GMI Fellows – 2nd Edition

Following the successful launch of “GMI Fellows”, the second edition now portrays the researchers who obtained their fellowships in 2020. This edition’s GMI Fellows are all postdoctoral researchers in various GMI research groups. These include the Berger, Dagdas, Mittelsten Scheid and Swarts labs.

Marion Clavel, VIP2 Fellow, France

Selective autophagy, the controlled mechanism that allows cells to degrade unwanted intracellular material, is Marion Clavel’s research field of choice. This is also the reason why she chose the Dagdas group at GMI within the VIP2 program, through which she was awarded a VIP2 Fellowship. In fact, unlike the starvation-induced so-called “bulk autophagy”, selective autophagy is a highly regulated pathway contributing to cellular homeostasis. Central to this selectivity and regulation are cargo-receptor proteins, that Marion aims to identify and characterize. In Marion’s words, “Cargo-receptor proteins enable to ‘sort the trash’ by interacting with unwanted and potentially toxic cellular material and enforcing their degradation. Without them, the cells can’t pinpoint what needs to go in a given situation.”  

Marion’s fascination for selective autophagy stems from her deep interest in plant defense mechanisms, especially against RNA viruses: “I aim to find cargo receptors that intervene when plant cells are infected by plant RNA viruses and understand what selective autophagy truly contributes during infection.” 

During the conversation, Marion’s research drive becomes increasingly clear: “I’m mostly motivated by finding out new things about living organisms, and how they find a solution to a given problem. I love designing and executing experiments and learning about my system a little more with each new step. I also love interacting with other people that can enrich that process, and maybe I can also enrich their research.”

Marion originates from France, where she acquired her PhD (University of Perpignan) and performed her first postdoctoral studies (IBMP – Institute of Plant Molecular Biology, Strasbourg). 


Zachary Harvey, EMBO Fellow, USA

In the heart of chromatin biology, Zachary (Zach) Harvey investigates how histone variants, the DNA packaging machineries, set up functional domains of chromatin in time and space. To guide his project within the Berger group at GMI, Zach relies on innovative evolutionary insights and cutting-edge technologies. With his research, Zach aims to develop a new method of mapping chromatin remodelers across the genome, for which he was awarded an EMBO Fellowship. “This would allow me to figure out precisely what their functions are in controlling when and where histone variants are deposited,” he states. 

Being capable of driving complex research projects requires a strong motivation and great resilience, and Zach finds prolific words to describe his source of inspiration: “Modern biology is rooted in simple phenomena observed often decades ago. Today, due to technological advances we now know of an almost dizzying complexity of molecular systems.” Increasing on the knowledge of his predecessors in research, Zach looks to the future with anticipation: For me, building on these new molecular insights to explain and expand earlier ideas is not only fascinating, but also essential for understanding the fundamental mechanisms of life.

Zach acquired his PhD from Stanford University, California and originates from the United States of America. 


Tetsuya Hisanaga, VIP2 Fellow, Japan

As a VIP2 Fellow of the Berger group at GMI, Tetsuya Hisanaga seeks to understand the evolution of land plants. To do this, he looks into the chromatin dynamics during the life cycle of bryophytes. “By using a bryophyte as a model organism, I can find some similarities or differences between flowering plants and bryophytes,” explains Tetsuya. “In fact, bryophytes are non-vascular land plants that have the best-conserved characteristics of the earliest land-colonizing plants. Thus, gaining knowledge through bryophytes would allow me to shed light on land plant evolution,” he continues. To achieve his goals, Tetsuya aims to understand how the chromatin changes during the life cycle of a bryophyte. In addition, he seeks to explain the mechanisms that regulate these changes in the chromatin state.

Tetsuya comes from Japan, where he was a JSPS postdoctoral fellow at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST).


Marco Incarbone, Lise Meitner Fellow, Italy/Canada

“My project aims to investigate how plants prevent pathogenic viruses from entering their all-important stem cells, and the gametes that will allow the plant to reproduce. In most cases, infected plants are still able to generate healthy offspring, which is pretty cool!” With these words, Marco Incarbone’s passion becomes clearly visible. He was awarded a Lise Meitner Fellowship from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) to conduct his postdoctoral research in the Mittelsten Scheid group at GMI. Marco aims to better understand the molecular mechanisms that confer crucial antiviral defenses to plants. He hopes that his findings could be useful for fighting plant viral infections in the field. Marco draws his motivation mostly out of “curiosity and the thrill of investigating the unknown,” as he says. With a thought to the vibrant scientific networking possibilities at GMI and on campus, Marco adds: “I am also very motivated by the stimulating interactions with many colleagues from all over the world, each an expert in something different.”

Marco describes himself as “Italian and half Canadian”. He obtained his PhD and had a first postdoctoral experience at the IBMP in Strasbourg, France. 


Miguel Vallebueno, VIP2 Fellow, Mexico

As humans migrated across the American continent in ancient times, they introduced maize to new places and environments. In this context, Miguel Vallebueno’s work revolves around the history of adaptation of maize across America: “We have access to a collection of ancient maize which we will use to identify the early stages of adaptation on a continental scale.” For his postdoctoral research, Miguel joined the Swarts group at GMI through the VIP2 Program linked to a VIP2 Fellowship. Besides recovering the genomes and reconstructing the demographic history of these ancient samples, Miguel aims to identify signals of local adaptation in his samples. In addition, he aims to associate these adaptation signals to environmental or cultural sources. “What makes me tick is the exploration of the history of maize and humans across time, like a time, machine!” exclaims Miguel before continuing: “I greatly enjoy studying Maize, as it is deeply connected to my culture. In addition, Maize is a highly productive crop on which we rely to feed humanity. Therefore, understanding its history and diversity would allow us to discover properties applicable to production.”

Miguel comes from Mexico. He acquired his Master’s and PhD degrees at LANGEBIO, a Mexican institute devoted to the exploration of genomic resources focused on biodiversity. 


On research at GMI and the VBC

Conducting groundbreaking science at the only Austrian research institute entirely dedicated to plant biology is a unique experience by itself. Even more so, when this institute is located at the Vienna Biocenter, a European science hotspot! All five fellows abound with words of praise on their experience and the possibilities at GMI and the VBC:

“The GMI and VBC provide state-of-the-art technologies, along with experts to help you best use and implement them in your research. The scientific community is vibrant and very international, providing a stimulating environment to enjoy the success but also to cope with the possible frustrations along the way,” starts Marco, and Miguel quickly agrees with excitement:

“Absolutely true! This is a unique place to conduct science as the community is supportive and integrative. The diversity of perspectives found here truly enrich conversations and ignite scientific discussions.”

Marion too agrees with her colleagues: “I feel very fortunate to be here, because of all the support I can get. It allows me to do much more (and better) than I could on my own. It is also very nice to be surrounded by energetic and curious people.”

Tetsuya expresses his gratitude by naming specific facilities: “I really appreciate all kinds of support I am able to get here! These include the GMI lab support, several core facilities such as the Molecular Biology Services, Bio-optics and Next-Generation Sequencing, as well as the chance of having childcare provided on campus! Thanks to this strong support, I am able to focus better on my research tasks.”

With his usual calm temperament, Zach states: “Perhaps unique to GMI and the VBC is the depth of scientific support and the breadth of knowledge available,” and goes on to conclude with strikingly thoughtful words: “It's transformative to have an idea on Monday, be able to talk to someone who knows specifically about that experiment or biology by Wednesday, and then by Friday have everything in place to get started. This means I can be bolder in the kinds of questions I ask than I would be elsewhere.”