Jelle Jacobs is a postdoc in the lab of Alexander Stark. He recently published the main results of his postdoctoral research in the journal Science. With this accomplishment and the spirit of a community builder, he is ready to make the next step in his academic career, as a group leader – ideally in Vienna or in his native Belgium.
What did you do before joining the IMP?
My first master’s was in civil engineering. I then worked in that field for a year, but I soon realised I was more attracted to fundamental science, and to elucidating how things work in one of the most fascinating and complex “factories” of them all: living cells. I took up a second master’s in medical radiation physics in Leuven, Belgium. It was an interesting mix of disciplines, and I really enjoyed pure physics. After that, I did my PhD in the field of gene regulation with Stein Aerts in Leuven. His lab works with drosophila and transcriptional regulation, using bioinformatics tools. My project aimed to understand how open chromatin regions are connected to transcription and enhancer function. A lot of it was new to me, and I saw the lab grow from a budding team to a group of leading experts in the field. I also worked with Georg Halder, whose work was less computational and more experimental. It made me realise the importance of combining these approaches to get the most of a research project.
How did you hear of the IMP?
During my PhD, I went to a couple of conferences where Alex Stark was presenting his lab’s research – this gave me a lot of ideas. I thought it would be a great fit. I also found the institute very impressive in terms of infrastructure, facilities, and funding, so my choice was relatively easy. I joined the IMP in 2018 and I’m finishing up my postdoc now. I just published some of my postdoc work, so I can move on to the next step.
What was your postdoc work about?
A lot of research has been done on the activation of gene transcription, but there’s been relatively little attention given to repression of gene transcription. Some genes need to be shut down very rapidly for cells to grow, divide, and differentiate in a healthy way. In my postdoc, I investigated whether repressors could shut down all transcriptional enhancers, or if they're more selective. We found that most enhancers can only be downregulated by a subset of repressors.
How do you picture your professional future?
The coming months will be busy with job applications for group leader positions. There are new directions I want to follow in the upcoming years, using a broad range of skills I’ve learned during my PhD and postdoc years. I would like to research the molecular basis of memory formation. It’s one of the very big, unanswered questions in neuroscience, yet we use our memory constantly. I’d like to tackle this question from the angle I know best, the regulation of gene transcription. I’ll use drosophila as a model, as it’s been used extensively in neuroscience, particularly in genetic screens to find genes that modulate a specific phenotype, such as one with altered long-term memory. I would like to know more about the transcriptional cascade that underlies memory formation and use this knowledge to physically label the cells involved in the formation of a memory.
What kind of team members will you be looking for?
I’ve seen both the wet lab and computational research sides, and I think it’s important that my lab has expertise in both. In the beginning, I will be mostly interested in hiring students for their motivation, and if their interest lies in either of those fields, I will complement it with my expertise. For me, the most important thing is that the team works well together.
Do you have experience in leading a group?
A while ago, I led a youth club in Belgium for six years. We would do various activities on the weekend and have a yearly camp. Although the people I led back then were much younger than my future lab, I think I’ve learned a lot about what working with people means. I’ve also been a postdoc representative at the IMP for a few years, and I think the skills you need to manage a group translate across age groups. In the end it boils down to fostering positive group dynamics, motivating people, and encouraging feedback in all directions.
How do you imagine the group dynamics in your lab?
A very important aspect for me is open communication: I’d like my lab members to feel comfortable asking questions whenever they need help. A supportive, collaborative environment that values a healthy work-life balance is what I’d like to develop, so that lab members empower each other to move forward.
Published in September 2023.
Interested in Jelle’s profile? Reach out at jelle.jacobs[at]imp.ac.at