“My objective? To generate new knowledge, reach the limits, and fight against uncertainty and frustration”

After eight years, Francisco Barriga is ready for a new stage in his scientific career. He says that IRB Barcelona “shaped” him as a scientist and that he “learnt to ask the right scientific questions.” But he also got involved in many outreach activities. “Over the years, I have never met anyone who did not find what we do interesting. We just need to find the right way to talk about it,” he says. 

Postdoctoral fellow Francisco Barriga (Washington, 1983) has been a reference figure at IRB Barcelona for many years. He joined the Institute in 2008 as a PhD student and he’s now ready to set sail for new horizons, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, which he will be joining in January. He’ll be working on Acute Myeloid Leukemia in Scott Lowe’s lab, focussing on new genetic tools to tackle a rare adult subtype of this type of cancer. Despite being born in the US and holding US citizenship, Francisco is also Chilean and Spanish, and he lived most of his life in Chile before coming to Spain in 2008. “My wife, who is also a scientist, found a position in a group working on neuroscience in New York, so it was a good opportunity for me to go with her, and experience first hand how science is done over there,” he says.

With a background in biochemistry, Francisco decided to move to IRB Barcelona inspired by the words of Joan J. Guinovart who gave a talk at his university in Santiago. He presented his newly-established institute and he encouraged us to come, because we wouldn't be deceived. “The director was right: the decision to move to the Institute was the best I could have made,” he notes. “At IRB Barcelona I have been doing the science I always wanted to do, every day I have faced the challenges I wanted to face.” Francisco obtained a ”La Caixa” Fellowship for his graduate studies in Eduard Batlle’s Colon Cancer Lab and later continued with a postdoctoral fellowship with the same group.

“I have always wanted to study cancer,” he confesses. His father is an oncologist, and Francisco became aware of the disease at a young age. Dr. Barriga senior is an expert in leukemia, so Francisco’s future field of research will bring him closer to his father’s work. “When I was a child, my dad was often on call, even when he was spending time with us, and I ended up going with him to the hospital over the weekends. Seeing children going through cancer has inspired me to help make a difference”. But he knew he did not want to be a physician, and research was an obvious alternative for someone who wanted to contribute to fighting this disease. “During my final years at university, I realised that understanding cancer from a stem cell perspective could help us understand why we aren't curing most cancers. That’s why I was drawn to Eduard Batlle’s research.”

Getting ready to face his important move, Francisco takes stock of the many years spent at IRB Barcelona, which “shaped me as a scientist,” he comments.

Perseverance is one of the things he learnt as a young scientist and a quality that he will take away with him. For many years he worked on intestinal stem cells, and one of his main contributions has been to identify and characterise a specific gene in this type of cell. “It proved to be much more difficult than what we foresaw at the beginning,” he recalls, “Intestinal stem cells were more heterogeneous than we originally thought.” Francisco and his collaborators ended up identifying a population of stem cells that proliferates slowly and is highly resistant to therapies. “It took me three years to prove my original hypothesis incorrect, but in the end we stumbled upon this new population of stem cells,” he summarises. “I also learnt that you should try to ask the right scientific questions, which are the ones that can always lead to interesting answers, regardless of the outcome.” If he had to give some advice to younger researchers at the beginning of their careers, he would tell them “your PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, so be patient and don’t rush it. Plan your experiments thoroughly and build things one step at a time. Also, if you can, try to choose a project where you have tools available, which will make your life much easier”.

But budding researchers should never forget why they got into science to begin with. “When I chose to work in research, I wanted to generate a small new piece of knowledge, to push through the limits of what we know. And to get there, over the years I learnt how to fight against uncertainty and frustration.”

On the first day of Francisco’s PhD studies, Joan Massagué said something that was eye-opening for him: “if all experiments come out as planned, you are doing something wrong”. “I never forgot that, I learnt that it’s ok not to know something,” he adds. “Being a scientist also changed the way I perceive the world,” he concludes. “I always try to look at data and numbers in any problem I encounter.”

Francisco has also been considerably active outside the lab. He was among the organisers of the First IRB Barcelona PhD Student Symposium in 2009, he has been an active and enthusiastic ambassador of science to the general public, and he has been involved in scores of outreach activities coordinated by the Office of Communication and External Relations. He even made a memorable cameo appearance in IRB Barcelona's dance video in 2014. “Part of our job is to communicate what we do,” he explains. “Society needs to know how important knowledge is, and we have to learn how to transmit this to the people outside our labs. Over the years, I have never met anyone who did not find what we do interesting. We just need to find the right way to talk about it.”