Julia Cordero was born and raised in Argentina and studied biology at the Universidad Nacional de San Luis. She then moved to the USA where, following a research assistant position in internal medicine, she joined the lab of Ross Cagan at Washington University in St Louis to study tissue patterning in Drosophila. In 2009, she moved to the lab of Owen Sansom at the CRUK Beatson Institute in Glasgow for her postdoctoral work, funded by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and EMBO long-term fellowships, to study intestinal regeneration and cancer using both flies and mice. Julia started her research group towards the end of 2014 at the Wolfson Wohl Cancer Research Centre in Glasgow, funded by a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship from the Royal Society. She is currently funded by a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society. Her lab is investigating local and systemic functions of the adult intestine in health and disease.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
What got me into science was my innate curiosity. I was never too happy with the answers that were given to me, so I always wanted to know more about many subjects. In high school, we would be assigned projects in history, geography and biology. I remember visiting my local library and going through archives, magazines, journals and newspapers; I really lost myself in the process of research and loved it! I grew up in a non-academic family, so neither my parents nor my grandparents had university degrees, but my parents gave me a lot of opportunities to pursue my dreams. My grandfather, who was an Italian immigrant and a very clever man, owned a kiosk that would sell different things including biology and medicine books and magazines, which he would bring home for me to read before putting them out to the public. He had a lot of influence on my life and career choice by constantly feeding into my curiosity.
After growing up and studying biology in Argentina, you went to the USA for your PhD. What prompted this move?
I actually started my PhD in Argentina, and during my training I moved to the USA as part of an exchange programme in 2000. This was really a bad time to be a scientist in Argentina because of the huge economic crisis, which exploded in 2001. My agency stopped paying for my fellowship while I was in the USA, so I had to find myself a research assistant position not only to keep my research going, but also to sustain myself financially. I also realised that I needed to be in a more stable and supportive programme if I wanted to give myself the best chances of succeeding in science, so I decided to restart my PhD at Washington University in St Louis, where I met great scientists and got really inspired. This is where I also met my PhD advisor Ross Cagan, who was doing really beautiful work on fly eye development that made me fall in love with flies.
Could you tell us about how your work on tissue patterning started in Ross's lab?
When I joined Ross's lab for my PhD, he was using the pupal retina of Drosophila – a stunning honeycomb-like structure made up of hundreds of hexagons – to understand how apoptosis shapes this tissue. But what caught my attention was observing that in the eyes of apoptotic mutant flies, even though there were a lot of extra cells, the cells piled up on each other and still made perfectly shaped hexagons. And that was fascinating, as it basically suggested that there was more than apoptosis shaping this tissue. This kick-started my PhD project where I looked into how cell adhesion and cell shape, regulated by morphogens, determine the positioning of cells to make a perfectly patterned epithelium.
You then went on to study intestinal stem cells, gut regeneration and cancer during your postdoc. How did your interest in this field come about?
Actually, a lot of the work I did as a PhD student focused on intercellular signalling, for example how glial cells influence signalling to the epithelial cells in the retina. This resembles how the stem cell niche influences stem cell behaviours. Towards the end of my PhD, the fly gut stem cells had just been characterised, and there were also a lot of interesting things emerging from the mammalian intestinal field, so it seemed like the perfect tissue where I could use my knowledge about intercellular signalling in development and apply it to understand adult tissue plasticity. I met Owen Sansom, who was an up-and-coming figure in the mammalian intestinal biology field, and he was very open to me building on my own expertise and asking my own questions while using the systems he was an expert in. And, therefore, I joined Owen's lab for my postdoc.
In your own lab, you continue to carry out research using both flies and mice. How do you coordinate working with two model systems?
One of the keys to working across systems is being very systematic and very organised. Also, we use the fly as our main discovery model to study poorly understood processes that are conserved across species. We don't do exploratory work in mice. Once we have solid fly data, we then ask very precise questions using the mouse models. Another thing I would say is that the type of infrastructure and support system we have at our institute is critical to our work.
From functional genetics and advanced imaging to ‘omics’ techniques and behavioural studies, your lab's work features a range of different approaches. What are your thoughts and advice on establishing good collaborations?
What I've learned so far is that you need to find collaborators that are truly committed to the collaboration and will put the time and effort in. Obviously, a collaborator is somebody who has a distinct set of expertise from you, but it's also important that they have a different interest – this is key to making the collaboration an enriching experience for both partners. A good way of doing interdisciplinary research and engaging with collaborators with different interests is to hire people in your lab who bring in new expertise and will be able to connect you with a new network of people. This is something I have started to do in my lab, and it has really made a great difference.
“A good way of doing interdisciplinary research and engaging with collaborators with different interests is to hire people in your lab who bring in new expertise and will be able to connect you with a new network of people.”
What questions are your lab trying to answer just now?
One of the things that we are very excited about is understanding how the gut ‘talks’ to its vasculature and how this inter-organ communication influences stem cell behaviour during regeneration and also during tumorigenesis. Another aspect of gut–body interactions that we study is how the enteroendocrine system in the intestine influences the rest of the body and how intestinal dysfunction causes broader organismal instability.
When setting up your own lab, what challenges did you experience and what did you learn?
I think a lot of the skills that are needed to set up your own lab have almost nothing to do with what you learned as a postdoc. The administrative aspects were frustrating to me, and it took some time to get used to them. Overall, I've been very lucky with the people I hired after starting my lab, but it's still a learning process to adjust to different personalities and different modes of working and thinking. You have to learn to let go, step back and allow your people to be the owners of the projects.
“You have to learn to let go, step back and allow your people to be the owners of the projects.”
What advice would you give early-career researcher who plan to set up their lab in the near future?
I think what was key for me, and what I really would recommend to early-career researchers, is to find a supportive environment – because we are not just scientists but also people. The biggest challenges I had to overcome when starting my lab were actually personal. I had two small kids when my husband became very ill towards the end of my postdoc, and he passed away within the first year of setting up my lab. I had a big support network and excellent mentors, and without that I wouldn't have been able to achieve much. But whether or not you are undergoing extreme circumstances like I was, it's important to find a place with good colleagues and strong supporters who care for you, both as a scientist and as a person, because there are always going to be ups and downs in scientific careers.
How have the lockdowns affected your lab's research?
It's been very disruptive, as I'm sure it has been for many researchers. We are a relatively small group, and almost half of the people in my lab were either within the first year of their projects or were just trying to finish a big paper. 2020 was the year for us to finish a couple of big stories before I apply for new funding. So, because of that it has been one of the most stressful years since starting my lab. I'm really thankful to the people in my lab, who just took any opportunity they could to get some work done.
Finally, could you tell us some interesting facts about yourself that wouldn't be obvious by looking at your CV?
There is so much you cannot guess by looking at my CV, more than I am ready to admit [laughs]. I am an obsessive cleaner and organiser. I think that obsessive aspect of my personality has helped my career, but my kids complain about this a lot! I also love cooking, and I think I am a decent cook. So, whenever I have time, I like to cook a nice meal to share with my family and friends.
Julia Cordero's contact details: Institute of Cancer Sciences, Wolfson Wohl Cancer Research Centre, Garscube Estate, Switchback Road, Bearsden G61 1QH, UK.
Julia Cordero was interviewed by Máté Pálfy, Features & Reviews Editor at Journal of Cell Science. This piece has been edited and condensed with approval from the interviewee.