Aviv Regev is a Core Institute Member of the Broad Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, where she is the Director of the Klarman Cell Observatory and Cell Circuits Program, as well as a professor of biology at MIT and investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She will be giving the Mendel Lecture on Tuesday June 9 at 15.00 hrs. She talked to Mary Rice about her life and work.
«I’ve been interested in how cells work ever since I was an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University,» says Aviv Regev. There she followed a highly selective programme – only about 15 students a year were accepted – that allowed the freedom to take high-level courses in any subject. The Interdisciplinary Program for Outstanding Students allowed individuals to pursue their own interests, in complete contrast to the highly-structured university undergraduate education that was prevalent at the time. «For example, you could go your first day as a freshman and decide to take a graduate course in political science or advanced combinatorics. You just had to do well. After four years, you earn a masters in an area of your choice. I was interested in diverse areas, so this fitted me very well.»
She took a genetics class taught by Eva Jablonka, an alternative to the standard undergraduate genetics class that was taught to a few students at a time in a style now known as the ‘inverted classroom’. «Genetics is very conceptual, and that drew me to biology, which I had not studied before. I was fascinated by the computational challenge of finding order in the complex, interconnected networks of proteins and genes within each cell. Then I pursued the topic for my doctoral work, characterising living systems in a mathematical language originally designed to describe computer processes.»
As she finished her doctorate in 2002, Aviv Regev was selected as a Bauer Fellow at Harvard’s Bauer Centre for Genomics Research that allowed her to start her own lab without first training as a postdoc. In 2006, she was given a joint faculty appointment at MIT and the Broad Institute, where she started applying cell-circuit modelling algorithms to the understanding of different mammalian cell types.
Mentoring others is very important to her. Her university education taught her the importance of allowing others to spread their own wings, irrespective of career stage. «When I see a person with an idea, I don’t care whether they are a seasoned staff scientist, a graduate student or an undergrad – I care about who they are. Do they show signs of independence and vision? And if their idea is challenging in entirely new ways, then it should be grown.»
Another aspect of her career that she is particularly proud of is how her work in single cell genomics has opened the way to see the fundamentals of biology in new ways, build a Human Cell Atlas, and use it to dissect the basis of complex human diseases. «Most recently, we have been able to see its contributions to understanding which cells are targeted by COVID-19, and also the cells and programmes in many other diseases, from rare diseases to cancer.»
COVID-19 has taught researchers how important it is to look broadly at biology and disease rather than only at fields that are currently in the spotlight as fashionable, she says. This is a question of equity in the areas of investigation, but equity is also important in a global context.
«We should be making sure that scientists and communities across the world participate in and benefit from scientific advances. Each has unique perspectives and talents to bring to the table. There is still a way for us to go in this area and, without an equitable participation, science cannot reach maximum excellence. I am committed to this personally in my lab and institutional roles, and am thrilled that the Human Cell Atlas has made equity one of its key missions.»
Outside science, her two children, and their worlds, are a big focus at present. «I really enjoy seeing the world again through their eyes and trying things, especially now with my younger daughter, that I didn’t do myself when I was a kid, and am not necessarily very good at!» At her age, with such a wide range of interests, it’s hardly surprising that retirement seems a very long way off, particularly while there are still so many big scientific questions to be answered.
«I will be telling the conference about some of these, and about how views from human genetics and from cell biology are converging, with the help of some computation, to enable us to tackle some problems we would otherwise have thought to be too big.»
Picture: Buck Squibb.