Meet our Members: Gautam Dey – EMBL | Stanford Life Science Alliance

EMBL | Stanford Life Science Alliance

Creating synergies between EMBL and Stanford’s research communities

Meet our Members: Gautam Dey

Gautam Dey portrait

This month, Gautam Dey started his lab within the Cell Biology and Biophysics unit in Heidelberg. Amidst all the challenges of opening up a new lab during a global pandemic, Gautam took some time out to share how the Alliance has helped him reconnect with his “academic roots” from his PhD at Stanford University, and how these early experiences are helping to shape his future lab. With the arrival of Jana Helsen, our first Bridging Excellence Fellow, Gautam will be kicking off the next generation of transatlantic collaborations with his old Stanford volleyball buddy, Gavin Sherlock. 

Let’s start at the beginning, tell us about your journey from a PhD at Stanford to new group leader at EMBL:

Sure! I did most of my early training in India at a research institute called the National Centre for Biological Sciences, where I developed an interest in the systems level investigations of signaling networks. Stanford had one of the best systems biology departments when I was applying for graduate programs. I ended up joining Tobias Meyer’s lab, where we developed a tool to predict functional interactions between genes based on shared evolutionary history. It was this project that convinced me that we would understand cell biology better if we factored in an evolutionary perspective. Finding a lab that shared this interest with me became the core goal for my postdoc, and I moved to UCL in the UK to work with Buzz Baum. My work as a postdoc with Buzz has focused on the remodeling of the nuclear envelope as cells divide and the archaeal origins of eukaryotic cellular organisation.

“Even though every eukaryote has a nucleus, we don’t really understand the fundamental rules that govern how it’s organized – if such rules exist! “

What will your lab focus on now at EMBL?

My lab will focus on the evolution and remodeling of the nucleus. The nucleus is an organelle housing and protecting the genome. Every eukaryote has one – making it over two billion years old. However, over time, different species have evolved very different ways of organizing and remodeling the nucleus – particularly during cell division. Human cells, for example, completely break down the nuclear envelope during cell division then build it back up again afterwards, whereas yeast keep everything intact, separating chromosomes inside the nucleus and then dividing it. Most species do something in between! This just goes to show, even though every eukaryote has a nucleus, we don’t really understand the fundamental rules that govern how it’s organized – if such rules exist!

My lab will explore this concept using three complementary approaches: comparative genomics, quantitative cell biology and experimental evolution. Firstly, we’ll use multiple model systems to study the different mechanisms of nuclear remodeling and organization to understand if conserved principles exist, and if not, why cells have evolved such different ways of doing it. For the cell biology experiments, we’ll zoom in on the processes and structures underlying nuclear organisation in individual model systems using microscopy, genetics and biochemistry. And lastly, with experimental evolution you can influence the evolutionary process directly by culturing cells through hundreds of generations under certain constraints to see how they respond on an evolutionary time scale. This is the idea behind Jana Helsen’s Bridging Excellence Fellowship in collaboration with Gavin Sherlock at Stanford.

How does your experience from Stanford play a role in where you’re going next?

Scientifically the approaches that I helped develop there will definitely make a comeback– in terms of what we will do as a lab. I think in terms of culture and network, there are always these unexpected or unspoken benefits from these sorts of alliances. The scientific networks in the US and Europe, are actually somewhat isolated from each other. There are of course transatlantic collaborations, but by and large, the American system tends to be relatively self-sufficient – they have most of the expertise they need there, and the same is true on the European continent. When you leave that network and you join another one, your old connections can actually fade away. I think initiatives like the Alliance are very important to keep these networks alive, because they introduce that concrete link again.

“PIs can talk about ideas all day and make lots of cool research plans, but the only way to turn an idea into a concrete piece of science is to have a postdoc or student take it forward under their own steam.”

How has joining the life science alliance made an impact on your lab at EMBL?

The Alliance, and the fellowship program in particular, is a great way for me to go back and strengthen old connections. Gavin and I actually know each other because we played volleyball together – although I do believe we occasionally discussed science as well!  The problem is, PIs can talk about ideas all day and make lots of cool research plans, but the only way to turn an idea into a concrete piece of science is to have a postdoc or student take it forward under their own steam. The fellowship program is a wonderful way to bring talented people to the lab to do just that. Honestly, if I was an early stage postdoc and a scheme like this existed, it would be a dream, right? For me personally, it’s particularly helpful to enter collaborations with more established, more experienced PIs because they can help mentor me through roadblocks that I wouldn’t necessarily anticipate as a junior group leader. 

What impact does a Bridging Excellence Fellowship have for Jana as a young postdoc?

For Jana, I think it’s actually a really great scenario. She brings expertise in experimental evolution that I don’t have and she brings this to a project that she developed on her own through the application process. There are some risks in joining a brand-new lab because you don’t know what the dynamic is going to be. You don’t know how it’s going to work out, but many of those risks are mitigated at EMBL because all the labs are embedded within an exceptional network. There’s always advice and expertise around, even if your own lab is brand new. Then, on the Stanford side, Gavin brings complementary expertise and is also a very experienced supervisor, having successfully overseen many generations of students and postdocs. In general, having seen both institutions, I think she will greatly benefit from experiencing the two very different work environments – and have fun doing it. Overall, yes, I imagine the impact on her career will be massive!

If you are interested in joining us as a member of the Life Science Alliance, or you would like to know more about our Bridging Excellence Fellowships,  you can follow us on Twitter @LiSciAlliance or get in touch with us via email.