2009 John Kendrew Young Scientist Award – Alumni relations

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2009 John Kendrew Young Scientist Award

John Kendrew Award Ceremony

An extremely well-attended part of EMBL’s labday was the John Kendrew Young Scientist Award Ceremony. Ken Holmes, former Head of Unit at EMBL Hamburg (1975-1977) and close friend and advisor to the late John Kendrew, presented the award to the winner, Julius Brennecke. Formerly an EMBL predoc in the Cohen Group (2001-2006), Julius is now group leader at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna.

Giulio Superti-Furga, chair of the Alumni Association board and former EMBL team leader in the Developmental Biology Unit (1991-2004), hosted the ceremony. Now Director of the Centre for Molecular Medicine in Vienna, Giulio encouraged EMBL staff to stay in touch with the “formidable brain pool of alumni out there by joining the alumni parties, local chapter meetings and reunions, and to use the alumni members directory and wiki to help in networking and making career choices.” Both services are accessible to staff via the EMBL intranet. In addition, Giulio reminded staff to provide the Association with ideas about new alumni initiatives they feel would be of benefit to them.

Julius Brennecke – John Kendrew Award Winner 2009

John Kendrew Young Scientist Award winner Julius Brennecke answers questions about his career since EMBL, his scientific inspirations and his personal achievements

Tell us about your career path after leaving EMBL.
I’ve always been thrilled by the idea of living in New York, so after completing my PhD at EMBL in 2006, I worked as a postdoc at the Rockefeller University in Manhattan. Once there, though, I realised that my research interests didn’t tie in with the focus of the lab, so after three months I decided to leave again.

After visiting Greg Hannon’s lab at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), I knew instinctively that this was the place for me. In fact, the next two years proved to be the most productive of my career, especially after we discovered the patterns in the piRNA pathway. This also helped compensate for my rather isolated existence in a small room on campus overlooking the harbour and without a car!

In late 2007, with Greg’s approval, I moved to the Norbert Perrimon lab in Boston for a year, but continued to work with a predoc and diploma student from his lab. We decided to move back to Europe after the birth of my son in 2008.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Since my predoc days I’ve been exploring the world of small regulatory RNA pathways in flies using genetics and bioinformatics; we were mostly interested in microRNAs, their regulatory targets and their in vivo functions. During my postdoc years I focused predominantly on deep sequencing, working on the other two classes of small RNAs in Drosophila: the siRNAs and the piRNAs.

This essentially yielded a big puzzle, which we assembled into distinct modules. By studying the piRNAs, we discovered that the past 30 years of fly genetics on transposon control could be molecularly explained with features of our piRNA biogenesis system. This was probably the most significant finding in my career. We essentially discovered the backbone of a transposon silencing system in flies which acts like an RNA based genome immune system.

At the award ceremony you dedicated your prize to Alex Stark.
My collaboration with Alex dates back to the early EMBL days. We realised that in the field of small RNAs, the combination of genetics and molecular biology on the one hand and bioinformatics with strict statistics on the other is extremely powerful. The entire success of our work on miRNAs at EMBL was based on this synergy which we tried to keep up after leaving. Alex explored the genomics side, while I generated the piRNA and siRNA data for which I needed strong computational support. The computational work on piRNAs was done by the two computer scientists, Alex and Ravi Sachidanandam at the CSHL. They deserve equal credit.

In my speech, I dedicated half of the prize to Alex to show how much of an impact he had on my career. Interestingly, his lab is now only 50m away from my research group.

How was your time at EMBL, and how was it to come back after three years?
Coming from a German university, I really appreciated the open culture at EMBL, where you could speak frankly to every one, including group leaders; where people lit their cigarettes with portable bunsen burners and the elevator was covered with posters and ads. It was – and still is – a really cool place; even the Operon and the seminars have a special feeling about them. It was really exciting to be here and to absorb the atmosphere.

Having seen some of the major research institutions in the US, I am certain that this place is unique and very special, though it is hard to pinpoint what really makes it so. I had a great day at the award ceremony and now understand more than before how much I owe EMBL and what a privilege it was to be here.

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