Martin Breuss studied molecular biology at the University of Vienna and joined the Vienna BioCenter for his diploma thesis. From 2009 to 2013, he was a PhD student in David Keays’ lab, where he continued his research for two more years as a postdoc before joining the lab of Joseph Gleeson at UC San Diego. In January 2021, Martin moved to Colorado to set up his own independent lab. He is currently assistant professor at the University of Colorado, School of Medicine. His achievements in neuroscience earned Martin an EMBO Fellowship and an Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship and were honoured by the ASCINA Young scientist Award.
Martin, what sparked your interest in biology?
I was always quite interested in understanding how things work around me and liked Biology as a subject in school; however, I only really became interested in studying it at the university level when I learned about genetics. I was very impressed by the beautiful logic of genes causing phenotypes and how we transmit genes across generations. I find it interesting that genetics is what brought me into science and it is now my main focus following some (fantastic) detours into neuroscience and development (although I still plan to do some work related to these areas moving forward).
You grew up in Vorarlberg, in the West of Austria. What made you come to Vienna for your studies and later to join the lab of David Keays?
Once I learned about genetics in school and decided that this is what I want to do moving forward, I approached my biology teacher to see whether she knew how to study this subject. Coincidentally, two girls graduated a year before me in her class and both studied Molecular Biology in Vienna. She put me in touch with them and they explained to me the option of studying Molecular Biology directly without going through basic biology training. At the time, only universities in Vienna and Salzburg offered this subject. As most people from my class and my friends in general either ended up going to Innsbruck or Vienna, it was an easy decision to go to to the University of Vienna. Once I looked into graduate schools, I decided that the Vienna BioCenter was one of my top choices, and my then supervisor Vic Small put me in touch with David Keays, as his laboratory combined many of my interests. After talking to him, we both decided that we would be a good fit and I applied for the program and his laboratory. I did not really consider any other laboratories, and I still remain very happy with my choice.
You spent six years at the IMP, first as a PhD student and later as a postdoc. How did this time shape you as a researcher and influence your career?
I think my time at the IMP mainly shaped who I am as a scientist. While my time as a postdoc determined the topic I am working on now, the bulk of my training as to how to approach science and really be a scientist came from my time in Dave’s laboratory (and to some degree from my time with Vic Small). I experienced how to do science when the only limit is you and not your environment, and this helped me to set higher standards for myself and when I was judging the science at conferences or in the published literature. My main influence was Dave himself, who was a fantastic mentor for me, providing me with all the guidance I needed, while also enabling me to grow into a more senior role as time passed. As is common, I experienced many frustrations being a graduate student, which helped me grow as a person and scientist; and I also experienced the joy of working on exciting projects in a top-tier environment with great colleagues and friends within and outside my research group.
For your PhD thesis, you looked at tubulin mutations and corresponding neurodevelopmental diseases. Your research focus is still in neuroscience. What fascinates you about this particular area and how did your focus shift over the years?
My fascination with how a brain works and is built first started when I learned about how digital decoding of information by single cells underlies the most complex of behaviors. I was especially fascinated by the process of memory formation on a cellular and molecular level. Over time, this was gradually replaced with an interest in how we build the complex structure of the brain in the first place, steering me towards neurodevelopment. During my graduate studies, Dave further introduced me to the power of human genetic disease in this endeavor, as much of our knowledge on brain development is derived from studying instances where it goes wrong. This also brought me back to the field of genetics, which became a more integral part of my daily work once I transitioned to Joeseph Gleeson’s laboratory.
In 2015, you joined Joseph Gleeson's lab at UC San Diego. How did you experience the transition? What do you like most about working in the US, and is there anything you don't like?
The transition itself was relatively straightforward in terms of the science, as I continued working in the field of human genetics and neurodevelopment, and I only gradually shifted my focus towards genomics during my time there. However, I experienced quite a culture shock coming from an almost ideal scientific situation at the IMP to the American model. While I was lucky to join a lab with many resources and financial means, many of the facilities and services were more difficult to access, often expensive, and distributed across a large campus. Moreover, many of the things that were easily shared across the groups at the IMP were self-sufficiently (and often redundantly) organized within the research groups themselves. In addition, while colleagues were nice and approachable, the lack of common structures like a peer group and social events made it quite difficult to easily bridge the gaps between groups. At the same time, I had many more possibilities to perform large-scale genetics and genomics experiments, and the scientific culture here is more inclined to ask ‘why not?’ than ‘why?’ when you propose to do a novel (and sometimes quite crazy) new approach. This enabled me to start a project that was quite unrelated to the core interests of the group I joined and set me up for a novel research direction that I now pursue in my independent research group in Colorado.
In 2020, you were a recipient of the ASCINA Young Scientist Award, an accolade that honors Austrian scientists & scholars in North America. How important are research-awards for a young scientist?
Thinking about it along the lines of awards and fellowships, I think they can be quite important, especially if one plans to stay in academia. I was not as aware of their importance as a graduate student and only started to apply for fellowships and awards for my postdoctoral work. While they will not be sufficient to achieve career goals in academia, they can help distinguish you from candidates with similar qualifications. Moreover, there are often some expectations that you should have achieved these career milestones like a graduate or a postdoctoral fellowship when you are considered for other opportunities. Finally, it often allows you to network with new people that you would not have met otherwise; this was especially true for the EMBO fellowship that connects you to a fantastic peer network here in the US.
Earlier this year, you set up your first independent group at CU Anschutz in Denver - an exciting but also challenging phase in your career. What are your plans for the near future?
I am still in the process of setting up my lab. I started my position in January, and things have been progressing slowly but steadily. I am currently in the process of hiring a lab manager and I am still searching for a bioinformatic specialist. In the fall, graduate students will join our PhD programs and some will hopefully be interested in my work and do a rotation project with me. Scientifically, I am interested in understanding genomic mosaicism, the phenomenon where one but not all cells in a tissue harbor a unique mutation. I will use this concept to assess trans-generational risk of inheritance for genetic disorders and as a tool to distinguish cellular lineages from each other in the human. Long-term, I would like to combine these insights from human genetics with mouse modeling to better understand brain and germline development.
Interview by Heidi Hurtl, 2021
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