Attila Toth did his PhD at the IMP, followed by postdoctoral studies at the MRC-LMB and at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. He is currently a Group Leader and Heisenberg Professor at the Institute of Physiological Chemistry of the TU Dresden. Attila is married to Dunja Knapp – also an IMP alumna – and together they have three children.
From 1996 to 2001, you were a PhD student in Kim Nasmyth’s lab. Did you already study meiosis back then?
Yes, but initially I worked on mitotic cohesion, which was the main focus of the lab at the time. Kim gave us a lot of freedom in organising our work, but, of course, he had the final word about which scientific question we should address. When I joined the lab, he was most excited about cohesins and tried to convince me to scale up a screen that identified the first cohesins. I was not very interested in repeating an old screen. I didn’t find it challenging and I wanted to work on the cell cycle. We finally reached a compromise: I modified the already tested screen for cohesins to identify both new cell cycle regulators and cohesins.
To my disappointment at the time, the screen found only new cohesins and their regulators. After I analysed these proteins, I wanted to do something new. At this point, Kim was willing to give me more freedom to explore my creativity. For some reason, Wolfgang Zachariae, a postdoc in the lab at the time, tried to convince me to study meiosis. Hence, I came up with the idea of a functional genomic screen for proteins that make the difference between meiotic and mitotic chromosome behaviour. Kim not only approved my plan, but also assigned a diploma student and our technical assistant to help me with my screen. This was the beginning of my long and beautiful friendship with meiosis.
What was it like to work with Kim, and how has he influenced you as a scientist?
I very much enjoyed working with Kim. I initially didn’t consider him as my supervisor because working on yeast didn’t appeal to me. However, his sharp intellect, logic, competitive nature and enthusiasm for science completely captivated me during the PhD interview. After talking to him, I had no doubt that I wanted to work with him.
Kim was the perfect coach and mentor. He taught me how to ask the important questions, how to test hypotheses with uncompromising rigour, and how to communicate my discoveries to the wider scientific community. The scientific spirit and organisation of the Nasmyth lab also provided me with a blueprint for how to create and run a lab as a very effective “science-making” machine. I have tried to model my lab on the Nasmyth lab ever since. My time at the IMP was most influential in making me the scientist I am today.
Looking back, how did your time at the IMP shape your career?
It was an extremely productive period of my career that allowed me to make a name for myself in the meiosis field. Because of the discoveries I made in Kim’s lab, I was given the opportunity to present a talk at the most important conference in the field, which ultimately earned me my independent PI position in Dresden. After my PhD, I went to Cambridge, UK, to learn how to work with mouse germ cells. While my time in Cambridge was very useful, that period didn’t produce any papers. Hence, my achievements at the IMP were essential for securing an independent position.
Can you briefly describe the next stages of your research career?
After finishing my PhD, I moved to Cambridge to follow my future wife who had started her postdoc there one year earlier. Initially, I followed up my meiosis yeast project in John Kilmartin’s lab. Then I moved to the lab of Azim Surani at the Gurdon Institute to implement a screen for proteins that define meiotic chromosome behaviour in mammals. My work in the Surani lab produced the results upon which I built my lab in Dresden. Just before moving to Dresden, I joined the lab of Jonathon Pines to learn live cell imaging of the cell cycle in mammalian cell cultures.
You are now an established PI and Professor at the TU Dresden. What were the biggest challenges along the way, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was to acquire a PI position and secure sufficient funding for ambitious projects in mammalian meiosis before publishing on this topic. Funding agencies are fundamentally conservative, hence it was difficult to get the level of funding that would have been desirable. In my case, I didn’t give up my dream project, but instead adapted the project to a scale which was doable with the available funds. This strategy served me well as I was eventually able to build up a well-funded lab by continuing to publish on the topic.
What is your current research focus, and what are your plans for the future?
We have been focusing on distinguishing features of germ line chromosome biology that facilitate the generation of gametes with a healthy genome content in mammals. Whereas my lab will keep addressing the molecular mechanisms that underlie the maintenance of genome stability in the germ line, we are also planning to initiate additional projects on cellular ageing. The germ line is essentially immortal. Hence, germ cells will likely teach us important lessons on how to prevent or slow down cellular ageing.
On a more personal note, how did you and Dunja balance work and life with a family?
While my wife and I were postdocs in the UK, we had three babies over four years. Kids require lots of time, which forces you to be more disciplined and use time more efficiently in the lab. In our case, we often ended up taking turns with the kids. Whereas the children certainly had an impact on our lab work, neither of us regrets that we had them while we were postdocs. You don’t get more time as your career progresses.
Interview by Heidemarie Hurtl, published 2018
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