Michael Sars Centre

A warm welcome to our new director

Read more about Lionel Christiaen who will lead the Sars Centre from January 2021

Lionel Christiaen

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Lionel Christiaen will lead the Sars Centre from January 2021 and Sars staff and students are eager to benefit from his talents and experience. French citizen, Lionel has left his country after getting his PhD, to the USA first as postdoc in Mike Levine’s Lab in UC Berkeley and he then got a faculty position at NYU, where he is now full Professor. In the following lines he is telling more about his motivation when becoming the second director of the Sars Centre.
We all wish him a great success for the years to come!

- Can tell you more about your personal background and fit to the Sars Centre job ?

I was initially approached in the summer of 2019 to consider this position, and although it was not specifically in my radar, I had been searching for ways to expand my research and academic activities in directions that resonated with the Sars Centre, and UiB in general. 

Specifically, my laboratory's work on the cellular and molecular biology of heart development in the marine organism Ciona led me to identify two important directions for future research: (1) a need to continue the leverage modern technologies (e.g. CRISPR/Cas9) to build state-of-the-art genetic tools for functional genomics assays, which rely on creating stable lines and culturing animals in controlled conditions, and (2) an emerging need to understand the organism in its natural environment, by deploying the full toolkit developed in laboratories, to study such important questions as the impact of global environmental changes on organisms, at the cellular, molecular and genomic levels. With these ideas in mind, it was clear that the Sars Centre offers unique opportunities, in part by combining qualities usually found at classic marine stations around the world, while being better integrated in a full blown university, with a substantial critical mass and state-of-the-art research facilities.

I am eager to retain and build upon the Centre's international scientific profile

The rich local environment is also nicely complemented by outstanding international connections, especially with EMBL in Heidelberg (Germany), with which the Sars Centre has a partnership since 2003. This is very important to me, as I am eager to retain and build upon the Centre's international scientific profile. I believe that addressing the above-mentioned scientific challenges will benefit from strong integration at both the local, national and international levels.

- What do you find scientifically attractive in the institute that you will be leading ? 

Besides a defined interest in the general marine focus at the Sars Centre, and the diverse marine environment at UiB, I am particularly interested in the impactful research programs that are ongoing at the Centre. Specifically, there is a strong tradition in genomics and evolutionary developmental biology, which I am keen on upholding as one of the defining strengths of the Centre, with a track-record of impactful studies, including work that has directly influences my community with the discovery that "Tunicates, and not Cephalochordates, are the closest relatives to the Vertebrates", which originated at Sars. 

There is currently a strong and powerful focus on the biology of neurons in the Sars Centre

There is currently a strong and powerful focus on the biology of neurons in the Sars Centre, with multiscale and quantitative approaches at the evolutionary, developmental, cellular and molecular levels. These lines of work leverage the specific advantages of a variety of marine models, including Choanoflagellates and Ctenophores, Cnidarians, Annelids and Tunicates, for broad impact discoveries on the basic biology of animal nervous systems. 

Many marine organisms are champions of regeneration, and thus offer opportunities to study this fundamental and biomedically relevant process, by deploying modern technologies for functional genomics. In my lab, we have begun to explore the regenerative potential of tunicates, and I believe that the field offers a perfect ground for discoveries of far-reaching importance. 

Finally, exciting lines of work are emerging at the boundary between organismal biology and environmental sciences. These include studying such fundamental problems as the impact of food scarcity in stem cells and the ability of animals to grow and reproduce, or the effects of changing water temperatures and chemistry on the basic cellular and molecular processes that underlie marine life. Identifying and addressing new questions in this pluridisciplinary field will transcend scientific endeavors, and hopefully help tackle pressing global challenges.

- How will it be – moving from NYC to Bergen?

From a professional and scientific perspective, there will be a transition, with some lab members remaining in New York, such that the lab activity will not stop. At least no more than it has due to the COVID-19 crisis, while some lab members will join me in Bergen to start a new lab at the Sars Centre. This is obviously a potentially daunting task, but also very exciting and I very much look forward to joining the scientific community at UiB. Assuming a new position, as director of the Centre is also very exciting. I have many ideas and started some work, for example to advertise the ongoing search and reach out to potential candidates in the US. I also look forward to learning and working with people at the Sars Centre and UiB with a general approach that could be summarized by an enthusiasm and energy for excellence and international reach, while nurturing a local network in the most mutually beneficial ways.

On the personal side, New York is a unique city, and I will certainly miss it. Nevertheless, we are very excited to move to back to Europe, and for a new adventure in Norway. My partner and I started to learn Norwegian (she is already more advanced than me), and even our 6- and 4-year old children, who speak three languages, are eager to learn and keep asking for translations. One of our priorities is to find a new "nest" and ensure that they go into a good school and adapt well to the big change. After our visit last year, we became confident that we will adapt well, as we both have northern european backgrounds, and we are looking forward to living in a more peaceful environment, closer to magnificent nature. Finally, I may have acquired some of the "american spirit" in the past 15 years, but I have deep european roots and values, and my partner and I have been open to opportunities to return to Europe, and raise our children closer to our families.

- When will you start?

We are considering, and hoping for, a start date in January 2021, with still several administrative and practical items to address.