Wouter Masselink is a developmental biologist and a postdoc in the lab of Elly Tanaka. After seven years working in the Tanaka Lab to investigate the secrets of tail regeneration in the axolotl, he is ready to spread his wings and start his own research group to delve deeper into the unanswered questions of regeneration biology.
How did your scientific journey begin?
I started my studies in biochemistry at the University of Applied Sciences in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In the last year of my degree, I had the opportunity to run a year-long project in a lab in Utrecht. My supervisor was a PhD student, and he was completely overworked – he was running an insane project, working with cell cultures, mice, rats, and zebrafish at the same time. On a random Wednesday morning, he gave me a dish of zebrafish embryos and asked me to dechorionate them (remove the outer layer), because he had no time for it himself. It took me a ridiculously long time to do it, because it was my first time doing it, but at the moment I saw these tiny transparent embryos and witnessed their heartbeat under the microscope, I was flabbergasted. I was so fascinated! That was a decisive moment for the next steps in my studies: I went on to do a master’s degree in developmental biology in Utrecht, working on zebrafish at the Hubrecht Institute, and also spent six months in Barcelona at the Centre for Genomic Regulation. That stay abroad opened my perspective and got me thinking about what I'd want to do next and where I'd want to do it. As I’ve always had an interest in spending time in Australia, I literally googled “Zebrafish PhD Australia” and found a listing on Nature Jobs for a PhD opportunity at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute in Melbourne in the lab of Peter Currie. I got that position and I handed in my thesis about three and a half years later. Then in 2015, I found a postdoc position with Elly Tanaka in Dresden, where she was at the time. Her lab had very exciting projects going on and after my first visit I had many questions that I wanted to answer. I spent seven years in her lab, and here I am now, ready for the next chapter of my scientific career.
As a future principal investigator, what would be your priorities?
I would like to keep my group small and focused on a handful of projects. The reason for that is that I would like to prioritise good mentorship in the lab, from me to my mentees, but also from postdocs to PhD students, between peers, and so on. I don’t think I am the kind of person that could manage a group of twenty people and keep on top of all the projects they might be running.
I would like to get my group members trained to the best of their abilities and get them to work as efficiently and productively as possible. For this, as a mentor, I believe it’s crucial to be aware of what you know, what you don’t know, and how to explain this to others. I would particularly encourage mentees in the lab to give feedback to their mentor, should it be me or another lab member, so that we all keep improving the way we work as a team. A fundamental flaw of the academic system is that scientists are rarely formally trained in management, so new group leaders have to learn by doing, and it can be quite challenging, especially because the success of the whole lab rests on your shoulders.
Do you have an ideal location?
I have been traveling around a fair bit, and I would like to keep exploring the world. There are certain practical considerations I have to keep in mind, such as the atmosphere of a city, the cost of living, and job prospects for my partner. I have a child and a second baby on the way, so a good environment for children is also important for me.
I have a stand-alone FWF grant that is transferable to Austria, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, so I would prioritise these countries, but I’m open to other opportunities.
What do you expect from your future employer?
My most crucial requirement is the employer’s willingness to provide the infrastructure, or the space for the infrastructure that I’ll need for my research with axolotls. High-end facilities for aquatic animals like we have at the IMP are not easy to come by.
After my PhD and my postdoc, I have realised how crucial a collaborative spirit as found here at the Vienna BioCenter can be. I expect of my future work environment to have a similar vibe of openness, buzzing activity, and a variety of research topics that opens doors for communication between labs. I like to work with people around me, I like to talk and share ideas. I think that a diverse crowd of people can bring a lot to the table.
Do you enjoy bringing your research outside of the lab?
Absolutely. I have done some outreach with children in Germany and I loved seeing their interest and hearing their questions – which were essentially the same ones I have about my own research: how does the axolotl regenerate its injured body parts? How does the injury know what to grow back? How much? And when to stop? Feeding that curiosity in people of all ages is very rewarding. I hope to be able to continue with some outreach activities in my future position.
Published in June 2022.