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in vivo April 2010


April 2010

Issue 10


Issue 10


Plugging in to industry IRB Barcelona researchers strengthen their ties with biotechnology companies through two new collaborations Page 02

The 50th anniversary of an atomic revelation A look at the discovery of the first threedimensional protein structures Page 03

Learning to lead

In Focus

Researchers spend four days gaining insight into management at an IRB Barcelona workshop devoted to leadership

IRB Barcelona researchers discover a new method to trace the behavior of unstructured proteins

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High-speed publishing

Faces to Names

The Development and Growth Control Laboratory publishes three new research papers in renowned journals in one month

IRB Barcelona researcher Rodrigo Gatica talks about the earthquake that recently hit Chile and its consequences for science Page 06

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Behind the Scenes: PhD selection week


Teaching school teachers about microscopy


A nose to sniff out disease


The ‘bad cop’ at IRB Barcelona

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Plugging in to industry


RB Barcelona scientists Ernest Giralt and Miquel Pons have started to explore the potential of combining basic research with powerful techniques developed by biotech companies. The two IRB Barcelona research groups have recently received funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation to collaborate with the biotech companies Intelligent Pharma and Lead Molecular Design to identify more efficient methods to obtain new drugs. To accomplish this challenging mission, Intelligent Pharma and Giralt’s group will work together to test the efficacy of Helios 2.0, an innovative search tool developed by the Barcelonabased biotech company. The studies will target AIDS, hypercholesterolemia, and multi-resistant bacterial infections, the latter being one of the main causes of

hospital deaths in Europe and the United States. Miquel Pons and scientists at Lead Molecular Design will develop and validate new software to achieve improved performance for an innovative strategy known as fragment screening. Their results should allow them to obtain powerful compounds. This project also involves groups at the Barcelona Science Park and the Sarrià Chemical Institute. One of IRB Barcelona’s missions is to transform basic research into innovation and to strengthen ties with the biotechnology industry. During 2009, IRB Barcelona research groups participated in more than twenty collaborations with the private sector at the local, national and international levels. Sònia Armengou

Maria Macias in the IRB Barcelona nuclear magnetic resonance room. Photo: A. Alsina

Fighting back at cancer


ancer cells have a new opponent in Spain. The Protein NMR Spectroscopy Laboratory at IRB Barcelona has recently embarked as a partner on a new quest to find strategies to fight cancer. The group’s efforts are part of a new Consolider project in molecular oncology funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation. “We will contribute with visual representations of molecular complexes that should hopefully lead to new ideas to de-


When the seemingly impossible becomes feasible


othing is impossible when the mind embraces uncertainty. Or

tive diseases and cancer research. The team, led by group leader

at least for some. Betting on major challenges is something

Xavier Salvatella, has recently discovered a new method that for

that chemists at the IRB Barcelona Laboratory of Molecular Bio-

the first time will allow them to trace the behavior of unstruc-

physics were not afraid of, especially when they knew these had

tured proteins. Their findings were published in the April issue of

the potential to unlock breakthrough results for neurodegenera-

the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“The hardest part of this project was to

programming, has allowed researchers to

involved in diseases don’t have a defined

convince ourselves that it was possible be-

track down the behavior patterns of highly

structure,” explains chemist Xavier Salva-

cause we didn’t know whether our intuition

volatile and unstructured proteins, some-

tella, the IRB Barcelona group leader behind

was correct. We got enthusiastic when we saw

thing that had previously been untraceable.

this work. The findings, he says, could open

that the algorithms we had programmed were

“We knew that within chaos there had

new research avenues in the search for drugs

working,” says postdoctoral researcher San-

to be a certain order. Coming up with a tool

that target these chaotic proteins, which are

tiago Esteban, the main author of this finding.

to measure the behavior of unstructured

known to play a key role in neurodegenera-

The new method, a result of a long strug-

proteins was really necessary—up to about

tive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkin-

gle with experimental data, algorithms and

one third of all the currently known proteins

son’s, and also in cancer progression.

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sign molecules that can translate into new drugs,” says Maria Macias, group leader of the Protein NMR Spectroscopy Laboratory. The group will use nuclear magnetic resonance techniques to screen the abundant interactions between small molecules and protein or RNA targets. The ultimate goal is to speed up the process of drug design. The consortium, called ‘An integrated approach to post-transcriptional regulation of gene expression and its role in human disease’ (RNAREG), will spend the next four years studying the impact of gene regulation in cancer. The twelve research groups from nine institutions participating in the project will also study the role of RNA-binding proteins in the control of cell multiplication, ageing and cell death. RNAREG is an initiative coordinated by group leader Juan Valcárcel at the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona.

The 50th anniversary of an atomic revelation

Michael Rossmann (Purdue University), one of the key players in the discovery of the three-dimensional structures of the first proteins, gave the opening lecture ‘From hemoglobin to complex viruses: an odyssey’ during the commemorative event at IRB Barcelona. In the background is the structure of hemoglobin published in 1960.


he first three-dimensional structures of the proteins myoglobin and hemoglobin unveiling all the intricacy of their atomic organization were published in 1960 in Nature. The images revealed an atomic complexity never seen before. How was this achieved? Who were the participants? The answers to this breakthrough were discussed during the special Barcelona BioMed Seminar ‘A celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first protein structures’, held on February 5 at IRB Barcelona and jointly organized with the Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona.

“The outcome is a software program that gets fed experimental data and automatically executes the calculations for us to detect and measure the properties of unstructured proteins,” says



Robert Fenwick, the second author of this paper. He spent a big part of his time working hand in hand with Santiago and

The findings published in JACS were the result of joint work between Santiago Esteban (left), Xavier Salvatella (center) and Robert Fenwick (right). Photo: R. Solà

the ubiquitin protein, the model they used in their laboratory experiments and structural calculations to

An ancient city in Mesopotamia

develop the program.

“It was just a coincidence,” says Este-

Their discovery has already drawn the

ban. Apparently, the Mesopotamian city

attention of the international scientific

of Eridu, inhabited by one of the earliest

community. “We’ve been approached by

urban societies in the world, has the same

several research groups that have experi-

name as the acronym that the group has

mental data and are interested in using the

chosen for their new method: ‘Ensemble

system,” says Esteban. The group plans to

Refinement of Intrinsically Disordered

make the platform available to scientists

and Unstructured molecules.’

around the world who have valuable information on unstructured proteins.

Anna Alsina

The discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen in 1895 and of the use of this radiation to study crystal structures by Laue, Fiedrich and Knipping in 1912 opened the first door that would later lead to the atomic breakthrough. The application of these techniques to biomacromolecules, however, still had to wait several decades, but its origins can be traced back to England thanks to the work from the Braggs (father William Henry and son William Lawrence) and John Desmond Bernal’s vision. The molecules that make life possible, however, proved to be much more fragile and delicate than the salt crystals studied by the Braggs. In 1934, Bernal and Crowfoot demonstrated the need to keep the crystals wet to retain crystalline order. With this insight, many subtle crystal handling details were mastered by Rosalind Franklin to obtain the famous diffraction patterns from DNA fibers, which allowed the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953. To determine the crystal structure of the first proteins was an even much more difficult endeavor than for DNA. Both the techniques and the theory had to be defined along the way and then painfully and slowly refined until they were proven to be successful. Protein purification and manipulation, crystallization, data collection, computation (with the primitive computer prototypes available) and model building and analysis were all unavoidable steps that required the highest doses of personal endurance and scientific creativity. The pioneers of these discoveries are now legendary names in structural and molecular biology with several Nobel Prize winners among them, including Max Perutz and John Kendrew. Celerino Abad-Zapatero (UIC)/Ignasi Fita


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of the key points I learned in the course deals with building relationships and communicating with your team. When communicating, it’s better to avoid judgements but offer arguments and facts instead. It’s important to speak in the first person and state your own opinions. It’s not the same to say ‘You have failed to carry out this experiment’ as it is to say ‘I find that we need to find out appropriate controls to validate this result’. It seems quite simple when you first hear it, but it’s not so easy to put it into practice.”

Learning to lead


eaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders,” once said Tom Peters, an American writer on business management practices. Though he may have been referring to the corporate world, the sentiment is no less true of science. Predocs become postdocs and postdocs (albeit with a little luck) become group leaders. Somewhere along the line they have to learn how to lead. Unfortunately, however, scientists are often left to figure things out on their own and receive no formal training. To give them a hand, IRB Barcelona organized a workshop in which 18 eighteen researchers spent four intensive days gaining insight into mentorship and management and learning the skills and approaches they will need to face the challenges of running a lab. The workshop was a follow-up to one held for group leaders two years ago, but this time it was directed toward postdocs and research associates.

The IRB Barcelona BioMed Workshop on ‘The Art of Leadership: Fewer Conflicts, More Results’ was held on Feb 8-11 at the Institut d'Estudis Catalans, and run by Metis Leadership.

Being a senior researcher in a lab with growing responsibilities presents a whole new set of challenges. As research associate Natàlia Carulla, who is responsible for several projects and a number of junior researchers, observes: “Leadership involves three aspects: having a vision, working out relationships within the team and setting up the tasks to achieve well-defined goals. One

High-speed publishing


he Development and Growth Control Laboratory at IRB Barcelona is

on a winning streak. The group, led by Marco Milán, has published in just over

“An excellent leader is a kind of superman, who has incredible skills and knows how and when to use them,” says research associate Joaquim Calbó. “It’s not easy maybe not even possible - to become such a perfect being. However, this course did help me to realize that leadership skills can be developed, and increased my awareness about guiding principles for leading a team: respect others’ viewpoints, collect data, stick to observations, be aware of differences (cultural, personality, background…), and above all, use common sense.”



short-listed group of candidates for the ”la Caixa”/IRB Barcelona International PhD Fellowship Programme came to the In-

a month three new research papers in renowned international journals. The first, published in Current Biology on March 23, revealed a surprising new function of the Notch protein that could provide new clues for the design of effective therapies. Their work got the attention of the editors of the journal, who

Photo: MB Hansen Milán (pictured) has been runinng the Development and Growth Control Laboratory since its creation in 2003.

Ferran Azorín PhD Advisory Committee member

decided to dedicate the issue’s cover page

“Narrowing the number of applicants down

to one of the group’s scientific images of

to 30 for the final round of interviews wasn’t

their findings on Notch.

easy. During their short stay at IRB Barce-

The group’s cutting-edge research

lona the candidates presented their research

based on Drosophila Melanogaster also

work so that we could analyze their poten-

led to the publication of a further two

tial and capacities, and later they were inter-

scientific papers, one in EMBO Reports

viewed by each of the group leaders of the

on April 9, and another one in the EMBO

programme they had applied for. Some get

Journal on April 16.

pretty nervous knowing they’ve got to impress us.”


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Teaching school teachers about microscopy


ince the construction of the first rudimentary microscope by Dutch eyeglassmakers in 1590, the introduction of optical devices and visualization techniques have revolutionized the way scientists observe and understand living organisms. While the first microTeachers work alongside scientists to prepare samples to be looked at under the microscope. Photo: C. Schmelz scopes provided researchers with a rough glimpse of the structure of a fly’s eye or of a red blood cell, today’s the European Learning Lab for the Life Scihigh-resolution technologies allow us to ob- ences (ELLS) of the European Molecular Biserve organisms, tissues, cells and molecules ology Laboratory in Monterotondo, Italy on at incredible detail and even in real time, af- March 1-3. Julien Colombelli, head of IRB fording unprecedented insight into biological Barcelona’s Advanced Digital Microscopy Core Facility, participated in the event as an processes at the molecular level. Twenty-two secondary school teach- expert instructor. ers got a first-hand look at the potential of cutting-edge microscopy technologies at a special workshop called ‘Colours of Life: New Frontiers of Microscopy’, organized by

The three-day course gave teachers from across Europe a detailed look at modern microscopy methods and their applications in the life sciences, and even allowed them to

IRB Barcelona’s PhD selection week stitute on April 12-13 for the final round of interviews, the last stage of the PhD selection process. The ten best candidates, the

Clara Caminal, Patricia Nadal Research & Academic Administration

names of which will be revealed in May, will be granted a PhD fellowship to spend four years in IRB Barcelona laboratories

Maria Rovira, Silvia Aguadé Human Resources Department

come up with ways to use the technologies in their teaching activities. Participants attended lectures by top scientists about their work and then rolled up their sleeves for handson practical lab activities where they learned skills such as staining techniques and microinjection. Colombelli, for example, discussed his work on developing highly sophisticated lasers that allow scientists to perform ‘surgery’ on cells in order to better understand intracellular mechanisms in vivo. “Workshops like this one are a great opportunity for teachers to get into a research lab and work side-by-side with scientists,” says Colombelli. “It’s also interesting for us as scientists because we get to see first-hand the challenges that teachers face in bringing today’s science into the classroom. Though they may not be able to take highly-sophisticated equipment back to their schools, they do come out with knowledge, tools, contacts and renewed enthusiasm for science that they can then transmit to their students.” Sarah Sherwood

doing research toward their theses. The new students will join an established community of more than 150 PhD students in September. A lot of work behind the scenes was needed to make sure that the PhD selection week ran smoothly.

Eva De Mol PhD Student Council member

“The days before the PhD selection week we

“One of our main tasks is to make sure that

“Apart from helping to organize the ‘cool-

work at a rate of knots. We track down atten-

the candidates coming from non-commu-

off’ session to welcome the candidates in a

dance confirmation, help the Conference and

nitarian countries submit their travel visa

more informal way, we also hang out with

Event coordinator with the logistics and put

paperwork in time—sometimes they may not

them during their lunch breaks so that they

together the agenda for the candidates. We also

be aware of how time consuming this process

can ask us questions about our experience

coordinate the presentation sessions and the

is. Dealing with embassies is rewarding but

doing a PhD, our daily routines in the lab,

dozens of individual interviews between the

also one of the most challenging parts of our

or even social aspects such as what life is

candidates and the group leaders. This year we

job. It’s good our phones have an automatic

like in Barcelona. Since we are also stu-

received more than 300 applications for this

redial option. We could certainly use a break

dents, the candidates feel very comfortable

call, most of which were international.”

after dealing with all the bureaucracy.”

and really open to ask questions.”


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FACES TO NAMES Rodrigo Gatica. PhD Student, IRB Barcelona Cell Signalling Group

“The earthquake in Chile has razed to the ground many years of research” ANNA ALSINA

- Have you heard from any researchers in Chile after the earthquake? “Two friends of mine were working in the Institute of Plant Biology and Biotechnology in Talca when the massive earthquake hit. Most of the equipment and biological materials were completely destroyed by the quake, and the failure of emergency generators during the long electricity outages just made things worse. They weren’t in the building when it happened, but they are devastated—they have lost most of their research work.” - Science reported that the worst damage was to the University of Concepción. “Concepción was the worst place to be because it was very close to the epicenter of the quake. The violent shakes destroyed all the chemicals in the Faculty of Chemistry, thus setting a fire that burned down the whole building. The earthquake in Chile has razed to the ground many years of research.”

Photo: N. Noriega

Rodrigo Gatica (Santiago, 1974) came from Chile to IRB Barcelona in 2008 with his hands empty after having lost most of his research data due to a fire in the science faculty at the Austral University where he was finishing his PhD. Although from a distance now, he’s very concerned about the devastating 8.8 magnitude earthquake that recently struck Chile and the setbacks this tragedy will cause in research.

A long trip to the kidneys Rodrigo has a fixation for kidneys. He has spent the last four years of his life analyzing and purifying specific segments of the kidneys to explore what goes wrong during diabetes. “We’re trying to decipher the mechanisms that get activated in the kidneys that may be contributing to the increase of glucose levels.” He says his work has already gained results. His group will soon publish two papers with new findings that will provide more answers to the complex relation between diabetes and the kidneys.

about the 15-meter waves, I was very worried for their safety. I didn’t hear from them until three days later. They had opted to stay in the city to help and rescue people. Half of the deaths in Chile’s earthquake occurred in Constitución.”

- What about the tsunami?

- Only four hours after the earthquake the Chilean government stated that the country didn’t yet need international aid.

“A researcher friend of mine and her boyfriend, a fireman, were in the town of Constitución when the tsunami hit. When I heard

“There were many technical problems. The Chilean government underestimated the magnitude of the natural disaster, and even


institutions that are normally reliable failed that day. The Chilean Navy’s Oceanographic Service (SHOA), which is responsible for detecting tsunamis, instructed the President of Chile to lift the tsunami warning after the first wave had hit. People went back home thinking that they were no longer in danger, but then several more waves hit. Many people died because of that negligence. The Parliament in Chile is now investigating if those responsible should be prosecuted and even the Navy has asked that the director of SHOA be removed from office.” - Does being a hot spot for major earthquakes make people in Chile more prepared for survival? “People learn about safety instructions on an ongoing basis, even in school, and so they are very well trained for natural disasters.” - What are the safety instructions for earthquakes? “If you’re by the coast and there’s a very strong earthquake where you have difficulty standing up, for instance, you should run in land immediately as it usually only takes ten minutes for a tsunami to hit the coast. If you’re inside a building, you should try to stand on a door threshold or by a column. Once the quake is over you should fill bottles with water to be prepared for outages. I remember once meeting a woman who had spent her life storing bottles of water since the great earthquake in 1960. I’ll never forget her. Living in a country prone to natural disasters makes people more afraid, but tragedies and hard circumstances in life unite people more than ever and make them more supportive and appreciative toward others.”

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For the second year running

Taped by amateur filmmakers


A group of students and professors from the ‘Josep Lluís Sert’ secondary school in Castelldefels spent a day filming the work behind the scenes at IRB Barcelona in February. Their goal was to grasp as much information as possible from researchers to make a video about the contributions of biomedical science to healthcare and society. Their work will be presented in a video contest at the 2010 EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), to be held in Torino in July.

Meeting the masters Two groups of Masters students from the Graduate School of Economics and the Pompeu Fabra University’s Masters in Leadership and Management in Science paid separate visits to the Institute in February and March. Their ultimate objective was to get a closer look at the internal workings of the Institute.

A new resource for readers Readers at IRB Barcelona don’t need to leave the Institute premises to borrow books anymore. The Office of Communications and External Relations has recently started a Science and Society library with a growing collection of books and multimedia materials. For a complete list of titles visit the IRB Barcelona intranet.

he IRB Barcelona running team took to the streets for the second year running in early March to compete in the Barcelona city marathon. Altogether, the six members of the team clocked up a total of 253.17 kms in a combined 21 hours, 35 minutes and 32 seconds of pounding the pavement. That’s about the equivalent of running to the border with France and back. If crossing the finish line were not motivation enough for these runners, this year they had an additional cause to inspire them. They ran in name of the emergency relief efforts for the recent earthquake in Chile (see article on previous page). The donations they collected, added to the amount given by members of the IRB Barcelona and PCB communities, topped 2000 euros

(Clockwise from top left) IRB Barcelona marathon team Joaquim Calbó, Roman Kessler, Ashraf Muhaisen, Guillermo López, Adelaida Díaz and Jorge Domínguez.

- which was enough to fund the construction of four temporary homes for families who had been left homeless by the quake. Thanks to all who ran, gave, and lent their support. Check out photos and videos of the runners in action in the results section of the marathon website (


IBEC’s bioelectronic nose to sniff out disease


BEC researchers are hard at work developing a bioelectronic ‘nose’, a device they hope will be able to rapidly and non-invasively detect disease. Some illnesses can alter the composition of organic fluids, like blood and urine, and can change their smell. The BOND project (Bioelectronic Olfactory Neuron Device) aims to develop an integrated bioelectronic analytical nanoplatform based on olfactory receptors to detect volatile odour compounds. Using a combination of micro/nano, bio and information technologies, researchers will develop an array of smart nanobiosensors to mimic the human nose. The basis of the nanobioplatform is the production and manipulation of olfactory receptor proteins expressed in yeast cells. The olfactory nanobiosensor array also integrates elementary nanobiotransducers, each of which consists of a set of functionalized nanoelectrodes with an olfactory receptor monolayer anchored on them. The nanoelectrode would be in charge of detecting electrically any confor-

mational or chemical change in the olfactory receptors when these receptors bind a given odorant molecule. “We hope that the BOND device will be a big leap forward in the diagnosis and prognosis of diseases such as prostate and lung cancer,” says project coordinator Josep Samitier. “One of our research lines, in collaboration with hospitals, aims to develop diagnostic tools that will allow us to detect prostate cancer via a urine sample.” The Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) is an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to creating knowledge and technology transfer in the fields of bioengineering and nanomedicine. IBEC engages in basic research and develops applied technologies which aim to improve health and quality of life. IBEC


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The ‘bad cop’ at IRB Barcelona


avid Rossell, manager of the IRB Barcelona Bioinformatics/Biostatistics Unit, recently captured the attention of Science Careers, who devoted a feature article to his scientific path. Rossell came to IRB Barcelona in 2008 from the United States, where he was working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Biostatistics Department of the MD Anderson Cancer Center. - Is statistics something you carry around everywhere? “Sure I do. Maybe not all the time, but with traffic for example. I pay a lot of attention to patterns like which lane is fastest, in which part, and on which days. The problem is Murphy’s law stands against everything I have studied!”

Molecular biologist Jelena Urosevic (Serbia, 1977) has recently traded the dry weather in Madrid for the sea. She left the Spanish National Cancer Research Center and joined IRB Barcelona in March to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the MetLab. Her main mission will be to search for the genes that are involved in colorectal cancer metastasis, a challenge that she looks forward to embracing. She says working with living cells is one of the best parts of her job. Jelena’s passion for science is something built into her. “I’ve been really curious about things my whole life. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to know why things happened one way and not the other. I cannot imagine myself doing something else. Science is my passion.”

Photo: A. Alsina

Biologist Anna Vilches (Spain, 1977) has spent her first weeks at IRB Barcelona visiting all the research laboratories to get familiar with the safety measures. Her main responsibilities as the new Work Safety and Environment Technician will be to carry out risk evaluations in all the working areas, to train IRB Barcelona employees on risk prevention, to coordinate annual health check ups, to investigate work accidents, and to provide assistance to the Institute’s Health and Safety Committee. “The most rewarding part is to know that your work is helping others to improve their working conditions,” she says. Anna has more than seven years of experience working as a risk assessment expert in the chemical industry and in the Catalan government.

ON THE MOVE Jascha Blobel (Germany, 1978) recently overcame the di- What is interacting with biomedical scientists like?

“Most researchers can do their basic numbers, but they benefit from having someone who can go beyond the usual analyses. When we collaborate in projects our goal is to get more out of the data than they would. Part of our job is to critically assess the evidence provided by the data, which may mean refuting the hypothesis that the experimenter is trying to confirm. I guess part of our job is being a bad cop.” - How did you end up in the biostatistics field? “The turning point came when I had to decide between training to be a mechanic - I love motorcycles - or studying statistics. I ended up choosing the latter path because I had always had a knack with numbers.” Tanya Yates

lemma of deciding what to do after having completed his PhD research at IRB Barcelona and opted to make a career move. He left Miquel Pons’ laboratory to step into the private sector and work as a product manager for Intelligent Pharma, a PCB-based company that offers computational solutions to accelerate research in drug discovery and design. “I wanted to explore how science works in an industrial environment and see from a closer distance the potential of its applications for society,” he says. He’s now getting used to having regular working hours.

Carme Cortina (Spain, 1981) is leaving IRB Barcelona with an impressive record. Her research work as a PhD student on the tumor suppressor role of EphB receptors made it into Nature Genetics in 2007, when she was still in the middle of her thesis. She joined the Centre of Regenerative Medicine of Barcelona in March, where she will be working as a PhD technician on cell reprogramming, a new research area for her. “Changing fields is really exciting because at the beginning you are always exposed to a storm of new concepts and techniques,” she says.

Published by the Institute for Research in Biomedicine. Office of Communications & External Relations.   Barcelona Science Park. Baldiri Reixac, 10. 08028 Barcelona, Spain. Editor: Anna Alsina. Associate Editor: Sarah Sherwood. Contributors: Sònia Armengou, Tanya Yates. Design: Aymerich Comunicació. Printing: Puresa. Graphic Production: La Trama. Legal deposit: B-1729-2010. This document has been printed on recycled paper. To subscribe or unsubscribe from in vivo email © IRB Barcelona

In Vivo 10  

In Vivo issue 10 (April 2010)