Learn about work and life at EMBL’s Epigenetics and Neurobiology research unit in Italy
Author: Cornelius Gross
Neurobiologist interested in the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the control of instinctive behavior associated with defense, reproduction, and ingestion; EMBL Group Leader since 2003, Senior Scientist & Deputy Head of Unit since 2009, postdoc with Rene Hen at Columbia University, PhD with William McGinnis at Yale University 1995
This is one of the most frequently asked questions I hear, so I thought there should be a place on the web to explain. The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) runs six research sites across Europe where it carries out fundamental research and service in molecular biology. The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) is an academy for the life sciences, provides funding, and publishes five scientific journals. In short, EMBL is a research institute, while EMBO is an academy, funder and publisher. Admittedly, the organizations are related. Both are international organizations funded by member states. Both have their headquarters on the same site in Heidelberg, Germany. Just to complicate things, the Director of EMBO has a lab at EMBL and is considered part of the Director’s Research Unit of EMBL, even though the organizations are administratively and legally separate.
In short, EMBL is a research institute, while EMBO is an academy, funder and publisher
EMBL Rome was recently featured on the nightly prime-time Italian science television program Leonardo. Head of Unit Phil Avner and Group Leaders Cornelius Gross and Jamie Hackett were interviewed about the mission of the Epigenetics & Neurobiology Unit and EMBL’s role in supporting research and scientific training in Europe (see link starting at minute 6:18).
We recently hosted Mark Patterson, Executive Director of eLife, as part of the Science & Society Program at EMBL Rome. In case you’re not familiar with eLife, it’s a journal supported by four major Life Science research funding bodies: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Wellcome, the Max-Planck Society, and the Wallenberg Foundation, with a mission to explore a more responsible selective peer review system. It’s been a surprising success. Although eLife follows DORA guidelines and formally asked not to be listed by Thompson Reuters, the ascribed Impact Factor is already 7.9. It is widely regarded as a top journal in the Life Sciences on par with the Nature specialty series.
As promised, eLife has been experimenting, and the highlight of Mark’s talk were the results of a recent trial in which they turned peer review upside down (see this paper from Bodo Stern and Erin O’Shea for the origins of the trial). For a limited time, manuscripts sent to eLife were accepted BEFORE being sent out for review. Sounds crazy – I know. No need to respond to the reviews if you don’t like them – your paper is already accepted! The hitch, however…
We recently had out first Beer 101 course for staff members. International beer judge and Head of our Genetic and Viral Engineering Facility, Jim Sawitzke, first challenged us to a blind tasting and then a tour of major beer varieties. Take home messages were: “if you like it, it’s a good beer” and “if it doesn’t come in a brown bottle, it’s skunked!” – which left me wondering why I kind of like Heineken. Apparently Heineken tried to change their green bottle color at some point, but were forced to relent by popular demand. Find a scientific explanation for the skunk effect here. The tour ended with us sipping beers with names like ‘Arrogant Bastard Ale’ and ‘Rauchbier’ (trans. Smoke Beer) – both dreadful! Unless of course you’re at the higher levels of beer appreciation. Can’t wait for the advanced course.
An intern in my lab recently asked me why I became a neuroscientist – he had read this piece about how it’s all just luck. I’m not so sure. I am convinced there are explicit and hidden environmental (and a few genetic) influences that restrict and channel our behaviours during our lifetime. It’s only the fiercely independent that escape these influences – and then that is usually itself a reaction to them.
The days are so balmy now that I can’t help thinking back to our recent freak snowstorm. Do you remember this – February 26, 2018?!
Daniel won kudos as the only staff member to ski to work that day. Here he is getting ready to ski home – skins strapped to his touring skis in what ended up turning into a night-time hike under headlamp illumination back up the hill to Monterotondo. You learn useful things growing up in Switzerland.
The brain is hard wired to respond in predictable ways to important environmental stimuli. This was certainly an advantage to our ancestors living off the land, but it can lead to some awkward situations in our modern lives. The large letters plastered over the explicit magazine section that we’ve all seen at airports – SEX SELLS – ring true to us in an embarrassing way. Yes, when it comes to sex our rational thought system has been hijacked and our instincts rule.
Last week we received the sad news of the passing of Mumna Al Banchaabouchi, Head of the Phenotyping Facility at EMBL Rome from 2004 to 2012. The news was painful and left us shaken. Mumna passed away at the untimely age of 49 after a battle with metastatic breast cancer. Her death leaves a dark hole in our hearts – especially for those of us who were not able to share her passage and know her thoughts in those last moments.
After more than five years of heroic work, EMBL Rome PhD student Laetitia Weinhard in the Gross Lab has finally completed her massive imaging study of microglia. Published last week in BioRxiv, the work uses correlated light and electron microscopy (CLEM) as well as time-lapse light sheet imaging to find out whether microglia eat synapse during brain development. Continue reading “Eating synapses – seeing is believing”
This summer I managed to steal away from the lab to fulfill my childhood dream of driving from Europe to India. The idea that a culture so exotic and different than ours is nevertheless part of the same landmass and people like Alexander the Great, Ibn Battuta, and Marco Polo had managed to walk to Asia always held a deep fascination with me. Continue reading “Escaping the lab on the Silk Road”