how has it developed over the years?

GA: I was part of the original organisation committee when it started — 20 years ago already! A long journey already… The meeting actually started with the wish to give credit to my Postdoc mentor Dr. Alan Wolffe who had tragically passed away and was very active in the field. He was coined the “champion of Epigenetics” back then… You can see his picture in the corner of the conference image.

When I started my lab, he used to tease me about having a conference in Europe on a field that was just starting to take off. The fact is that since then it has become a major gathering of people in the field, including those actively engaged in the EC funded Network of Excellence — first the Epigenome and EpiGeneSys networks which expanded towards a broader community, including the LifeTime initiative and many friends from the 4DNucleome!  Undoubtedly, research over the past two decades has been incredibly active, leading to the deciphering of chromatin-based mechanisms, multi-scale genome organisation and the uncovering of the role of epigenetics in various human disorders with an increasing interest in studying the influence of age, environment, life style and disease states. I am really excited to hear about the latest news…

AA: I was part of the original organisation team, and being located at EMBL meant that I have been part of all the nitty gritty deals of organising this conference ever since. We have had a series of outstanding co-organisers on board, which also developed the breadth of the meeting over the last 20 years. We have kept up with the pace of the field, and this meeting is a major biennial scientific event in the chromatin and epigenetics field. The location at EMBL has been fantastic, with all the support and infrastructure available to run a big meeting like this. It continues to be a pleasure to organise this conference, and I am excited about all the possibilities that the virtual format will bring.

What inspired you to organise this conference?

GA: This meeting is dear to my heart, and it has surely brought together a wonderful community in Europe that is well linked with people worldwide. Also, from the inception we wanted to engage younger people in the organisation and serve the community. It has a unique spirit — it is collegial and friendly, and a place where new collaborations arise — and a growing network! The fact is that people always presented their most advanced work and unpublished data, thereby offering opportunities to discuss science in the making. We hope that the virtual conference version this year will retain this special touch.

AA: Alan Wolffe was a great chromatin biologist and his sudden passing took many of us by surprise, and left great sadness. He was a wonderful mentor and was interested in young scientists, a quality which I had always admired. Co-incidentally my husband was a postdoc in Alan’s lab, just like Genevieve. In fact, Alan’s plan was to visit him during his trip that eventually led to the tragedy. Co-organising the memorial workshop in his memory was an honour and in the long run a tremendously important decision, as this meeting became a focal point for chromatin biologists and epigeneticists to meet in Europe and share the wonders of the latest science we are all doing. The chromatin and epigenetics conference originated from initial event and has grown stronger over the years.

 Could you share what the focus and highlights of this year´s conference will be?

AA: The 10th conference in a series of meetings is a really memorable event and celebrating this during a global pandemic is a major challenge. We strive for excellence and this meeting will deliver many highlights and thrilling science. I very much hope that it will bring us together to appreciate the importance and perseverance of basic science, and that we celebrate coming together even in a virtual setting and show that we are dynamic and flexible, come what may…

GA: This year the session topics cover: Heterochromatin and HP1, developmental epigenetics, chromatin regulation, nucleosomes structure and function, transcription and chromatin defects and diseases, nuclear architecture as well as chromatin and RNA modifications. This is a very exciting program with both live-streamed invited speakers and selected short talks with Q&As, as well as digital poster sessions. We will also hold meet the speakers session along with some other surprises…

Among our speakers, Caroline Dean will tell us about cold-induced epigenetic switching in plants, Karen Adelman will discuss regulation of transcription elongation in development and diseases, Luciano di Croce the advances in the distinct role of Polycomb in stem biology and cancer, Bob Kingston on chromatin compaction and phase separation in epigenetic control of development, Danny Reinberg about Polycomb, inheritance and disease, Anja Groth will speak about chromatin replication and epigenome maintenance, Peter Becker will talk about how cooperation, competition and combination contribute to the targeting of the X chromosome and its regulation, Giacomo Cavalli and Allistair Boettiger about the 3D genome folding, Rick Young on Nuclear condensates, Tom Muir on chemical approaches and a Keynote by Wolf Reik on ways to exploit multiple single cell omics to unravel early embryo development.

Interested in this conference? Register by 19 April.

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Tackling gender imbalance in academia

PHOTO: Suzanna Prosser

Event report by Suzanna Prosser, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Canada

Gender imbalance is a longstanding issue in academia, with men still more likely to progress to the highest levels. Institutional and individual biases, attitudes, and self-limiting beliefs are only some of the factors that allow this situation to persist. The Gender Roles and their Impact in Academia virtual conference served as a timely reminder of these issues, whilst also highlighting current thinking, research and practices surrounding gender, diversity, equality and academia. It was only fitting that the conference commenced on the second Tuesday of October, which is designated as Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration to raise the profile of women in STEM.

The opening lecture was delivered by Melvin Konner (Emory University) whose 2015 book ‘Sex, Evolution and the End of Male Supremacy’, upset a lot of people if the vitriolic reviews and commentaries it received are anything to go by. The premise Melvin presents in his book is a very simple one: “women are not equal to men; they are superior in many ways, and in most ways that will count in the future”. He explained that the similarities between men’s and women’s brains are far greater than the differences, but historically women have been believed not to have the capacity to lead. The consequence of this is that their voices have been excluded from the places where they would be most beneficial. We are now, however, living in a time where women are managing to trickle up to prominent leadership roles throughout the world, although sadly the tides of change continue to move slowly.

The notion that men are superior to women has perpetuated in part due to biological evidence perceived in such a way so as to support this thinking. Against this, Gemma Puixeu (IST Austria) very eloquently argued that while biology can justify the differences between the sexes, it cannot justify gender binarism nor gender inequality. Acknowledging that there are many other players aside from chromosomal sex defining systemic sex, allows us to appreciate that gender expression is multifactorial, leading to a continuum that is influenced by non-biological factors. Indeed, gender binarism can only be explained by cultural enforcement. For gender inequality, traditional evidence states that sexual selection is stronger in males, as male traits are superior and that evolution is male-driven. On the other hand, alternative evidence says that there is no power inequality between the sexes, and questions what are male and female traits, and why we value them differently. Furthermore, one sex does not evolve in spite or at the expense of the other. So, if male supremacy is not explained by biology, why has science failed us? First, it is subjective – if performed by men, it is for men and suffers from unconscious bias. Second, arguing women are subordinate by nature justifies socio-politico-economic interests.

Talks by Cordelia Fine (University of Melbourne), Ijeoma Uchegbu (University College London) and Stephen Curry (Imperial College) covered why gender diversity matters in the work place, strategies to approach equity and diversity in academia, and how to ensure science is built by men and women. Evidence provides overwhelming support for diversity on teams and panels leading to better decision-making processes, outcomes and productivity. Indeed, diverse teams make superior decisions as they focus more on facts and process them more carefully. Depending on field, over 50% of graduate students are female, however often less than 10% of professors are women. Reasons why women fall out of the academic pipeline are varied but, as Heather Metcalf (Association for Women in Science) explained, intersectionality is a crucial dimension, with reasons being very different for women of different backgrounds.

Women are frequently encouraged to adopt more male-associated traits, such as confidence. However, Suzanne Doyle-Morris (InclusIQ) informed us that women that display overt confidence tend to be penalized with negative labels such as bossy, difficult, and strident. And the inherent confidence women possess to occupy space in fields dominated by men often goes unacknowledged. Furthermore, over-valuing confidence disadvantages people from groups, genders and cultures in which self-promotion is criticised, and risks hiring and promoting the wrong people. Instead, panels need rigorous training in preparation for conducting evaluations so as to see through confidence to get to competence. It is important to value competence over confidence, as competence as a trait works for a wider range of people when looking for leaders in academia. In addition to hiring committees, this is particularly important in research funding decisions, as obtaining funding serves as an indicator and requirement for career success. However, systemic inequality also exists in grant allocation, to the detriment of women. Claartje Vinkenburg (CJ Vinkenburg Advies) described how panel members believe in their own ability to objective evaluate proposals based on merit, but that panel members’ implicit associations and explicit expectations around the ‘ideal scientist’ and ‘ideal career’ affect how they evaluate and discuss applications. In addition, the requirement to ‘sell science’ (high risk, high reward) creates an additional layer of gendered complexity to the decision process.

In the final keynote lecture of the conference, Jo Handelsman (Wisconsin Institute for Discovery) discussed gender bias in academic science. Unconscious bias describes the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously attribute to others that affect how they understand and engage with them. Unfortunately, many scientists believe they don’t display unconscious bias as they are trained to be objective, however study after study proves this to be untrue. In one such study, participants were more likely to hire whichever application had a man’s name on it, then provided post-choice justifications, like citing whichever strength was present, for their biased behavior. Worryingly, those who believe they aren’t biased are those that apply biases the most. Fortunately, there are tangible steps that can be taken to overcome unconscious bias, including: promotion of self-awareness of biases, understanding the nature of bias, providing opportunities to discuss bias to create accountability, and the provision of training sessions to promote bias literacy. Indeed, earlier in the meeting, Ansgar Büschges had described the use of unconscious bias training as a prerequisite for participation in faculty search committees at the University of Cologne for the active recruitment of women. In addition, the identification of hiring criteria before the evaluation of candidates can abolish bias in selection participants. Jo also advised female scientists to give their referees as much information as possible about themselves (accomplishments, career goals etc.), as the less information people have available the more likely they are to fall back on biases.

Gender imbalance in science hasn’t occurred due to not having suitably qualified women, but rather the structures that are in place which prevent them from taking their rightful place in the higher echelons. Instead of helping women do better, we need to eradicate the barriers that prevent them from succeeding and provide them with the same level of support and mentorship that men receive. We need affirmative action, targets and quotas to reach gender equality, alongside a rethinking of criteria and assessment. While the problem is a chronic under-representation of women in research, men need to be part of the conversation. Indeed, the drive for gender equality is not an attack on men to prevent them from succeeding, but the provision of space to allow women to succeed as they deserve.

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Ada Lovelace Day 2020 – The women of computational biology today

Ada Lovelace. Source: Suw Charman-Anderson on Flickr
Ada Lovelace as depicted by Suw Charman-Anderson on Flickr

Ada Lovelace is often regarded as the first to recognise the full potential of computers and as one of the first computer programmers. 

In honour of Ada Lovelace Day 2020we are shining the spotlight on some of the remarkable women that we have met during our training courses this year. 


Who? Hema Bye-A-Jee
Job title: Senior Scientific Database Curator, EMBL-EBI
Where to find her? Hema is delivering the webinar ‘A Guide to UniProt for Students’ via the EMBL-EBI training website tomorrow (14 October 2020). It is full, but the recording will be available the next day.

PHOTO: Hema Bye-A-Jee
PHOTO: Hema Bye-A-Jee

Tell us a bit about your work, what are you researching currently? 
I am a scientific curator for the UniProt team and I primarily sift through scientific publications to annotate C.elegans proteins, but I get to find out about lots of proteins in many organisms. Engaging with scientific and non-scientific communities is a very important aspect of what we do. Not only does my role feed my scientific curiosity, but it also enables me to help others to look at their data in different ways; we prepare specialised workshops and webinars, such as the “guide to UniProt for students” which I shall be presenting tomorrow.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in STEM today?
It means a lot because I know that many struggles and injustices have been endured, and it is unsettling that battles are still ongoing in many respects. I believe that science is for everyone and earning a place at the discovery table shouldn’t be based on gender, age, race, or even who shouts the loudest. If you can see beyond what’s right in front of you and can question it, surely you should at least be deserved of an invitation to be in the same room as the table!

What are your aspirations for your career in the future? 
I am very fortunate because I get to read about something new every day. I hope to continue working at the forefront of scientific discovery and innovation and take forwards my skills in communicating complex scientific principles, and wish to help others achieve the most from their data in the intellectual property law field.

Who? Rea Antoniou-Kourounioti
Job title: Postdoc at the John Innes Centre
Where to find her? Rea was a recent speaker at the EMBL-EBI Mathematics of Life: Modelling Molecular Mechanisms virtual course. You can find her slides on our ftp site.

Rea Antoniou-Kourounioti
Rea Antoniou-Kourounioti

Tell us a bit about your work, what are you researching currently?
My work combines mathematical modelling and experimental biology to understand how temperature affects when plants decide to flower. I am currently part of the groups of Martin Howard and Caroline Dean, and our work focuses on the gene FLC, which is epigenetically silenced in response to cold. We recently discovered one of the temperature sensing mechanisms that affect this gene and compared plants adapted to different climates. We found that the levels of the gene in autumn are very important for their different responses, and we are now trying to understand the mechanism that determines these levels.

Who or what inspired you to enter a career in STEM? 
I was fortunate to grow surrounded by academia, because both my parents were at the University, my mother specialising in biology and my father in maths. Therefore, I had many role models, though the pattern of women in biology/men in maths was prevalent in my environment. However, I was very close to a woman mathematician (the first female professor of Mathematics in Greece) who would give me puzzles to solve at all the grown-up parties. Solving puzzles was my passion then, and so it remains, and there are so many unsolved puzzles in biology!

What do you hope the future of working in STEM looks like?
More focus needs to be put towards understanding the complex reasons that women leave science at all career stages such as a different perception of worth, both from the outside and the inside. Hiring and assessment procedures favour characteristics associated with men, e.g., I still remember the lack of confidence I have had to battle to make my voice heard in meetings. This is deeply rooted in the differently promoted values for boys and girls and needs to be battled there and in its consequences. Events such as the Nobel prize recognising women this year helps girls to see that science is (also) for women and gives them inspiring role models like I was lucky to have.

Who? Zuzana Jandova
Job title: Postdoc at Utrecht University
Where to find her? Zuzana is a speaker at the upcoming BioExcel Winter School on Biomolecular Simulations event. Applications are currently open.

PHOTO: Zuzanna Jandova
PHOTO: Zuzanna Jandova

Tell us about your work, what are you working on right now?
As a part of the HADDOCK team at the Utrecht University, I focus on dissemination and training of our software as well as my own research. In training, we prepare tutorials, organise workshops and summer/winter schools, answer questions on public forums and make software easier and more approachable to users. In my own research, I look at how the combination of a traditional docking approach with molecular dynamics simulations and machine learning can improve the prediction of protein-protein interactions. This is then applied in areas like antibody design, where we can engineer antibodies in pharmaceutical research.

What are your aspirations for your career in the future?
I would like to stay in the biomedical field, where I also started when I decided to study pharmacy. Working in research, more specifically academia gave me a lot such as critical thinking, data management and project planning which I would like to take further into a more applied area. Thus, working in a pharmaceutical company or research institute where I could focus on not only the first theoretical stages of drug development but also on the further use of the drugs and biologics on the market would be a good option for me.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in STEM today?
To be honest I have never thought about my gender as a key element for my career choice. However, I realise that women are still somewhat underrepresented in computer or technical sciences in general. This is also why I think it is important that we talk more about women in science which can be a great example and inspiration for younger generations. And the more recognition we get, the more it becomes a norm to take women as an equal, respectable and knowledgeable part of the society. 

Name: Alessandra Villa
Job title: Senior Researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology
Where to find her? Alessandra is a speaker at the upcoming BioExcel Winter School on Biomolecular Simulations event. Applications are currently open.

PHOTO: Alessandra Villa
PHOTO: Alessandra Villa

Tell us about your work, what are you working on right now?
I was educated as a chemist. Early in my career, I realised that I was very interested in solving biophysical problems, thus I decided to do it using molecular modelling and computer simulation. My work focuses on improving molecular models to better describe how macromolecules interact. This can deepen our understanding of their function. Higher-education teaching has also played a key role in my career. Currently, I am working at the European Center of Excellence BioExcel, applying my expertise to promote and improve the use of advanced scientific tools.

What are your aspirations for your career in the future?
My aspiration is to contribute to building a lively environment that combines high-level teaching and research and to move to a coordination role with more decision power.  

What does it mean to you to be a woman in STEM today?
To be a scientist in STEM means to be able to understand, to contribute, to deepen our knowledge and to teach/disseminate on how nature (in my case molecules) function. In addition, it also means to be able to critically evaluate any new information and to be curious about things in general.  To be a woman in STEM is to be a scientist in STEM.

In the later stage of my career, I have realised that as a woman in STEM I always had to really demonstrate what I know. I was evaluated for what I did and not for what I could do, and further steps in my career may be full of “unpredictable” obstacles.

Name: Molly Gasperini
Job title: PhD Scientist, Octant
Where to find her? Molly was a speaker at a recent EMBL-EBI Industry Programme virtual workshop: High Throughput of Assessment of Functional Human Mutations. EMBL-EBI Industry programme members can download the slides from the members area.

PHOTO: Molly Gasperini
PHOTO: Molly Gasperini

Tell us a bit about your work, what are you researching currently?
I am developing high throughput functional assays to screen drugs against neuropsychiatric receptors at a scale and speed never before achieved. Find out more.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in STEM today?
I am extremely fortunate to be a part of science at a time where women generations before me (like Ada) have broken down many previous gender-based barriers. Though improvement is still required, most parts of science are largely welcoming for female scientists. Now, it is our responsibility to break down existing barriers for scientists who don’t identify with the racial, sexual-identity, or economic majority of the scientific community.

What are your aspirations for your career in the future?
I have always struggled with whether to climb the traditional ladder of leadership, though such job advancement takes you further from the bench and Rstudio, and into more meetings! Fundamentally, I hope to always continue working on thrilling tech dev as part of a rigorous and fun team.

Follow #ALD20 on Twitter to celebrate even more women, advocates and educators in STEM.


PHOTO: Michelle Mendonca
PHOTO: Michelle Mendonca

PHOTO: Rebecca Nicholl
PHOTO: Rebecca Nicholl

PHOTO: Emily Pomeroy
PHOTO: Emily Pomeroy
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Meet the Trainer – Ashley Sanders

In spirit of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February), we are proud to launch our “Meet the Trainer” Series, in which we will profile some of the amazing trainers from the EMBL Course Programme. We begin with Dr. Ashley D. Sanders, a distinguished scientist in the Genome Biology Unit of EMBL whose research focuses on how single-cell genomes change over time and how this impacts cell behavior.

Ashley will be training at the upcoming EMBO Practical Course: Single-Cell Omics (12 – 18 May 2019) and we asked her to give us some insights and tips for the course, as well as answer some not so scientific questions.

What is the greatest benefit of the course for the scientific community?

Without a doubt, single-cell measurements have emerged as the most direct method for deconvoluting complex and heterogeneous samples, and for exploring how subpopulations of cells respond to experimental manipulations. This course will allow participants to learn some of the most cutting-edge technologies and gain valuable hands-on experience from leading experts in the field. I hope this will help inspire new research, discoveries and collaborations.

What could the techniques in this course be used for in the bigger picture?

New technology equips us with new tools to explore long-standing questions in biology. Emergent single-cell omics methods are now providing us with the chance to ask how individual cells differ in terms of their DNA mutational profiles, epigenomic states and transcriptional outputs – enabling us to explore dynamic cellular relationships through a new lens. In unravelling these relationships we will better understand how diversity is established and maintained in healthy human tissues, and how aberrations in these processes can lead to disease.

Are the methods used in this course unusual or new?

The course will highlight some of the newest and most exciting methods in genomic research, including single cell bisulfite sequencing, single-cell RNA-seq and Strand-seq. Strand-seq is a novel single-cell and strand-specific sequencing method and this is the first time it will be offered in a course format.

 What is your number one tip related to the course?

Engage. Take time to interact with the other participants and the trainers. This course offers a unique opportunity to meet your colleagues in the field of single-cell biology, which can lead to new relationships and collaborations.

What challenges is your research field facing?

Single-cell genomics is expensive, noisy and complex. We need to bring down the cost of production to increase throughput and access more cells. We need to improve benchtop protocols to generate higher quality data from each cell we invest in. And we need smarter and faster bioinformatics that extract meaningful signal and integrate data layers across cells and experiments.

Where is science heading in your opinion?

We are in a single-cell omics era. Novel approaches are now available to untangle complex biological systems through multi-layered and complementary data types. By designing smart experiments that integrate across these layers, I believe we are positioned to unravel how homeostatic multicellular tissues are generated and maintained. In understanding these nuanced and cooperative inter-cell relationships, we will be in a position to deliver more holistic cell-based health care. This may involve selectively targeting rogue cells that disrupt our systems or producing functional regenerative tissues for transplants.

What was your first ever job?

Selling coffee through the Tim Hortons drive-thru in Toronto, Canada

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

Yoga instructor

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