Welcome to EMBL: Talya Dayton

The new EMBL Barcelona group leader aims to understand how cells behave in health and disease and approaches her favourite hobby, cooking, very similarly to her work in the lab

Portrait of Talya Dayton propped up on a balcony rail
Talya Dayton studies the development of cancer using organoids. Credits: Montserrat Coll Lladó/EMBL

Talya Dayton joined EMBL Barcelona in September 2022. She did her PhD in 2016 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and moved to The Netherlands for a postdoc at the Hubrecht Institute. She now starts her lab in the Tissue Biology and Disease Modelling Unit at EMBL.   

Tell us a bit about your research.

I am interested in how cells change in the context of normal development and in cancer because I think there are parallels between how cells behave in health and disease. I want to understand how, in development, cells become specialised, and then how, in the adult, healthy cells become cancer cells. My group will study development and cancer in the context of a rare cell type in the lung – the neuroendocrine cell. These cells secrete hormones and neuropeptides that influence lung physiology. Their numbers increase in some respiratory diseases, and they also give rise to neuroendocrine cancers. However, we don’t know a lot about these cells and we don’t have effective therapies for patients with neuroendocrine cancers.

In our lab, we will use 3D in-vitro culture models – organoids – derived from human neuroendocrine cells and neuroendocrine cancer cells from patients to decipher mechanisms that enable tumours to form and progress.

How will being at EMBL take your research to the next level?

EMBL is a world-famous institute with a strong community of researchers, a collaborative atmosphere, and valuable resources and expertise. EMBL is also a truly interdisciplinary research institute where people with very different expertise work in the same space – six different sites, but ‘One EMBL’. This is what is most exciting to me about EMBL, because I am certain that it will provide many opportunities for cross-fertilisation across expertises and this will give my group the opportunity to explore new research directions and approaches.

I also value the fact that the multidisciplinary nature of EMBL means I will not be restricted in the research questions my group asks. Finally, I am interested in how neuroendocrine cells interface with signals from their environment and how this influences their susceptibility to cancer, which intersects with one of EMBL’s transversal themes – Human Ecosystems.

Your group is focused on organoid models to study development and cancer. Could you explain how organoids can be useful in studying cancer?

My group uses human tissue-derived organoids. These are 3D, self-organising, organotypic cultures that allow for the expansion of primary human epithelial cells in a near-native state. This means in addition to propagating tissue stem cells in-vitro, these organoids recapitulate the different cell types found in their tissue of origin in our bodies. For example, intestinal organoids contain intestinal stem cells and all the different, functional epithelial cells of the intestine. Airway organoids contain airway stem cells and all of the specialised cells of the airways.      

Before the advent of adult tissue-derived organoids, the systems for studying healthy, human differentiated cells in vitro were somewhat limited. Now, we can use this system to ask things like: how are different cell types made? What is the function of different cell types? How do different epithelial cell types from the same tissue interact with each other? How do different cells respond to the same genetic mutation? In relation to cancer, my group will ask: how do specialised cell types become tumours?

Another way organoids can be useful for studying tumours is that they can also be grown from patient tumour tissue. In this case, the tumour cells from a patient can be grown in 3D, under conditions that preserve the genetic intratumor heterogeneity of the original tumour. This means we can use tumour organoids to study the dynamics of different clonal populations in a tumour. We can also use this system to study early tumours and this is particularly interesting to our group because this means we can begin to ask how early tumours progress.

Could you tell us about the people who have inspired you during your scientific career?

I have been very lucky to have many incredible mentors who have inspired me throughout my career. This includes, of course, my PhD mentors and my postdoctoral mentor – whom I draw inspiration from on different aspects of my career. I was very happy as a PhD student and I hope to model that kind of environment in my own group. As a postdoc, I grew a lot and refined my scientific approach, which I also hope to pass on to trainees in my lab. 

Early in my career, before I started my PhD, I had a mentor who inspired me both to think critically and creatively about my research questions and my research approach. He had a way of always challenging me to go beyond the superficial answers or questions and this has stuck with me. More recently, as I started applying for group leader positions, I have been inspired by other young women of diverse backgrounds who are leading their labs confidently and with what feels like a fresh and transparent approach – watching them has not only been inspiring, it has been empowering. 

What do you think are the ingredients to perform excellent science?

One thing that has been really important to my science has been being able to interact with other scientists and to discuss interesting ideas and ask questions together. A really big part of this, of course, is feeling that my input is valued and that I am in a safe setting where I can express even ideas or thoughts that may seem naive or silly or that I am just not entirely sure about. 

What is your favourite book?

I have to be honest and say I have not read for fun in an embarrassingly long time. That said, my favourite author of fiction was Jhumpa Lahiri – there is something about the way she describes people and their relationships with each other that I really connect with.

On the non-fiction side, I have to say, Siddhartha Murkherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies. I really enjoyed reading about some of the fundamental discoveries in cancer research in their historical context and with some insight into the people behind them. When I was writing the introductory chapter to my PhD dissertation, I actually re-read some of my favourite parts of that book for inspiration.

Do you have any hobbies or interests you would like to share with us?

My hobbies are travelling, cooking, and running. Cooking is probably my favourite and, for me, it has a lot of parallels to the lab. The way I work in the kitchen is a little like the way I work in the lab – constantly looking for ways to streamline processes and make them more efficient, while also sometimes adding a touch of creativity by combining things that might not normally go together.

Tags: barcelona, cancer, Dayton, human ecosystems, organoids, welcome, women in science


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