Andreas Hochwagen studied biochemistry in Vienna and at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1999, he joined Kim Nasmyth’s group at the IMP for his diploma. He then went on to do his PhD in the lab of Angelika Amon – a former student of Kim Nasmyth herself – at MIT. In 2006, Andreas became a Fellow at the Whitehead Institute, and in 2011 he joined New York University, where he is currently Associate Professor and Principal Investigator.
Andreas, it has been almost 20 years since you joined the IMP as a diploma student. Do you have any lasting memories of your time in Kim Nasmyth’s lab?
The two things that stuck with me the most were how exciting research can be and how stimulating it is when people from all over the world work together on a scientific problem. I joined during the heyday of cohesin discoveries, and even though I was only at the IMP for 15 months, it was during a time when people showed that cohesin gets cleaved by separase, that there is a meiotic cohesin complex, and the identification of the cohesin loader. I ended up reconstituting the first recombinant cohesin complex during that time. When I joined, I was the only Austrian in a group of 18 people – that’s just to highlight how international the group was at that time.
Although your affiliation with the IMP was rather short, would you say that it had an impact on your scientific career?
Absolutely. It was a very inspiring time and it showed me the level of rigorous research that is possible with a model organism that has excellent genetics and biochemistry. When I started out, I was interested in embryology and I did my first experiments in the lab of Eddy De Robertis at UCLA studying embryogenesis in frogs. When I told him that I was planning to work on yeast in Kim’s lab, he told me that I wouldn’t want to leave yeast anymore, and he was correct. I think the other way I still feel the IMP is because of the all the people I overlapped with in Kim’s lab who have gone on to have very successful careers and who remain good friends and colleagues, including Attila Toth, Frank Uhlmann, Camilla Sjögren, Christian Häring, Rafal Ciosk and Nobuaki Kudo.
You went on to do your PhD with Angelika Amon (another IMP alumna) at the MIT. Can you tell us about those years and your research there?
I hadn’t met Angelika while in Kim’s lab and didn’t plan to join her lab initially because I felt it was too close to my experience in Kim’s lab. However, after meeting Angelika and rotating in her lab, I realised what an amazing person she is and the opportunities I would have in her lab. I had a wonderful time during my PhD. Because I already had a strong background in yeast, Angelika essentially let me do my own thing, and so I ended up working on a topic (meiotic surveillance mechanisms of chromosome breakage) that the lab was not working on. The fact that she gave me this independence really helped me set up my own lab as a Whitehead Fellow after I finished my PhD. Angelika is also extremely supportive of her people, and for me that meant that she would connect me with people in the field who worked on the problems I was interested in, and that she sent me on conferences after I had been at the lab only for a few months. This support really helped me make connections in the field, and I still rely on these contacts today for discussions and collaborations.
You were a fellow at the Whitehead Institute and are now leading a research group at New York University. What are the most important qualities for a scientist to succeed in an academic career like yours?
I think the most important quality for me scientifically is to have open eyes and notice things that are unusual in experiments or that don’t make sense given the literature. I have never been a big visionary with a plan to solve a big problem, but seeing unusual things in our experiments has led our research into many different and interesting new areas. I think the other important quality for running a lab is to appreciate and encourage the enormous effort that everybody in the lab puts into their work. I think all the students and postdocs who decide to work in the lab are highly motivated, and it is my challenge to make sure I encourage this motivation.
Your lab is studying the processes underlying meiosis and meiotic recombination in yeast. What was your most exciting discovery or most satisfying project so far?
We have been trying to understand the forces that distribute meiotic recombination across the genome, and talking over coffee, a friend of mine from MIT came up with a really clever method to map all sites of meiotic recombination initiation across the genome. We tried it together and, amazingly, the method worked and allowed us to study all these genomic regions that people had been ignoring by focusing on a few model hotspots of recombination. By being able to see the whole genome, we found many really interesting regional effects that are very conserved and help protect the genome from breaking into repetitive DNA (which would be bad news) and boost recombination on small chromosomes, which would otherwise missegregate at high frequency and cause diseases like Down syndrome.
What would you look for in a young researcher who wants to join your team?
What I look for in people joining my lab is the creativity to come up with experiments and the ability to work hard to make these experiments happen. Research is all about failure, but the good researchers work hard to solve these unavoidable problems, come up with new approaches and keep their eyes peeled for any unexpected results.
Interview by Heidi Hurtl, 2019
Alumni Stories: quick links
Angelika Amon - Jörg Betschinger - Sarah Bowman - Rafal Ciosk - Greg Emery - Silke Hauf - Christian Häring - Konrad Hochedlinger - Andrea Hutterer - Claudine Kraft - Christoph Lengauer - Marieke von Lindern - Mark Petronczki - Walter Schmidt - Frank Schnorrer - Camilla Sjögren - Andrew Straw - Attila Toth - Giulio Superti-Furga - Frank Uhlmann - Hartmut Vodermaier