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Evgeny Kvon

Evgeny Kvon grew up in Russia’s science hotbed Akademgorodok. Leaving Siberia for his PhD, he joined the lab of Alexander Stark as one of his first graduate students in 2008. After some ground-breaking work, he moved to California in 2014, where he did a postdoc at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory before starting his own lab at the University of California Irvine in 2020. Still faithful to the subject of his PhD, Evgeny’s lab studies transcriptional regulation by enhancers using cutting-edge genomics, genome editing, and transgenic tools. Evgeny is particularly interested in studying the role of enhancers in mammalian development and evolution and how enhancer malfunction leads to birth defects. 

We usually start these portraits with asking about the things that first sparked our interview partner’s interest in science, their biography, and history - but these points were covered really well in an interview of "Development" last year, which I will recommend to our readers as a starting point (see here). This gives us a so-far unique opportunity to zoom right in on more specific questions about your IMP experience.

You first arrived at the IMP in 2008 and joined the lab of Alexander Stark. Can you recall your first impressions?

A friend sent me a link to a PhD program in Vienna, Austria –I applied and was invited to interviews. When I arrived, the IMP was still in its old building, but it instantly came across as a very modern institute. In the Bay Area, we have these overwhelming tech companies that offer seemingly everything; it felt a bit like this. It was all very impressive. The recruitment process was quite stressful – I was first interviewed by three PIs, and then they decided if I would move further. I managed to pass, and then talked to different PIs. Alex was new to the campus at the time, not even listed on the website yet, as he had just arrived from Boston. We clicked immediately. I could sense his excitement about science and really wanted to work with him. We started practically at the same time. I was one of his first two students alongside Cosmas Arnold.

From the beginning, my PhD was a very exciting interactive experience. Alex told me right away to switch to a MacBook and get an iPhone, for example [laughs]. This was year 2008.

Initially, we shared lab space with Thomas Jenuwein and the fly room was shared with Barry Dickson, two famous people in epigenetics and Drosophila neuroscience. And with Alex’ background in theoretical biology, this was a perfect mix. I had done “old school” fly genetics in Russia, but at the IMP, I was introduced to cutting-edge techniques by people in Barry’s lab and I ended up collaborating with them. At the time, the Dickson lab was cloning GAL4-lines to label neurons, and Alex had the idea to use the expression of these lines in embryos to learn about gene regulation. This eventually led to my main PhD paper.

Thomas Jenuwein’s group was already transitioning to Freiburg, but working close to them was also helpful. Not least because I ended up taking over an apartment lease from a leaving postdoc of TJ.

In your Development interview, you refer to great facilities and support at the IMP, but also high pressure. How did the latter show and how did you cope with it?

Pressure came for example from attending weekly Monday Seminars and seeing cutting-edge science presented by your peers - and then realizing that you also have to go out there and perform. The amazing resources at the institutes of the Vienna BioCenter put even more pressure on you: you don’t have the excuse of not getting enough support anymore.

My initial project failed after the first year. I think learning to fail is important in science. Many experiments don’t lead anywhere, and one needs to learn to accept that. Resilience is something I developed during my PhD, and this was priceless later in my career.

Additionally, after leaving my home country, I became an expat in Austria, and life could get challenging. I had outside activities such as martial arts in a neighbouring gym which helped me to turn off my mind and get some workout. I used to do cross country skiing in Russia; I grew up in Novosibirsk, where it is flat. In Austria, I took up downhill skiing.

"...the IMP felt like a single lab. Everybody talked science with everyone."

Evgeny Kvon

How did you experience your peers at the IMP?

There is something remarkable about the IMP: in many institutions, people don’t talk to the neighbouring labs much, but the IMP felt like a single lab. Everybody talked science with everyone, and this is something I miss even here at UCI.

Socially, it was also great. There were a lot of activities such as weekly happy hours or ski trips, and it was great to make life-long friends. The grad students also worked really hard. One day I had to come to the IMP at 2 a.m. and there was somebody at the microscope room – that was the IMP. People were passionate about science. The composition of the student body was very international and felt very diverse.

Are you still in touch with colleagues from back then?

I am still friends with people from Alex’ lab and often meet people from the Vienna BioCenter at conferences. Sometimes I meet people who worked at the IMP in the 1990s, when Kim Nasmyth was a director, and our joint IMP experience is still a reason to bond, even though we did not overlap. I will actually meet Alex at a conference at CSHL in three weeks. I look forward to that.

"The IMP takes care of everything so that you can focus on science and nothing else."

Evgeny Kvon

In 2014, you moved to the Bay Area in California for a postdoc. How was that?

It was a bit of a culture shock. The IMP takes care of everything so that you can focus on science and nothing else. As an international postdoc in the US, you are much more on your own.

Initially, my plan was to do a postdoc in the US and return to Europe to start my own lab. This plan gradually changed with time. In Vienna, I enjoyed my time at the institute but did not form deep roots because of the language barrier. Here in the US, I could relate more easily to life outside of the lab. I also met my spouse - who is American - and got funding that was tied to staying in the US, and so one thing led to another. I was also fortunate that my professional prospects developed really well. Scientifically, California felt like a great place to start an independent lab and the students I came across were very driven. But you know how science is – if you have good ideas, you will be fine anywhere.

When you started your own lab – which you remarkably managed during the lockdown period – was there anything you took from your time at the IMP that shaped how you did things?

Yes, this time was crazy. I had to start my lab one month into the first pandemic lockdown. That being said, my experience as one of Alex’ first students was invaluable for starting my own lab. I could vouch to applicants the positive aspects of joining a new PI from personal experience, and I also remembered how to motivate people and details of the administrative aspects of being a new lab. These are all things I learned from Alex.

What do you think could the IMP learn from how things are done at UCI?

It’s a hard question because the IMP is already a role model of a highly successful institute that conducts high-impact basic research. I think one thing I learned to appreciate at UCI is teaching. Since the University of California is a public school, my professorship comes with teaching responsibilities. I teach Introduction to Genetics to a class of several hundred undergraduate students, most of whom will not choose science as a career. That gives me a sense of purpose, especially when grants and papers are being rejected, or experiments don’t work. This is something missing at a research institute – there are not many teaching opportunities for students and postdocs. I think it is really important for scientists to have opportunities to teach, especially in times when misinformation about science is widespread. I also learned how to write grants, which helped to shape my research because it forced me to think about why we are doing these experiments, what’s the hypothesis and who should care. This grant-writing mentality starts very early here – most undergraduate and graduate students write multiple research proposals during their training.  

What do you miss about Vienna (if anything)?

The awesome public transportation. I live in a city that is the exact opposite of Vienna – you need a car for everything, even basic grocery shopping. I miss being able to hop on a tram or a bike and get anywhere in the city.

I miss Austrian food – the Apfelstrudel, Schnitzel or Käsekrainer in the kiosk next to the Vienna BioCenter. I also miss the high density of culture – it feels like the Kunsthistorisches Museum alone has more significant artwork than the entire west coast of the US.

You left 10 years ago, which is quite recent compared to other alumni we have talked to for this series. At the same time, science moves fast. What has changed the most in these past 10 years?

The rise of AI in the short term. Even in Alex’s work, he had already wanted to predict enhancers when I joined in 2008, and now he has with the help of AI. AI applications in biology will be transformative, and this will continue to change our lives.

Published in 2024.