Tatjana Sauka-Spengler is Professor of Developmental Genomics and Gene Regulation at the University of Oxford. She runs a multidisciplinary research group at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. Prof Sauka-Spengler has interdisciplinary background and training in both physics and biology and her research is guided by a profound interest in understanding network organisation of gene regulatory programmes underlying developmental processes and their modification in human disease. One of the main focuses of her lab is on deciphering gene regulatory circuitry that orchestrates development of vertebrate neural crest cells and cardiac cell types.
How did you first become interested in developmental biology?
I was part of a graduate programme at the University of Paris entitled "Interface Physics-Biology", by two brilliant professors, André (biology) and Luc Valentin (Physics). The programme took a minimal number of students (Physicists) per year with an idea to create an interdisciplinary link (not necessarily transition) between physics and biology. It is with the encouragement of professor and my thesis supervisor Sylvie Mazan that I applied to the Embryology Course in Woods hole and was accepted. I was only in the first year of my biology thesis, but as I already had a graduate degree in physics, which is I suspect why they accepted me. That summer changed my life - this is where and when I fell in love with developmental biology! I was exposed to the beautiful world of embryos and had an incredible of teachers. I was taught chick developmental biology by Marianne Bronner and Claudio Stern, was shown how to do Spemann organiser transplants by Richard Harland, microscopy by Scott Fraser, heard about the Hox code from Rob Krumlauf, and discussed evolutionary and GRN ideas with Mike Levine and Eric Davidson, to just mention a few. I was taught embryology experiments by many brilliant "teaching assistants", Paul Trainor, Val Wilson, Clare Baker, Julie Baker, John Wallingford, Elke Ober and many, many others. So, although I had minimal (read rudimental) knowledge of biology at this time, I learnt an enormous amount and my future direction and interests were sealed. Over the years, I added different aspects of gene regulatory biology to my work, but the fundamental questions remained the same.
What was your first reaction when you knew you were the 2020 BSDB Tickle Medal awardee? What does the medal mean to you?
I was delighted to be awarded the 2020 BSDB Tickle Medal. I was also astonished as I did not expect it, and I even remember trying to dissuade some of my colleagues who did the nomination when they asked for my CV to accompany the application. Like many scientists, I often feel I had not done enough. The award is, of course, an incredible honour and, a big stamp of validation for me, as I have integrated the British Developmental Biology ecosystem relatively late in my career having done the training in France and the US. Since starting my independent laboratory at the University of Oxford, I have learnt a lot and have greatly enjoyed connecting and working with many new colleagues in the UK and Europe.
What are the big open questions in the field?
There are many big open questions in the field. One crucial question is that of the mechanisms of evolution of circuits and network structure in gene regulation underlying developmental processes. Understanding how gene regulatory programmes are evolved, circuits used, re-used, maintained or silenced holds the answer to unlocking developmental potential in regeneration processes or affecting the change to the programmes in disease. I also believe it is imperative to revisit many of the crucial questions in developmental biology today when we have at our disposal novel technologies and the power of molecular and cellular analysis at high resolution that can be performed in any organism.