Cancer research on the move: From IRB Barcelona to the National Cancer Institute (NIH). An interview with IRB alumni Travis Stracker.

Travis Stracker, IRB Barcelona alumni.
Travis Stracker, IRB Barcelona alumni.

Travis Stracker (Ohio, 1974) joined IRB Barcelona in 2009 as a Junior Group Leader to set up a laboratory devoted to Genomic Instability and Cancer to address the way in which cells respond to DNA damage. Travis has been performing research in the field of cancer genetics since obtaining his PhD from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies at the University of California in 2002. Before setting his laboratory at IRB Barcelona, he had been a Research Associate in John Petrini’s laboratory at the Sloan Kettering Institute (New York), where he worked for six years.

Now, after 11 years at IRB Barcelona, he has recently embarked on his next career move: the National Cancer Institute (NIH) in Bethesda, where he works as an Investigator at the Institute’s Radiation Oncology Branch. Travis’ research focuses on understanding how cells respond to DNA damage and maintain genomic stability. Defects in the cellular response to DNA damage underlie rare diseases associated with cancer predisposition and are exploitable vulnerabilities for cancer therapy. His lab uses a variety of approaches to further understand the signal transduction pathways triggered by radio and chemotherapy and to identify new therapeutic targets.

 

"By the time I left, the IRB Barcelona had established itself as one of the best biomedical research institutions in Spain".

 

What was your first day like at IRB Barcelona versus your last one?

The first day I joined IRB Barcelona it was still a young institute that was just getting off the ground and establishing its culture, resources and reputation. It was an exciting but also stressful time because I was arriving in a new country and starting my first independent research group. By the time I left, the IRB Barcelona had established itself as one of the best biomedical research institutions in Spain. Leaving was bittersweet, and frankly very weird due to the Covid-19 situation.

I was leaving the IRB Barcelona and the city of Barcelona, which had been my home for 11 years and where my children were born, to return to the USA. I was not really able to properly say goodbye to people and places that were very special to me, but I was thankful that we were able to stay safe through the lockdown. I am very excited to be back in the USA and joining another great institution, the National Cancer Institute, where I will continue some of the work I started at the IRB Barcelona, and I am looking forward to the next time I can come back to Barcelona for a visit.

 

At a professional level, how do you think IRB Barcelona has contributed to your current career stage?

IRB Barcelona gave me the opportunity to gain independence and provided the freedom I needed to make mistakes and learn important lessons along the way. The relatively small size of the institution allows you to get to know all of the other group leaders and members of the administration and the environment has been very supportive along the way. It also gave me access to really talented young scientists that drove all of the important work in my lab, as well as great collaborations, and for that I am very grateful.

 

What are you taking with you from your overall experience at IRB Barcelona?

My years leading a group in Barcelona gave me the confidence and skills to manage a successful research group and allowed me to make many discoveries that I think make important contributions to our understanding of disease. I am very proud of my lab and the body of work it produced. Working in Barcelona also opened me up to a lot of opportunities and experiences that I would not have had otherwise, forever changing my perspective about many things.

 

How is your new lab at the NCI and how your new group is going to be? Will your research projects be similar to your previous ones or are they going to be different?

My new lab at the NCI will follow many of the discoveries we made at the IRB Barcelona. I am joining the Radiation Oncology Branch that will put us closer to the clinic and I hope that we will be able to leverage some of our findings to improve cancer treatment. So far, I am the only lab member and we are off to a slow start dealing with difficult working conditions due to Covid-19, but I am very excited about the future possibilities with the resources available there.

 

"We had two children in Barcelona (the first Catalans in my family). These were probably the most memorable experiences in my life and I will always admire the national healthcare system in Spain".

 

Do you have any special memories or anecdotes about your 11 years at IRB Barcelona that you want to share with us?

We had two children in Barcelona (the first Catalans in my family). These were probably the most memorable experiences in my life and I will always admire the national healthcare system in Spain. Our kids basically grew up in Parc Güell and I can’t wait to return there with them when they are older, I am sure they will want to come back and explore their home city. I am also grateful to many of my friends and colleagues that went out of their way to share their families, culture and friendship, helping us to feel at home and giving us many great memories of our time in Spain.