Thinking it through and investing in the long term

Jop Kind is an Oncode Investigator and Group Leader at the Hubrecht Institute. His work focuses on the combination of single-cell genomics and microscopy to study the role of chromatin and epigenetics in gene regulation. As of September 2021, he is professor by special appointment of Single Cell Epigenomics at the Radboud University Nijmegen.

Photography by Marloes Verweij, Laloes Fotografie

How did you find your passion for molecular biology and biochemistry?

I grew up in the city of Lelystad, which was a brand-new project at the time my parents moved in. In fact, I was one of the first children born there. The idea of Lelystad as a blank slate first appealed to many people like my parents, but that changed. In this new city, there was nothing to do and crime rates increased to the highest of the country. The level of the schools, being some sort of a testing ground for new methods, was so low that when I got to college, I still couldn’t spell correctly. When I was 16, I decided to make the best of it and take matters into my own hands. Eventually I succeeded in a higher level of education and managed to leave Lelystad to study biology at the University of Amsterdam. There I learned about my love for molecular biology and biochemistry.

How did you make the jump from biology to chromatin research?

Two years of counting plants on my knees in the mud didn’t make me a very happy student. Inspired by the book The Cell, I decided to try my luck in molecular biology. An internship at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, where I learned to design genetic screens, made me ambitious. At that time, I read a lot of romantic literature and poetry, so when I saw an announcement for a congress in a beautiful romantic castle in Heidelberg, Germany, I simply had to go there. It turned out to be a congress from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), which is by chance a leading institute in molecular biology research. I applied for my next internship there, leading to my Ph.D. in the group of Asifa Akhtar. She is the one that introduced me to chromatin regulation.

“Inspired by the book The Cell, I decided to try my luck in molecular biology.”

What appealed to you in that specific subject?

I studied in a time in which epigenetics was still a very new principle. All our body cells have the same DNA, but they all express it differently. That whole new layer of complexity on top of the DNA fascinated me, and still does. Asifa worked with a model to study the activation of the X chromosome in fruit flies. I understood I would have to do lots of pioneering work in this field of research, but that was a welcome challenge. I was convinced I could make it work.

Photography by Marloes Verweij, Laloes Fotografie

What is characteristic of the way you conduct your research?

I tend to invest a lot of time in thinking something through before I produce it. During my time in Heidelberg, I didn’t publish anything in the first 3 years, but I made it up by publishing 7 papers in the last year only. That’s a method of working that might make other colleagues nervous. Now that I’m working at the Hubrecht Institute though, I’m still doing the same – thinking it through and investing in the long term. Of course, a researcher has to publish, but in my opinion, planning and thinking is a part of academic research that is at least just as important.

What motivates you?

The pure curiosity and creativity that my work allows. I can’t think of any other field of research in which that can be satisfied. You can come up with an idea in the morning and investigate it in the afternoon. That flexibility allows me to be creative. When I did a postdoc at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in the group of Bas van Steensel, I very much wanted to develop something unique in the form of novel techniques, and Bas allowed me to do that. That gave me a feeling of freedom. Now that I have my own research group at the Hubrecht Institute, I have that same kind of feeling. I love thinking about new research techniques, hours on end, with just a pen and a notebook. The experience of developing something in the lab that I invented on a piece of paper, gives me a tremendous kick. Especially when that technique turns out to be valuable for a colleague. I think there’s nothing more honorable than that.

“The experience of developing something in the lab that I invented on a piece of paper, gives me a tremendous kick.”

What are the challenges or difficulties you come across?

The most important challenge for me is to compose a research group that is functioning organically. There must be a healthy atmosphere – not only socially. Group members must be able to give their colleagues constructive feedback and be involved in others’ work. We encourage that shared responsibility by working in project groups. Sometimes, when members of a group don’t combine well, we add an extra colleague to a project. I try to make the threshold of my office as low as possible and encourage my colleagues to talk about their work, but sometimes that still doesn’t work well. It’s always a guess to anticipate how new colleagues will fit in. That’s where Oncode plays a role – helping us to develop the necessary skills by organizing management workshops and get-togethers with other young PIs. We form a community that looks after its members, where we can share any problem we face. Another added value in that respect is Oncode’s base funding, allowing us to focus on that thing we love. Last, they offer help in the valorization of our techniques, by thinking in a business model and applying for patents.

What are your plans for the future and where do you see the field of epigenetic cancer research evolve in the coming years?

With my lab, I’d like to focus on diagnostics in blood samples. I’m interested in identifying the modes of gene regulation and the epigenetic drivers of disease. Thanks to the single-cell resolution, there’s no need for a lot of starting material, making the technique ideal for patient samples. We’re hoping to work with models for multiple tissues, in which we can research cancer progression and the role of epigenetics. That allows us to identify biomarkers, so we get to know more about the stage of the tumor.

With the support of fellow Oncode Investigator Michiel Vermeulen, I’ve been recently appointed professor by special appointment of Single Cell Epigenomics at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. That new function allows me to work closely with Michiel’s group in researching disease origins and developing new diagnostic methods. In a broader perspective, I feel that there’s much to win in this area of research.

Dit artikel verscheen in de Oncode Quarterly Update van maart 2022.