Briefly, tell us about your background and career up to this point?
I am Italian by nationality and studied Biological Sciences at the University of Rome “Tor Vergata”. After graduating with a thesis on retroviruses, I ended up doing my PhD in experimental pathophysiology (whatever that means!) specializing in molecular cardiology. It was the first decade of the century and tissue engineering was a hype. So, I started studying the interaction between stem cells and biomaterials, with the intention of contributing to regenerate the diseased heart. This brought me first to the University of Tübingen in Germany, then to Japan, where I joined the group of Prof. Teruo Okano at Tokyo Women’s Medical University and learned how to produce stem cell patches for heart repair. I grew so enthusiastic about Japan that, after a 4-year postdoc at the Italian Institute for Cardiovascular Research, I decided to join the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) in Tsukuba, Japan as a Lead Researcher. It was probably because of the unique interdisciplinary milieu of that materials science institute that I became curious about mechanobiology and decided to study the regulation of proteins whose function is sensitive to bio-mechanical stress.
In the aftermath of the big Kanto earthquake of 2011, I decided I would bring my passion for mechanobiology back to Europe, where I joined a newly founded centre of excellence of the European Union in Czech Republic: The International Clinical Research Centre of St. Anne’s University Hospital Brno.
Once there I was given the opportunity to establish the Centre for Translational Medicine of which I became the director. Within the centre, I coordinated the Mechanobiology for Disease research group for the last 10 years. As the next step in my career, I have chosen to join the School of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine and Sciences in King’s College London. I will be based at the Denmark Hill Campus, where I will take up a position of Senior Lecturer in Cardiac Mechanobiology.
My group adopts interdisciplinary approaches based on induced pluripotent stem cells, 3D advanced disease models with pathophysiological relevance and imaging techniques to unveil the impact of biomechanical stress and ECM remodelling on mechanosensitive DNA transcription and RNA metabolism. These studies might help us identify new therapeutic targets in the treatment of heart diseases.
What is a typical day like for you?
Mine is a family of three composed of my 5-year-old daughter Mia, my wife Stefania - who is also my scientific partner - and myself. As expected, Mia dictates the rhythm of our days. We leave her at the kindergarden in the morning and rush to the lab where we focus entirely on our research. After work, we spend the rest of the afternoon trying to entertain her. Twice a week or during the weekend I usually take some time to go biking, swimming, or jogging. At night I like to read books: I am an enthusiastic reader, while I am a very bad guitar player.
Looking back, did the pandemic and resulting lockdowns teach you anything you’re willing to share?
Like for all of humanity, the pandemic was a massive shock for me. The lesson I learned from that brutal event is that research is not a luxurious good only rich countries can and should afford. Science is a necessary tool which helps us advance our knowledge of nature and with this fight diseases. We can only do it with the instruments of basic science. We need to fund it appropriately, give scientists the freedom they deserve, regardless of the immediate applicability of their results.
What do you think people in the School would find most surprising about you?
That I was quite a karaoke sensation back in Japan.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I see myself well settled at King’s, discussing enthusiastically and emphatically the experimental results with my students and fellow researchers. I see myself teaching mechanobiology to the new generation of young scientists.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
I expect this year will be thrilling. I will be settling in London with my family, establishing the new lab, meeting new colleagues, start new projects. That will surely be a challenge and I will hopefully be up to the task.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Establishing the laboratories of the Centre for Translational Medicine (CTM) is a hallmark of my career, and although it took a toll on my scientific productivity, it was extremely fulfilling in hindsight. I did it together with a fantastic group of colleagues in Brno, the city of Gregor Mendel, from scratch.
I love springtime, when the light changes, days become longer, and it is lovely to stay out late.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, The goldfinch by Donna Tart, Limonov by Emmanuel Carrere and all the novels written by Umberto Eco, Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen are very dear to me. Also, one of my favourite books was written by a dear friend from my hometown in Italy: it is entitled Il risolutore and the author is Pier Paolo Giannubilo. Check him out! Not sure there is an English version yet.
What a question! Italian cuisine.
The Sopranos (not on Netflix, sorry), Cunk on earth.