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A new PI in town: An interview with Dr. Marc Liesa, new Group Leader at the IBMB-CSIC

25 Apr 22

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41 years old. Born in 1981. I graduated in Biochemistry from the University of Barcelona in 2003 and did my PhD at IRB Barcelona (awarded in 2008).

I spent 13 years in the US. After a postdoc period at Boston University, I became a junior faculty member (Instructor) at the same university, where I received the Evans Center Fellow Award (2013) and my first pilot grant as a PI from the NIH-funded Boston Nutrition of Obesity Research Center (BNORC). 

In 2015, I accepted an offer from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) to set up my lab in the new Metabolism Theme of the David Geffen School of Medicine, starting as an Assistant Professor and later being promoted to Associate Professor. IRB Barcelona Alumni Excellence Awardee in 2017. I’ve recently moved back to Barcelona.

 

"My PhD at IRB Barcelona set the foundations for a career devoted to mitochondria—the powerhouses of the cell."

 

What drove you to become a PhD student at IRB Barcelona?

First, I got a collaboration grant to work with Dr. Joan Guinovart while I was doing my degree in Biochemistry between  2002-2003. That was my first contact with the Barcelona Science Park and IRB Barcelona was very much in its infancy. I thought I would be doing my PhD under his supervision. But that same year, Dr. Antonio Zorzano gave a seminar in one of the classes about the discovery of a gene that modulates mitochondrial dynamics and that was the “wow” moment. I was hooked. After finishing my degree in June 2003, I asked Dr. Zorzano if I could work in his lab over the summer and I then applied for a grant to do my PhD in his lab.

 

What’s your research focus?

It has been and continues to be mitochondrial physiology and dynamics. My PhD at IRB Barcelona set the foundations for a career devoted to mitochondria—the powerhouses of the cell.

 

What has brought you back to Barcelona?

I moved back in January this year to take up a position as a tenured scientist in the Department of Cell Biology at the Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona (IBMB-CSIC). My new group is called “Mitochondria, Redox and Metabolic Diseases”.

 

Many would be puzzled at your decision to leave your position at UCLA.

The position at IBMB-CSIC is a great opportunity both from a professional and personal perspective. I was in an excellent place in the US, having completed an Assistant Professorship and then being promoted to Associate Professor with a unanimous vote. But family means a lot. I have two small kids and this move allows them to have greater contact with their grandparents and extended family.

 

Regarding funding, how do you think your experience in the US will help you?

The US is highly competitive. I’ve realized that communication in science is almost as important as the science itself. A bad idea well communicated can sometimes have a greater chance of getting funded than a fantastic idea that is poorly communicated.  When you’re a PI, this is one of the most important lessons.

 

Name a key skill for a PI that you appreciated from your time away from Spain.

The ability to have a birds-eye view of the project. This allows you to pull away and see the bigger picture, instead of being bogged down in the finer details. This vision helps communicate the science to funding bodies for example.  

 

PhD students at IRB Barcelona now have access to leadership courses and science communication courses, for example. What do you think about that? Can you make some reflections about how things work in the US?

That’s fantastic. I‘m all in favour of these activities. With respect to PhD Programmes in the US, some of them teach students how to write an NIH grant proposal. They’re made to think about how they communicate their science. What’s more, when you present your thesis proposal, there’s a page of specific aims just like the NIH proposal form and so students learn to communicate in this way.

All this training makes the US research sector highly competitive, so, for example, for every 100 proposals 50 are scientifically excellent and maybe only 10 will be funded. So it’s really a lottery being in these 10 grants. In this case, at the end of the day, the person who gets the money is the person who best communicates the science.

 

On returning to visit IRB Barcelona, what has surprised you?

The Core Facilities. In the US, it is common for every lab to have their own equipment and there’s duplication. In contrast, the system here serves the entire IRB Barcelona community and allows the optimisation of resources. Having in-house staff who are abreast of the latest advances is great. Even better is the news that as an IRB Barcelona alumnus I can have a discount for these services! That’s great and very generous.

 

What are your thoughts about the fundraising culture outside Spain?

There are a lot of philanthropists in most Anglo-Saxon countries, and this makes a big difference to research activities. For instance, at UCLA, it was common for private donors and wealthy patients to donate hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars.

Being close to a hospital helps to raise funds because some patients ask the doctors what they need to move new treatments forward, and some have the means to give large donations. I remember I got a grant at UCLA funded by private donors and the project had to serve to strengthen relations between basic researchers and clinicians. So this is one way of getting closer to the clinical setting.

 

Can you give an example of a major challenge facing the scientific community?

Working as a team. In this respect, COVID has speeded things up, turning the spotlight away from scientific celebrities and reducing individualism. This is a challenge for society as a whole.

 

Give me a key word.

Collaboration. 

 

Having been away for some years, what’s your perception of the biomedical research ecosystem in Barcelona now?

There are more start-ups and biotechs and greater entrepreneurial culture. Everything is going in the right direction and great improvements have been made, but other countries have grown more quickly because they invest more. When competition is so high, money makes all the difference.

 

Do you plan to collaborate with anyone at IRB Barcelona?

Yes, I’d like to go to IRB Barcelona seminars and find out about what people are doing and explore collaboration opportunities with the community here.

 

 

About IRB Barcelona

Created in 2005 by the Generalitat de Catalunya (Government of Catalonia) and University of Barcelona, IRB Barcelona is a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence, a seal that was awarded in 2011. The institute is devoted to conducting research of excellence in biomedicine and to transferring results to clinical practice, thus improving people’s quality of life, while simultaneously promoting the training of outstanding researchers, technology transfer, and public communication of science. Its 27 laboratories and eight core facilities address basic questions in biology and are orientated to diseases such as cancer, metastasis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and rare conditions. IRB Barcelona is an international centre that hosts 400 employees and more than 30 nationalities. It is located in the Barcelona Science Park. IRB Barcelona is a CERCA center, and a member of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST).