Halfway around the globe – and possibly back again

You might not remember his name, but if you were at the MDC from 2007 to 2010 you’d surely recognize Tiago Jose da Silva Lopes. During that time the Brazilian student completed his PhD thesis on the topic of "Systems biology analysis of the iron metabolism"; on the side, he helped establish the Beer Hour. Today, Tiago lives in Japan, where he works as a bioinformatics consultant at the University of Tokyo.

How Tiago got to go to Tokyo

"I remember the MDC well. After all, it hasn’t been that long since my time there as a doctoral candidate,” Tiago says. He is talking via Skype from his office in Tokyo; it is four in the afternoon for him, but nine in the morning here in Berlin. He continues to say that the center on the Buch campus is an excellent place to work, because of its many excellent researchers and outstanding opportunities for scientific exchange. "I completed my PhD thesis in the bioinformatics research group of Prof. Jens Reich. My project involved generating an in silico simulation of iron exchange and its regulation, on the basis of experimental data obtained from a mouse model. Towards the end of my time as a doctoral candidate, I was able to publish this simulation in the BMC Systems Biology journal."

Photo: Tiago Lopes

Tiago's further scientific career profited from some long-term planning that he started on a year before completing his PhD. He discussed his future with experienced scientists, who advised him to go abroad as a postdoc. "I then searched the Internet for systems biology research groups working on topics that suited me. I came across an opening at the University of Tokyo with Professor Hiroaki Kitano, a very well-known systems biologist. I already knew Hiroaki Kitano from a conference and very much wanted to work with him." Tiago applied and was invited to a Skype interview. Everything went very positively and Tiago was asked to first visit Tokyo and the university in person before accepting the post. "My first hours in Tokyo were fantastic. I was impressed by the extreme politeness of the people, their efficient manner and the super-tasty food, especially the sushi. I instantly knew I wanted to live there for a while."

Tiago worked as a systems biologist and bioinformatician in Hiroaki Kitano's research group at the University of Tokyo from 2010 to early 2014. His research was affiliated to the ERATO KAWAOKA Infection-induced Host Responses Project and funded by the Japanese Science and Technology Agency (JST). Early this year he moved to his current job as a bioinformatics consultant. "This job is actually funded by the Influenza Research Institute (IRI) of the University of Wisconsin, USA, where my current boss resides. Yet due to existing cooperation agreements I can continue to work in Tokyo, which makes me very happy."

Systems biology research on influenza viruses

Tiago's current research focuses on the systems biology analysis and identification of response mechanisms that influenza viruses trigger in the hosts they infect. Using statistics and informatics, he and his colleagues try to identify how these mechanisms specifically respond to individual viral strains. At the same time, they hope to discover more general patterns, seen in response to several viral strains. They draw on freely accessible databases and their own data, as well as data provided by scientists from around the world. "Mostly, these are DNA sequencing data and protein data from mass spectrometry and protein sequencing experiments. We then integrate this information with epidemiological surveys carried out by authorities who are monitoring the spread and mutations of individual viral strains and other types of data they are collecting."

The project is divided into efforts involving basic research and applications. "On the one hand, we hope to find out more about basic virus biology; on the other, we want to identify specific genes and proteins that could be targets for intervention with drugs," says Tiago. The latter mainly focuses on identifying substances that could inhibit the spread of viruses. Tiago says, "Ideally, we would find a region present in many viral strains that could be used to develop a universal vaccine."

The birth of the Beer Hour

Tiago and Matt as Tiago's last beer session, 2010

At the MDC, Tiago found time both for his scientific work and taking part in social activities on the campus. Together with Matt Huska, who was a bioinformatics assistant in Miguel Andrade's research group at the time, he hatched the idea of the Beer Hour. Tiago already knew the concept from the EMBL in Heidelberg, where he had spent a research period as a student. "There, a 'Beer Session' for getting together and scientific exchange took place regularly at four in the afternoon in the Gene Expression Unit. Those meetings were always rather short and subsequently it was back to work." Matt and Tiago further developed the idea and the MDC's first Beer Hour took place in late 2008. For the first few sessions, Tiago and Matt transported the drinks from the nearby supermarket to the campus per bus. "The bus drivers were none too happy about that," says Tiago. "We often received very skeptical looks." Later, they looked for volunteers to transport drinks using the campus e-mail system. "As a means of exerting pressure we threatened that the Beer Hour would otherwise have to be canceled. That always worked well and made it much easier for us. By now, I hear, the organization has been greatly professionalized. I am glad to hear it, and especially to hear that the Beer Hour is still alive and well."

Making contacts and exchange in Japanese

Tiago says that making contacts and establishing scientific exchanges is much different at the University of Tokyo than here in Berlin. People barely talk during their actual working hours and coffee breaks are almost non-existent. "The Japanese work style is very focused and concentrated. Nearly all interpersonal exchanges take place after work. It’s customary to go to a bar or restaurant in the evening with colleagues from work. If you have a drink, it’s usually with a meal; it’s rare to see people consuming alcoholic beverages without eating something." Another popular means of exchange and making social contacts is the “national pastime” of karaoke. "However, karaoke usually takes place without the bosses," Tiago adds with a smile. "During the FIFA World Cup, we also often watched soccer together – that was with the bosses."

Tiago is keeping open mind about his future. One current option, among others, might be to transfer to the Influenza Research Institute (IRI) in Wisconsin, amongst other options. He says a return to the MDC would also be an excellent opportunity. "For the moment, however, I think I will stay in Tokyo for a while longer. My love for martial arts and my sushi addiction simply continue to keep me here."

Featured Image: Big in Japan. Photo: Tiago Lopes