Here’s why I became a neuroscientist

Brains come in all colours (Timm staining of mouse hippocampus with Warhol colouring; T. Ferreira, E. Audero, EMBL)

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.

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Why is Epigenetics so sexy? And other related questions.

Giuseppe Testa

By Sara Formichetti

When I was asked to write a post about the last Science & Society talk we had at our EMBL site in Rome I was particularly excited. Science & Society lectures are all about the impact of science on society and the speakers work in fields that are of utmost relevance to the public – but often misunderstood.

Most recently, Giuseppe Testa spoke at EMBL Rome. Testa works on epigenetic regulation, cell reprogramming and disease models. His talk dealt with the impact of epigenetics on society, which is a concern for all of us working at EMBL Rome, considering that we recently chose to rename our unit “Epigenetics and Neurobiology” to focus the interests of new group leaders in these two fields.

Continue reading “Why is Epigenetics so sexy? And other related questions.”

Lab Olympics anyone?

Here at EMBL Rome we aspire to scientific excellence. This means insightful ideas, hard work, state-of-the-art facilities and perhaps a touch of luck. Occasionally, we like to blow off steam too, and the recent ‘Lab Olympics’ was a light-hearted excuse for the EMBL Rome groups to test their labcraft against one another. Including such classics as the Lab-bench race, Pasteur blow football, and of course the mind-boggling Chocolate-balls and a tape measure game, the evening fanfare was fun, a chance to interact, and fuelled by a freshly brewed batch of IPA from EMBL Rome brewmeister Jim Sawitzke.

The now annual Lab Olympics is spun out of an event organised last year by our lab to celebrate our arrival at EMBL Rome. Each lab enters a team of four people (preferably including a group leader) and then rotate around a series of loosely scientific-based games. Outstanding performances this year included the Asari lab in the Neuroepigenetics speed pictionary, the Hackett lab in the Lab-benchrelay, and finally a spectacular score by the Heppanstall lab/FACS facility in the Chocolate-balls and a tape measure game.

The Asari Lab with the 2018 Lab Olympics Trophy

Naturally, the evening had a theme, this year being the World Cup, with EMBL Rome bedecked in flags and international football colours. Of course, any respectable EMBL social has a best dressed and the Lab Olympics was no exception, with costumes reflecting an international culture/figure. There were some remarkable efforts including a full Mexican mariachi band, full Viking, and Napoleon complete with inflatable horse. The winning effort however was King Louis XIV (well done Violetta!). Which leads to the final question, who took the Lab Olympics crown this year. Well, once the scores were totted up and the dust had settled, and after an impressive performance, the victors were… the Asari Lab. Congratulations!

Fortunately, on hand was Sean Sawitzke, who made a great film about the evening, which you can find below.

 

Bitter about Brexit?

 

The author about to do the hard work of taste testing his latest creation – “Still bitter about Brexit”.

As the “official” beer producer for EMBL Rome, I have a demanding job, one that I take nearly as seriously as my real job as Head of Genetic and Viral Engineering. I started producing homemade beer over 25 years ago. I have won many competitions and brewed my recipes in multiple brewpubs to be sold. Along the way, I have become an international beer judge and educator and am always happy to discuss beer with anyone. In fact, it is one of my favorite things to do! Hopefully, in the near future, I will hold some of my beer appreciation courses here at EMBL Rome. Believe it or not, you are all beer judges and I can prove it to you in my course! Continue reading “Bitter about Brexit?”

Remembering the snow

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?!

Rare snowstorm at EMBL Rome

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.

EMBL postdoc Daniel Rossier skiing home from the lab

 

 

A CRISPR Lesson

“Why did you want to become a scientist?”

It was an innocent question – I had an innocent answer. It feels almost painful to think about it.


A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to visit St. Stephen’s School in Rome to teach 9th grade biology classes about CRISPR.

I don’t know much about CRISPR, or teaching. So I recruited the lab CRISPR guru Angelo, who was also very excited about this. Together we came up with a lesson plan, hoping to introduce the latest, coolest CRISPR applications and pique the interest of 15-year-olds. We decided on case studies to make sure that everyone was engaged; we chose cases that covered a broader spectrum of applications, from cancer immunotherapy to gene drives…


– Impact. I wanted to cure cancer.

Adhering to Asian stereotypes, my parents “asked” if I would apply to medical school. Short-sighted, I thought- doctors can save maybe a hundred lives, but if I find the cure for some deadly disease, I would be saving millions.

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Sex sells & immigrants steal

The embarrassing fact: sex sells

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.

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The passing of a pure spirit

Mumna Al Banchaabouchi 1968-2018

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.

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At the Interface of Epigenetics and Neurobiology

EMBL Rome is changing. Last year we focussed our research on epigenetics and neurobiology, and as a consequence have recruited several new groups specialised in one or the other topic (e.g. see Boulard and Asari labs). Next up is a comprehensive site renovation to upgrade to a state-of-the-art campus, whilst further group leader recruitments are also in the pipeline. These are exciting times, and should remain so thanks to a new funding scheme that encourages research at the interface between epigenetics and neurobiology. This interdisciplinary funding bridges the two distinct themes at EMBL Rome and has already begun to foster cross-collaboration between groups. More broadly, the field of ‘neuroepigenetics’ is expanding rapidly and by leveraging the expertise of specialist labs on site, EMBL Rome could contribute key insights in the coming years.

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On my way to work

A few years ago, my wife and I decided to relocate to Italy after a long period of time spent in the UK. After two months of job hunting, an opportunity for working at the EMBL-Monterotondo, now EMBL-Rome, presented itself. After my interview, I was offered a position in the group of prof. Avner, a world leader in the field of X inactivation, the very same subject I have been working on for all my time in the UK.  Continue reading “On my way to work”