In Conversation: Group Head Juanma Vaquerizas

 19 March 2021   Institute News

“I was in high school at a time when lots of new genetic engineering techniques were being developed. I believe it was those terms that attracted me to science and wanting to use those techniques to understand cells. I also had a fantastic natural sciences teacher in high school who had taught students who had gone on to work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, and I was lucky enough to be able to meet one of those people during my last year of high school. They said to me that if I got all first-class marks in my first year studying Molecular Biology at Autonomous University of Madrid then I could go to their lab as a summer student. I got my marks, they fulfilled their promise and off I went.”

Prof Juanma Vaquerizas is the latest Group Head to join the MRC LMS and has set up the Developmental Epigenomics group. Having been inspired by the genomics revolution throughout his undergraduate degree, Juanma saw an opportunity to combine it with his interest in computers. He secured funding to go to a bioinformatics lab at the Spanish National Cancer Centre during the last year of his undergraduate degree, before deciding to stay there to pursue his PhD research in computational biology. As part of his PhD funding, there was an opportunity to visit a lab anywhere in the world. Juanma started a 3 month visit in the group of Nick Luscombe at the EMBL – European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Cambridge, which turned into a 7 year stay as Juanma finished his PhD and started a post-doc at EBI. Here, he switched his interest to chromatin from transcription factors.

“When I started working with Nick, we were trying to tackle a fundamental question which was ‘do we know how many transcription factors are in the human genome?’ We published this work in 2009 and on the way back from a conference in the US and I received an unexpected email. There was no ‘hello’ or ‘Dear Juanma’, it simply started ‘My name is Sydney Brenner’. It came from a Gmail account so I thought it was a prank as it’s not every day you have a Nobel Prize winner write to you. It turned out to be him. He had read this paper of mine and had questions about it. We invited him to EBI to give a talk and he ended up taking a sabbatical to work with me on transcription factors. It was quite funny how he kept introducing himself as ‘my summer student’, but it was very special to work with this incredible scientist.”

Juanma set up his own independent research group at the Max Planck Institute in Muenster combining his experimental and computational training. Now, the Developmental Epigenomics group has joined the LMS with the support of an Academy of Medical Sciences Professorship (see below). His group aims to understand how cells use their genetic information throughout development, and how the regulatory mechanisms are affected in disease.

“There are a lot of layers of regulation that exist when it comes to how cells control their genetic information. We want to understand more about this complex system, but with a strong focus on 3D genome organisation and interactions. We want to look at this in early embryonic development. Not only is it beautiful to study, but there are a lot of gene expression programs that will only be switched on at this time. We also want to explore the 3D genome in the context of disease. If we can work out what is misregulated, then we are one step closer to being able to offer potential treatments. Our third pillar is the evolutionary perspective. We hope by comparing genomes throughout evolution, we can decipher the fundamental rules of how cells use their genomic information.”

“I am very excited about the additional opportunities that moving the lab to London will bring. The new interactions, expertise and environment will, I believe, transform our research. My main objective is to get integrated as soon as possible and start contributing to the Institute as a whole, and use the new interactions to bring additional aspects to our research focus using the expertise of my new colleagues.”

Vaquerizas awarded Academy of Medical Sciences Professorship

Juanma Vaquerizas was awarded this professorship starting in January 2021. The unique feature of this award is that it is designed for researchers applying for their first full professorship but also moving from abroad to the UK.

Talking more about the professorship, Juanma shared:

“I am so thrilled to have been awarded this generous funding from the Academy of Medical Sciences. It allows such flexibility which means that my research team and I have the best chance of continuity as we move countries. It allows me to have some bridging time to build everything up from scratch in our new location and bring across people from the lab too to help me do that especially during a global pandemic.”

This scheme also means that Juanma has access to and can connect with other Academy of Medical Sciences fellows to help reconnect with and grow his network in the UK. The Academy facilitates this by setting up a mentoring program as part of this scheme, so Juanma will have a senior Academy fellow as a mentor.

“The opportunity to have a mentor who can give me independent advice and connect my group with others with similar backgrounds, especially as the group’s research is heading more towards the application of the things we do is going to be invaluable. This incredible support system will only be able to promote my independence as a researcher.”