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Meet ISEH Member Peter van Galen

Posted By Connections Editor, Friday, October 21, 2016

Meet ISEH member Peter van Galen

Peter Van Galen is currently a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Bradley Bernstein at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute in Boston.

He’s been a member of ISEH since 2012. Peter served on the New Investigators Committee for 4 years and has recently begun his first term on the Publications Committee.

He received his PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Amsterdam under the supervision of Dr. John Dick and Dr. Maarten van Lohuizen.


How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells scientific field?
My first exposure to the wet lab was an internship with Dr. Hans Clevers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. During this time, he published the groundbreaking identification of Lgr5 in mouse intestinal stem cells, and seeing this happen was an inspiring introduction to the field of stem cell biology. Dr. Clevers recommended me for a second internship with Dr. John Dick in Toronto, which is where it all started.

And then how were you introduced to ISEH?

My first ISEH meeting was in 2012 in Amsterdam. It was great because there were ex-colleagues to catch up with, and more importantly, so many opportunities to connect with new people. The ISEH makes it easy to meet new people with similar interests, regardless of whether they are trainees or senior leaders in the field.

Who was your most influential senior investigator mentor and how did he or she help you?

It has been very interesting to be supervised by John Dick during my PhD and Bradley Bernstein during my postdoc. They are both great mentors in different ways. John is an extremely supportive and thoughtful mentor, and he created an environment that made the lab practically feel like family. Brad is involved in all the projects in the lab, gets really excited about original ideas and inspires scientists to undertake and finish transformative projects. It has been very instructive to observe these different styles and think about the aspects that I want to adopt when I run my own lab.

What is the most exciting study or project happening at your lab/facility?
I am very excited about applying innovative technologies in smart ways to learn about biology. Our lab is involved in the development of new technologies and bioinformatics, as well as their application to important questions in developmental and cancer biology. For example, there have been major developments in approaches to investigate the function of DNA and histone modifications, chromatin accessibility and topology, and single-cell transcriptomes. If state-of-the-art technologies and computational expertise are used in appropriate models with a good understanding of biology, we can clarify precise epigenetic mechanisms that control normal and malignant tissue hierarchies.

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?
In the past few years, many technologies have really made the transition from technically challenging in cell lines to robust protocols that can be used in primary blood cells (ChIP-seq, ATAC-seq, single-cell RNA-seq, and soon Hi-C and ChIA-PET). Combined with sophisticated computational biology, these technologies have the power to transform our understanding of normal hematopoietic stem cells and malignant hematopoiesis. The field will identify new epigenetic mechanisms, links to metabolism, and improve our molecular understanding of the stem cell state. I am curious to see if new general themes will be discovered that are deregulated in leukemia, and looking forward to see results of the many clinical trials involving epigenetic drugs.

How would you describe the funding climate for your specific type of research?
There are many funding opportunities and my research is not impeded by a lack of money (thanks to Brad). However, I would like scientists and funding agencies to think about ways to reduce the amount of time that investigators spend writing grants. If the success rate is 5%, it means that for each project that gets funded, 20 scientists spend weeks on a rejected application. That adds up to a lot of lost time and I think it is possible to improve this process.

What do you find most valuable about ISEH?
As I mentioned before, the ISEH provides ample opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals at all stages of their careers. It also offers really good ways to stay up to date through webinars, Hematology 101, Experimental Hematology, the annual meeting, etc.

What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory?

During the 2015 meeting in Japan, we had a Dick lab reunion where two former Japanese trainees (Hidefumi and Katsuto) took us (John, Michael and me) for an authentic Japanese restaurant experience. I love the exposure to different cultures and it’s even better if you can get locals to show you around.

What are your hobbies? Cycling, rollerblading, guitar, eating.
What is your favorite book? Lord of the Rings.
What are your favorite movies? The Matrix and Star Trek.
If you could meet one person (dead or alive) who would it be and why? Captain Jean-Luc Picard to apply for a scientist position aboard the Enterprise.

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