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Meet Dr. Mick Milsom

Posted By Connections Editor, Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Updated: Monday, June 29, 2015
Dr. Mick Milsom, PhD, is a junior group leader at the Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technology and Experimental Medicine (HI-STEM) in Germany. He gained his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Leeds in the UK. For his first postdoctoral position, Dr. Milsom joined the group of Dr Leslie Fairbairn at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester, in order to study gene therapy of hematopoietic stem cells. He then moved to the USA to undertake a second postdoctoral fellowship in the group of Dr. David A. Williams at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He next took up a junior faculty position at Harvard Medical School/Children’s Hospital Boston within the Division of Hematology/Oncology, again under the mentorship of Dr Williams.

Dr. Milsom has 14 years of experience in hematology and stem cell research, working in the fields of hematopoietic stem cell biology, DNA damage, aging, bone marrow failure and gene therapy. He first attended the ISEH annual meeting in Hamburg in 2007 and became a member of the society four years ago. Dr. Milsom is very involved with ISEH and is currently the head of the New Investigator Committee.

Dr. Milsom took the time to participate in a Q&A session with Connections. Below he shares with us how he got involved with the field of hematology; his decision to continue his research career in Germany; his view of the funding atmosphere in the US, Germany and other EU countries; the rewards of being involved with ISEH, and the excitement of publishing a Nature paper as senior author .
How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells scientific field?
My Ph.D. was focused on the molecular regulation of gene expression in cell lines and, in the scheme of things, wasn’t too successful. I decided that I wanted to do something that was a little more translational for a postdoc and I answered an advertisement for a position in a group at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester that was studying gene therapy of hematopoietic stem cells. At the time of applying, I hadn’t realized that the Paterson had been an extremely productive and well renowned hub for hematopoietic stem cell research. Many of the people who had been responsible for that reputation were still in place when I started working there. The environment was amazing and I just fell in love with the subject and haven’t looked back.

Who has most influenced you to become a scientist, and how did they influence you?
I’ve been lucky enough to have some really inspiring teachers, both at high school and as an undergraduate student at the University of Leeds. When someone who is really passionate about the subject has taught you science, it’s very easy to develop that passion yourself.

Who is your most influential senior investigator mentor and how did he or she help you?
My ex-boss Dave Williams at Boston Children’s Hospital continues to be an amazing mentor to me. Despite his extremely busy schedule, he was always careful to take a time out to make an important teaching point while I was working in his lab. One of the best pieces of advice that he gave me was to keep my focus and not dilute my work effort in several different directions at once. This was really important when I started my own lab and had the possibility of working on the hundreds of crazy ideas I had been dreaming up as a postdoc. I think that he was also incredibly supportive when it came time for me to leave his lab by helping me prepare for faculty interviews, deal with contract negotiations and of course, spent plenty of time having open discussions with me about my future work plan and how that would evolve from the work I was carrying out in his lab at the time. Dave still provides me with lots of sage advice and he’s also now transitioned from being my former boss to a generous collaborator.

What is the overall aim of your research? What are you working on most intensely right now?
We’d like to understand exactly how and why hematopoietic stem cells alter their functional properties throughout the lifetime of an organism. We believe that by understanding this process, or processes, we will potentially gain insight into the etiology of age-related diseases, such as cancer. It would be great if we could also contribute towards the identification of potential therapeutic targets that one could modulate to slow down or prevent the development of hematologic disease.

What is the most exciting or intriguing result you’ve gotten so far?
I’ve been working on the bone marrow failure syndrome Fanconi anemia for a number of years and was always frustrated that we never had a good model system to study the aplastic anemia that almost all patients suffer from and which we hypothesized was caused by defective hematopoietic stem cell biology. There are a number of knockout mouse models of Fanconi anemia but even at extreme old age, they never spontaneously developed bone marrow failure. When we recently found that inflammatory stress could precipitate hematopoietic collapse in these mice, it felt like a real eureka moment. We were even more excited when we found that this mechanism of stem cell depletion also applied to wild type mice and is likely a route via which hematopoietic stem cells are compromised during aging.

Why did you choose to work at The Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technology and Experimental Medicine over the UK or Harvard ?
After spending five and a half fantastic years working in the USA, my wife and I decided that it was probably time to move the kids and ourselves back across the Atlantic to be closer to our family in the UK. I applied for several positions in the UK but the financial downturn was just starting to bite there and there was very limited funding available for new PI’s to start up research groups. At the same time, I saw an advertisement in Nature for a new stem cell research group starting up in Heidelberg that was going to be led by Andreas Trumpp. I applied, was lucky enough to get an interview and was really blown away by the vision that Andreas had for what he wanted to set up and the resources and support that he had at his disposal to make it happen. It was really exciting being there at the very start and be able to contribute to the initial set up of the institute. All in all, it turned out to be a really good move for both me and the family, with the only down point so far being the slightly uncomfortable experience of watching my boys support the German national football team to world cup glory!

What is the situation of funding for research in Germany? Can you compare it with the US and other EU countries?
At the moment, scientific funding is extremely strong in Germany compared to the US and UK. The success rate for federally-funded grants is around 25% and although these grants only have a three year term that provide less money than the US equivalent of an R01 grant, they certainly appear to have helped prevent the same scale of cutbacks in academic research that have happened in other countries.

You just published a paper in Nature as senior author. How does it feel to have such an achievement at early stages in your career as an independent investigator?
Obviously, I’m delighted that we managed to get this story published in such a high profile journal and, to be honest, I still can’t quite believe that this has happened. I’ve been very lucky to have recruited an outstanding group of young talented scientists into my lab and this paper is really a testament to their hard work and that of our collaborators. From a personal perspective, my publication record as a postdoc was pretty solid but in no way outstanding. So with an eye towards my upcoming tenure evaluation it’s extremely helpful to have this on my CV. Now the real challenge is to try and maintain this level of productivity.

Why do you attend the ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting?
The meeting is a perfect size for networking and the quality of the scientific content is really outstanding. I’ve made a number of important connections at the annual meeting and, because many attendees make a habit of attending year after year, it now also serves as a great opportunity for me to meet up, chat and socialize with people who have turned out to be important collaborators. The ISEH party at the end of the meeting is also pretty awesome!

What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory?
I gave my first ever oral abstract presentation at the ISEH annual meeting in Hamburg, for which I had received a travel award. It was a great forum to present in as a postdoc and I have very fond memories of what was also my first ISEH meeting.

What are the rewards of being a member of the New Investigator Committee?
We’re given the remit to devise and deliver several different sessions at the ISEH annual meeting including a meet the expert mixer event, a careers workshop and a new investigator seminar that will be given by Fernando Camargo at this year’s meeting in Kyoto. More recently, we’ve also been asked to manage the ISEH webinar series and also improve year-round networking opportunities for ISEH members by setting up and promoting social media sites for ISEH on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. It’s been great fun contributing to all of these different functions for the society and it really does give you a great buzz when you see people using the sites you have helped set up or attending and clearly enjoying the sessions you’ve been involved in organizing at the annual meeting. As well as all this, the NIC is full of hard-working, talented, innovative people with whom it’s a pleasure to work.

The NIC organizes the very successful ISEH webinar series. How do you choose the theme/presenters? What are the challenges that you face? Is there anything that our members can do to help with the webinars?
The members of the NIC brainstorm for a topic for the webinar, suggest potential speakers and moderators, then debate what we think will be the most exciting line up for a broad section of the ISEH membership. So far, we’ve tried to create a debate-style webinar with two high profile speakers who might have differing or complimentary views on a given subject plus an expert moderator to orchestrate the discussion and ask questions mailed in from the audience. This format seems to have been really well received but we’re always on the lookout for ides for the next webinar. If any members have ideas for what they think would make an interesting webinar topic then it would be great if they could message us via any of the ISEH social media sites or through

This year there are a few changes in the NIC organized sessions of the ISEH Annual Meeting. For example, the format of the Meet the Expert session has been changed to a “Meet the Expert Mixer”. Please explain the idea behind the new format.
One of the main reasons for changing the format of the sessions was that the main meeting will be a slightly shorter for this year in Kyoto. However, we are always looking to improve the sessions we provide based on feedback that we receive during and after the meeting. This year, the “Meet the Expert” session has been combined with the “NIC Mixer event”, which is essentially a reception with drinks and snacks. The new format will allow young investigators to share a drink and chat with up to four of our six invited experts in an informal setting as opposed to in previous years, when participants had to reserve a place on a table to speak with an individual expert.

Which advice do you have for young investigators that want to get involved in ISEH?
If you can attend the meeting and present your work there, then definitely take the chance to do this and don’t feel inhibited about approaching people you want to talk to at coffee breaks or over drinks in the evening. In my experience, the atmosphere at the meeting is extremely friendly and people wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want to network. If you can’t make it to the meeting, then join up with one of our social media networks and sign up for the webinars (which are free for ISEH members). It’s a great way to keep up with what’s going on in the society as well as keeping you up to date with all the latest cutting edge research in the hematology field. Finally, if you have a passion to help out the NIC, then keep an eye out for the call for new committee members, which will be posted shortly after the annual meeting.
What are your?

Hobbies: I love rugby union. My three boys now play for one of the local teams in Heidelberg so now I’m enjoying coaching them plus chauffeuring them around to games. Since moving to Germany, I’m also now a big fan of sausage and beer!
Favorite book(s): I don’t know that I really have an out and out favorite. In terms of authors, I really like Salman Rushdie, Iain Banks and Ian McEwan amongst others.
Favorite movie(s): Being British, has to be a 007 movie. Maybe On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Goldfinger or Skyfall.
If you could meet one person (dead or alive) who would it be and why? Sir Patrick Stewart. I was a big fan of Star Trek the Next Generation when I was a kid. Plus we share the same haircut!

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