A Creative Force in Understanding Genes – The New York Times

A Creative Force in Understanding Genes – The New York Times

What would you like people to know about epigenetics?

The first thing I really thought I would do was become a musician. I played a lot of piano and then the clarinet. Then, I became good at math and became quite obsessive about trying to understand things. I was only 10 or 11 years old, and I was already asking existential questions about math. I discovered biology at university, and that was truly a eureka moment for me.

The moments where I’m most creative are when I’m forced out of my comfort zone. It’s frightening, this moment of ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what’s going on.’ Moving from one place to another [to France, the United States and Germany], each of those moments was really a moment of creativity for me, because it got me thinking differently.

You co-run an organization that helps scientists who work in countries in crisis, like Syria and Iraq. Where does your passion for this cause come from?

If you don’t have freedom of interaction, of collaboration, of knowledge, then science can’t happen. In the past, the people who fled are often the people who end up in new environments doing creative things. You have to take care of these people. You can’t just let them land and hope for the best.

How does technology interact with your profession?

For epigenetics, it’s clear that the technologies have finally caught up with the questions. We use all of the “omics” technologies as they’re called — not just genomics, but epigenomics, metabolomics. We can find out what the metabolic state is. We can do things at the single-cell level, so we can really find out to what extent an organism has a specific set of changes by looking at many, many different levels. The big ambition now is to harness these technologies to big questions and go from the atom to the ecosystem — bringing every kind of technology together to address biology on all those scales.

What is the biggest challenge facing your field?

Trying to understand life in its natural context. It was a challenge before because we couldn’t really measure environmental changes very easily. Today, we can. In order to understand biology, we have to understand these kinds of changes in a more natural context — pollution, biodiversity collapse because of pollution or climate change. Those are the challenges I think we should rise up to.

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