Konstantinos Kokkaliaris is a post-doctoral researcher under ISEH president Timm Schroeder within the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich. He has been an active member of ISEH for over four years, serving on the New Investigator’s Committee and now on the Publications Committee. He holds a Master’s degree in Life Sciences from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD in Stem Cell Research from the Ludwig-Maximilian University Munich.
How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells scientific field?
During my diploma studies, I developed a strong interest in the stem-cell field, due to the remarkable potential of tissue-specific adult stem cells to regenerate corresponding tissues/organs under homeostatic conditions. For this reason, I decided to continue my studies at the University of Edinburgh, which houses a core group of world-leading stem-cell labs. This decision changed my scientific life giving me the opportunity to enter this field of research and work on methods producing blood cells ex vivo, by directing differentiation of embryonic stem cells. At the same time, I also had a strong interest in imaging techniques that would enable observation of dynamic processes (such as stem cell differentiation) in real time, while they happen. My interest in blood stem cells and imaging led me to the lab of Dr Timm Schroeder, who had already combined those tools to answer long-standing questions.
And then how were you introduced to ISEH?
My PhD supervisor (Dr Timm Schroeder) is actively involved in ISEH and encourages people from his lab to attend such international meetings early in their careers (especially the ISEH ones). My first ISEH meeting was in Amsterdam in 2012. That was my first “big” meeting and a unique experience for me, since it triggered interactions with scientists having similar interests, but different expertise. I was fascinated by the quality of science and network opportunities, so I quickly decided to be involved and contribute to the society by joining the New Investigators Committee. Since then I am attending almost every year. For me, ISEH meetings are the highlight of each academic year and a great opportunity to stay tuned with the latest advances in the hematology field, while catching up with colleagues and friends from all over the world.
Who was your most influential senior investigator mentor and how did they help you?
This is a difficult question, because I feel that even “small” contributions could have major impact in decision making or choosing certain paths. During my PhD and early post-doc life, I have been extremely privileged to be supervised by Timm Schroeder, who is a great mentor, pays close attention to details and is very supportive with new ideas. He introduced me to the blood field, trusted me with important collaborations, gave me the freedom to play with cutting-edge technologies in his lab and the space to develop novel ones. He has his door always open, despite his busy schedule. Our chats often ended after several hours and have been extremely stimulating and motivating. However, I would not have this opportunity without making my first steps into the stem-cell field under the supervision of Lesley Forrester and her post-doc Melany Jackson. They were very supportive and patient, while giving me the chance to contribute to published stories already as a Master’s student. Also, during the course of my research, I have interacted with several senior investigators (such as Teri Moore, Marella De Bruijn, Ian Chambers and James Palis to name a few), who greatly influenced my view on science and life and gave me the motivation to overcome obstacles and failures.
There are a lot of interesting aspects of this scientific field; what do you find the most exciting?
One of the most exciting aspects is the role of the microenvironment (niche) on cell-fate decisions of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). It is currently believed that niche signals regulate the fine balance between HSC self-renewal and differentiation. However, the mechanism through which 2 genetically identical “daughter” cells coming from division of a “mother” HSC could follow distinct fates (either stay stem cells or differentiate) within the bone marrow microenvironment is intriguing. Especially since this decision will be made over and over again throughout our lives. Unfortunately, the exact cellular and molecular composition of the HSC niche remains controversial. Dissecting the HSC microenvironment and identifying the molecular cues governing cell-fate decisions is both exciting and extremely promising for future therapeutic applications.
It’s clear that the field is going to continue to evolve at an amazing pace. How do you see it changing over the next five years?
During the last years, the development of several sophisticated techniques allowed us to profile rare populations with single-cell resolution. Deep-tissue and whole-embryo imaging have also significantly progressed, “placing” such rare cell types in the context of their in vivo microenvironment. However, both methods offer a snapshot, a static view of dead cells, which might (or not) accurately reflect dynamic biological processes, such as stem-cell differentiation. Following single cells and their progeny over weeks in vitro is now feasible. However, non-invasive in vivo imaging allowing equally long observation of living cells with adequate temporal resolution is currently lucking. There is a huge space for improvement of such imaging modalities that would allow observing biological processes where and while they happen. That would significantly improve our understanding of how stem cells behave in vivo.
What do you consider the biggest challenge currently facing the hematology and stem cells scientific field and how can it be managed?
According to many, the holy grail of the hematology research is the identification of (novel) molecules capable of maintaining or ideally expanding HSCs on a culture dish. That would give us the opportunity to obtain sufficient numbers for therapies or have an unlimited source to produce off-the-shelf patient-specific blood cell types of interested. At the moment, several labs are focusing on that direction and promising molecules are already in clinical trials. Such finding would be a major step towards improving the clinical application and therapeutic impact of HSC research.
What advice do you have for new investigators entering this scientific field?
No matter what you decide to do, follow your passion and try to earn your living from your hobby. Doing research is a no-go if you don’t love it (as it is the case for pretty much any job). And don’t allow failure to take you down, discourage you or make you feel unhappy. This should just increase the satisfaction when you achieve your goal. If doing science would have been easy, somebody else would have done/found it already.
What do you find most valuable about ISEH?
First, the size and the family-like atmosphere of the annual scientific meetings. As I mentioned before, the meetings are a great opportunity to interact with other scientists and present your work to world-leading experts in the field. Second, the fact that ISEH is such a vibrant society. Members can stay up to date with the latest scientific discoveries or learn how to overcome common hurdles in the lab, by following or even contributing themselves to social media pages, webinars, blogs, publications in Experimental Hematology and much more.
What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory?
There are several actually. I remember the boat cruise in Amsterdam, enjoying an open-air concert during a coffee-break next to the conference hotel in Montreal, the tea ceremony in Kyoto and spending a full day sightseeing with great company after the San Diego meeting (thanks to Isabel, Cedric, Nina and Novella).
What are your hobbies?
Basketball, sailing, traveling, volleyball, water sports
What are your favorite books?
On the soul (Aristotle), Complete work of Epicurus, The Fall (Albert Camus)
What are your favorite movies?
Hannibal, Dark Knight trilogy, Tis kakomoiras (Greek movie)
If you could meet one person (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
Michael Jordan because he was a symbol of devotion (to his passion), perseverance and commitment to improve his weaknesses and return better and better every season on the courts.