Six curious questions and the EMBL community's answers. Check back each week for the next question

What got you into science?

Fear. I am the typical 80s kid that grew up in that age when personal computers and cell phones became accessible, and cloning and genome sequencing hit the news. The movie Gattaca changed my life, because it really freaked me out. The idea that your future depends on the mutations in your genes really hit home.
Humans fear what they don’t know so I tackled my fear by studying genetics and learning more about it. I’m still freaked out, but because I understand it, I’m more excited about the potential now.
Sirarat Sarntivijai, Bioinformatician

As a kid, I was curious about many things, I wondered about outer space and wanted to be an astronaut. I also loved dinosaurs – that’s something I am happy I have reconnected again here, through evolutionary biology. I had lot of books about dinosaurs and like 200 dinosaur toys, I created my own Jurassic park.
Hernando Martinez, Postdoctoral Fellow

Image: EMBL/Marietta Schupp

My dad is an engineer, and he likes repairing broken equipment. When I was a kid, after dinner he would go and work on that. And I found it so amusing, the different parts were so pretty, they look like colouful lentils or small cylinders. We used to disassemble old things and play and build new circuits with them.
Giulia Paci, Predoctoral Fellow

As a kid, I wanted to know what things were made of. I got into biology because I wanted to know what cells are made of and how inanimate atoms interact and work together to create a living organism.
Enric Mila, Predoctoral Fellow

As a child, I took apart every single piece of equipment I could find. I was famous for not leaving any radio alive

I just had this basic desire to find out how things work. As a child, I took apart every single piece of equipment I could find. I was famous for not leaving any radio alive. I’d take it to pieces to look what’s inside these boxes that make music. That kind of curiosity led me to my career. Computers were just starting off in my youth – we had the first personal computers, then internet connections, then other elements and all of a sudden it was possible to create new entities and learn about things using computer programs.
Oliver Stegle, Group Leader

What are you curious about now?

I am still curious about embryos. About the understanding of how the information is encoded in the genome and how over time it can give rise to the animal, how it changes through evolutionary timescales.
Justin Crocker, Group Leader

Workwise, I’ve recently started working on the Human Cell Atlas – a large scale international collaboration, that aims to map all the cells in the human body. This will help us understand human health and improve the way we diagnose, monitor and treat disease. I’m particularly interested in how cells change from one type of cell to another. It might sound basic, but it’s something current observations haven’t been able to pin down very well.
Laura Clarke, Resequencing Informatics Coordinator ENA

Cooking oils around the world. The French are crazy about their butters and creams, eastern Europe cuisines traditionally used a lot of lard, Indians predominantly use ghee and it’s all about olive oil in the south of Europe/North Africa. Is it a simple question of abundance, or is there a more historical reason? What about temperatures and flavour profiles?
Emmy Tsang, Predoctoral fellow

I am now looking into the interactions between proteins and substrate –I didn’t know they could be converted into computational interactions until I got here. Now I am super curious about how to convert biological programs into computational ones.
Deng Ziqi

There are so many songs about roses and beautiful-looking plants, but the Arabidopsis is a hard-working steed of science that hardly gets any credit.

Turning science into song. When I worked at the Department of Plant Sciences in Cambridge, I wrote a song about Arabidopsis, a plant often used in research. There are so many songs about roses and beautiful-looking plants, but the Arabidopsis is a hard-working steed of science that hardly gets any credit.
Then a whole load of other songs came to mind. It was also good motivation to read science articles and research things to understand how they work. It’s a bit like translating science into song! I go by the name of Professor Karmadillo.
Rishi Nag, Technical Program Manager, Global Alliance for Genomics and Health

I am interested in chromatin folding, of course, but I am curious about everything. Now that I have just had lunch, I was wondering what happens to the canteen trays once you leave them in the belt. What’s on the other side?
Oeyvind Odegard, Predoctoral Fellow

When did curiosity get you in trouble?

When did curiosity get you into trouble? "When I broke the Sewing Machine"

When I was very little, my mum had a treadle sewing machine – the ones with the pedal. At the time, I loved anything to do with cars; I was a very resourceful child and the sewing machine had a pedal and a wheel, so to five-year-old me it was as good as the fastest racecar. I used to tinker with the sewing machine for hours, observing how it worked, pretending things were broken and thinking about how to fix them. That was until one day I actually broke the cord of the sewing machine! Needless to say, mum was not happy with me. Funnily enough, she still uses the sewing machine to this day – it’s a gentle reminder of how curiosity got me in trouble.
Mihai Glont, Bioinformatician

When I was still a postdoc, I wondered what the Isothermal Titration Calorimeter that was gathering dust in a corner of the lab, could do for me to study protein/DNA interactions. I started to use it and learned by myself. The troubles started when the lab manager gave me the responsibility of the instrument which became a very popular one, so I had to spend a substantial amount of my time to train people and maintain it. Now people still call me “the expert” of the technique and even few are convinced that the instrument model, VP-ITC, takes its name from my initials 😉
Vivian Pogenberg, Research Scientist

When did curiosity get you into trouble? Getting Lost
Image: EMBL/Marietta Schupp

When I was a kid I travelled with my family and some friends, and I made my brother and the other kids go exploring along the river bank because I wanted to see the animals and we didn’t know how to go back. My parents got very mad. And it happened again last year in Vietnam, so I have grown up, but this has not changed!
Frederica Mantica

Never! Curiosity never gets you in trouble if you have common sense. If you have common sense, curiosity is just going to bring you to cooler stuff, more exciting places.
Alba Diz-Muñoz, Group Leader

I like animals in general – but especially the dangerous ones, to my mom’s despair. When I was a teenager, I grabbed a snake and it bit me, I ended up in the hospital!
Hernando Martinez, Postdoctoral Fellow

It’s ironic I think that curiosity is the thing that got me here, but I almost didn’t make it because I was so terrible at school.

At school and until college! I was a kid who got bored and was just like looking out the window or playing with something on the ground… I was not a good student. It’s ironic I think that curiosity is the thing that got me here, but I almost didn’t make it because I was so terrible at school.
Justin Crocker, Group Leader

What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?

For me, the weirdest job was, I was working in a little computer company, back in the Windows 95 era. At that time, computers were hand-built – we built them. There was always this wrap-up around Christmastime, and the whole office was turned into this computer-manufacturing centre and we made computers the way you’d imagine cars are manufactured. During the rush, people were buying all these computers and we set up all these benches – I cut my thumb very deeply, going too fast putting processors into motherboards, and still have the scar. In retrospect that’s kind of weird – nobody would build a computer in a small little company now.
Oliver Stegle, Group Leader

I had a year of bed racing. It’s one of the most fun jobs I have had.

After school, you either had to go to the army or work in some sort of social setting. I worked in a hospital and was responsible for transporting patients in their beds from the room they were staying in to where they would have exams – on a very tight schedule. So, I had a year of bed racing. It’s one of the most fun jobs I have had.
Markus Mund, Postdoctoral Fellow

When I worked as a volunteer in an orphanage in Ghana, I had to go to the market with a big basked in my head and bring back vegetables. I also learnt how to build brooms from twigs.
Federica Mantica

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve studied?

I would say my weirdest organism were Ctenophores. When the temperature of the water is just right, the sea grows these bioluminescent organisms, and if you go for swim at night, you glow. It’s so cool! They are like jellyfish that upon mechanical perturbations –upon flow or contact–, they will glow, they are bioluminescent, and it’s the coolest thing!
Alba Diz-Muñoz, Group Leader

Gene expression in the nervous system is revealed in this image of a six-day-old Platynereis larva – a computer composite based on images of hundreds of individual specimens (background), each one showing expression of a single gene. IMAGE: EMBL/Hernando Martínez Vergara

I think it’s what I am doing now. I work with Platynereis dumerilii, a very different animal model than people are used to because it comes from a different branch than most models. So, it’s a powerful animal model for evolutionary research. It’s probably one of the animals that has brought more molecular information into the evodevo field, and it’s coming as an emerging model organism. Together with animals from the other two big branches of the bilaterian evolutionary tree it helps infer what their common ancestor was like. It’s very interesting to understand brain evolution and animal evolution in general.
Hernando Martinez, Postdoctoral Fellow

Just for fun I look at spider and crawlers’ embryos you can find in the woods. When you look under the microscope you see all the beautiful patterns just growing and changing! To me it’s just fascinating.
Justin Crocker, Group Leader

Tasmanian devils are one of the very few animals that suffer from transmissible cancer, which spreads through biting. This is a very serious problem because it’s wiping out the population. During my master’s I used computer simulations in order to study how the behaviour of the devils affects the spread of the disease, and to test whether the population would evolve into less aggressive individuals.
Giulia Paci, Predoctoral Fellow

Image: EMBL/Marietta Schupp

When has curiosity led to serendipity?

Perhaps our biggest impact was when we realised we could apply our findings to a different field – single-cell biology. And that was really Serendipity. These datasets and approaches – the technology was ready at that time and we’d been exposed to it. That’s how we made a connection so we could have an impact in the field. There was no strategic planning behind that – it just happened.
A lot of science is like that. Things just come together at some point and serendipity is important.
Oliver Stegle, Group Leader

In a way, I am at EMBL because of serendipity

In a way, I am at EMBL because of serendipity. During my Physics master’s, I got interested in biology while working on a project that statistically analysed how dinucleotides are distributed along the human genome. Since I didn’t know much about the topic, I decided to take bioinformatics online courses and soon realised that a lot of the resources I was using came from EMBL-EBI, which I hadn’t heard of before. It got me hooked and I started looking if there could be a place for me in such institutes. Had it not been for my curiosity and this combination of factors, I probably wouldn’t be here now.
Giulia Paci, Predoctoral Fellow

I think it’s central to everything I do because scientists try to make connections between things that no one has ever noticed before, and I think this is really a constant thing in all of my research. I remember a moment talking to a physicist and talking about the interactions between water molecules, and how these weak interactions rise to create everything living, I realised I could apply this to my own research. The moments when you make these connections come from the really casual chats.
Justin Crocker, Group Leader

I applied to work at EMBL and was invited for an interview, but after the process I hadn’t really found a project that suited me. That same day, there was a talk here at EMBL, and I decided to join. Then I heard my now supervisor, speak about the project I wanted. I just emailed him telling that we had to talk because he had just described the project I wanted to do. And that’s how I found my supervisor in a different unit than the one I applied for.
Oeyvind Odegard, Predoctoral Fellow

IMAGE: EMBL/Marietta Schupp

It was serendipity, luck, and – from time to time – some major failures that led me to the key aha moment that is part of the reason I was awarded the Nobel Prize. This moment happened at EMBL in Heidelberg in 1980 when Alasdair McDowall, a technician in my lab, was attempting to vitrify small droplets of water on films to be used in an electron microscope. One day, after changing our cooling device by replacing liquid nitrogen with liquid ethane, he called me to the microscope because he saw something that he didn’t understand. It was a frozen droplet of some amorphous material – since it didn’t have any ice crystals, we figured it couldn’t be water. We warmed it slowly to try to see how it evaporated, in order to try to find out what the droplet was made of. At 135 Kelvin – or around minus 138 degrees Celsius – the droplet transformed in a moment into polycrystals that we immediately recognised as ice crystals. So, the frozen droplet we had seen before had been exactly what we had been told was impossible to create: vitrified water
Jacques Dubochet, Alumnus

Curiosity is a profoundly human trait. We start asking questions almost as soon as we learn to speak and continuously redefine our understanding of the world by questioning it. This is the driving force behind science, technology, engineering and maths. As part of our curiosity editorial theme, we are exploring what EMBL is curious about.

Read more articles about curiosity and where it can take you.

Tags: curiosity, humans of embl


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