The director of the CIG

Prof. Alexandre Reymond

Interview with Prof. Alexandre Reymond

Director of the Centre for Integrative Genomics

Professor Alexandre “Alex” Reymond heads the Center for Integrative Genomics since January 1st 2015, thereby following in the footsteps of Professor Nouria Hernandez, presently Rector of the University of Lausanne. Three years have passed…Tempus fugit. Now, what could be a better reason for luring Prof. Reymond into an interview, asking him about his dreams and vision for the CIG?

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable”

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Younger (4 BC – AD 65)

An encounter with a CIG Director

He greets me, in his spacious office, with a firm handshake and a warm smile. He offers me a coffee, but I prefer a cup of tea. And I almost immediately realize that this is not a man who attaches great importance to rank. Quite on the contrary, I get the feeling that in order to get things accomplished, he will only make use of his hierarchical position as a last resort, when there are no alternatives left. My first impression is that he does not look like a director at all – a vestimentary code seems not to be amongst his highest priorities, and apart from that he also looks fairly young –, but then, on the other hand, I ask myself how a scientific director is supposed to look, and I have to admit that an answer eludes me. As our conversation continues, it slowly dawns upon me that Alex Reymond has something vaguely Mediterranean over him, which is hard to pinpoint down: some of his gesticulations maybe? He loves to talk, that’s for sure, but he also knows when it’s time to listen.

Ontogenesis of Alexandre Reymond

– Prof. Reymond, could you briefly present yourself?

AR: I was born in Vevey, a town in Switzerland, in the canton of Vaud on the northern shore of Lake Geneva, near Lausanne.

– So, you are a child from the region?

AR: Yes. The family name “Reymond” is typical for the region around Vaulion. It is there that my roots lie along my father’s side, who comes from the Vaud part of the Jura. His parents had a farm there. And my mother comes from the Ticino…

– … you speak Italian?

AR: Yes, I do.

– You grew up in the area?

AR: Yes, I grew up on the Vaud Riviera and following my studies in Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Lausanne, I did my PhD thesis at the ISREC, the Swiss Institute of Experimental Cancer Research, in those days an independent institute before it became embedded within EPFL.

– What was the topic of your PhD thesis?

AR: I worked on the regulation of cell cycle using yeast as a model. My mentor was Viesturs Simanis, coming from the school of Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse.

– Following his PhD, a scientist nearly always goes for a postdoctoral training. May I assume that you are no exception to that rule?

AR: That is a correct assumption. I went for a postdoc to Harvard Medical School in Boston, in the laboratory of Roger Brent, known for his work on gene regulation and systems biology using fusion proteins. He studies the quantitative behaviours of cell signaling systems and the origins and consequences of variation in them. Roger Brent is one of the inventors of the yeast two-hybrid system, a technology, which we were using to identify protein-protein interactions.

– Which proteins were you interested in?

AR: Our research field was signal transduction and we were studying cell cycle regulators and proteins encoded by oncogenes.

– What happened next?

AR: After that, I was offered a job as a group leader at the Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine (TIGEM), which was in Milano in those days. TIGEM is an institute that specializes in the genetics of rare diseases and as such was highly interested in the Human Genome Project, as you can imagine.

– When was this?

AR: We are talking about 1998, at the dawn of the genomics era. In those days, we were using the yeast two-hybrid system as a tool to annotate the genome. So, I was coming from a high-throughput technology approach and entering a domain, which was on the verge of exploring high-throughput platforms in the field of medical genetics.

– So, you did research on genetically determined diseases?

AR: Correct. We used a functional genomics approach based on systematic data gathering, to characterize a family of proteins containing a tripartite motif: TRIM. Actually, I launched that abbreviation. The TRIM motif includes a RING finger domain, one or two B-box zinc finger domains and a coiled-coil region. Members of the TRIM protein family are found in all multicellular eukaryotes and function in a wide range of cellular processes such as cell cycle regulation, differentiation, development, oncogenesis and viral response. And over the past years, several TRIM proteins have been reported to control gene expression through regulation of the activity of numerous transcription factors. So, some of these TRIM proteins turned out to be relevant for medical genetics.

– What happened afterwards?

AR: I accepted a job at the Department of Genetic Medicine at the University of Geneva Medical School, where I continued working on rare disease by using high-throughput technologies. And after that, I joined the Center for Integrative Genomics at its creation in October 2004. I am still doing research in the field of human genetics. Our team is characterizing structural rearrangements of the genome and trying to understand how such alterations are associated with particular pathological phenotypes.

– I realize now that there has always been a strong clinical link to your research work. Am I right?

AR: Yes indeed.

The task of a CIG Director

– Prof. Reymond, allow me to picture you on New Year’s Eve 2015.

AR: Go ahead.

– “He remained, standing alone on the balcony as his family and some friends had gone back inside. The fireworks had finished by now. It was a dark and cloudy night and there was a rawness in the air that suggested snow. As of that very moment, he suddenly realized that he had become Director of a world-famous Institute. There was no way back. Not anymore. He embraced the thought but at the same time vaguely realized that – whilst absentmindedly gazing at the fizzing pearls in his glass of Dom Pérignon brut – the task expected from him was no less than immense. Was he the Boss now?”

AR: (laughs) Well, that is certainly one way of picturing it…you were right about the champagne, though.

– Did you know what to do from the beginning, which steps to take as of the next day, when you would be “in office”?

AR: (laughs again) Would it come as a surprise, if I told you that I had already given it some thought?

– Point taken.

AR: I always have been convinced that the mission of a CIG director should be to create a framework and the conditions – be it at the scientific, logistic, financial, practical or social level – for my colleagues to thrive. And allow me to emphasize that I mean by colleagues, all people working at the CIG in every position and at any hierarchical level. So, I consider that an important part of my task. Secondly, I inherited the CIG from Nouria Hernandez, who led the Institute for nearly a decade, in excellent shape. But that does not exclude the fact that I took the lead when the Institute had been entering, and as a matter of fact still is in the midst of, a transition phase.

– Please explain.

AR: Some of my PI colleagues have been or will be retiring in the not too distant future. That creates opportunities, but also challenges. On the one hand, the opportunity to hire young group leaders – with their stamina, their ingenuity and their scientific dreams – and be able to nurture their ideas and their research. But on the other hand, also challenges: finding excellent people and convincing them that we can offer the scientific constellation and the opportunities they are seeking. Needless to say that the scientists we would like to harbour at the CIG will most likely get job offers from other institutes as well. There is competition, in other words. That´s the way it is and should be.

– How many PIs are you talking about?

AR: Within a group of 15 people, six PIs will be replaced within the next five years.  As a matter of fact, two of these positions have already been filled. David Gatfield has accepted to stay with us, and the second position has been taken up by Maria Cristina Gambetta, an Italian- Ecuadorian researcher coming from the EMBL in Heidelberg.

– What are her scientific interests?

AR: Maria Christina is doing research on genomic insulators. She has very recently joined the CIG as an Assistant Professor to study how cells organize the activating and repressive regulatory inputs that are necessary to achieve appropriate gene expression patterns, using the fruit fly as a model organism.

– So, you believe that Drosophila still has a legitimate place amongst the animal model systems studied at the CIG?

AR: Absolutely. It is true that the days when Drosophila melanogaster was more or less the only model organism in genome research, molecular genetics and developmental biology are over. But there is no single “all-encompassing” model, you know. Every model system has its strengths and weaknesses, and some particular aspects of academic research are better done in the fruit fly. Maria Christina will be leading the third Drosophila group in our community, besides the teams of Richard Benton and Fisun Hamaratoglu.

What is a good Institute?

– What do you consider the strengths of the CIG?

AR: One of our strengths certainly lies in the fact that we have access to a wide variety of cutting edge technologies – through excellent platforms in high-throughput sequencing, genomics, proteomics, bio-informatics, to name but a few – embedded in the labs and our facilities. Moreover, we certainly cherish the diversity amongst our research teams. For example, colleagues from different fields are often approaching a challenge – be it a theoretical concept or a technical one, if not a plain practical issue in the lab – from a more or less slightly different angle. It happens all too often that different teams learn from each other. As a result, we all benefit.

– Could you see the CIG expanding?

AR: Yes, that possibility exists, as we are not confounded to a tight spacing, at least not at the moment. And secondly – along the lines of what I just came to say – the more competences we have in the house, the better for everyone.

– But?

AR: As you can imagine, there are issues, which are not entirely in my hands. But your question is certainly a legitimate one: a small institute faces problems that a bigger one doesn’t. If a few group leaders retire or leave, a small community immediately loses thirty or more percent of its research capacities. On the other hand, it is important to keep a turn-over between people leaving and coming. As such, the configuration is changing at a regular pace and that is a healthy thing for a research institute.

What is a good Director?

– Have you received any advice from your predecessor?

AR: Nouria is not the person to say “do this or do that” and she is certainly not going to tell me how to be a CIG director. But whenever I want to have her opinion or her advice, her door was and will always remain open. I can go to her and discuss openly matters that are at hand.

– Do you sometimes ask her for advice?

AR: Of course.

– You are still a group leader closely involved in academic research. Is this difficult to combine with your task as a director?

AR: No, I can manage, but I have to admit that my collaborators in the lab see a bit less of me than they were used to. Being CIG Director is part of what I am doing now, but I try to remain as close to science as possible. Quite a lot depends on organizing and planning and delegating things to other people, you know. Actually, you have to let go a bit.

– Are you good at delegating?

AR: This is something you have to ask my colleagues, but I definitively have the feeling I got better at it. And allow me to stress the fact that I am surrounded by the best people I can possibly imagine. For example, the immense work that Nicole Vouilloz is doing as my assistant, cannot be overestimated. She has an enormous experience as former assistant of Nouria Hernandez upon which we both can rely when decisions have to be made. She is my beacon…

– … in the darkness?

AR: (laughs) Sure, but allow me to emphasize that we usually try to get things accomplished during the day.

– Professor, it is so obvious: you love your institute, no?

AR: Would that not be the minimum minimorum expected from a director? Believe me, if I would have the feeling that I could not take this job with all my heart, you would be having this conversation with someone else, right now.

– Prof. Reymond, thank you so much for this interview.

AR: You’re welcome.

Ronny Leemans