Researchers Interview

Keisuke Yonehara (Group leader/Associate professor, DANDRITE-Danish Research Institute of Translational Neuroscience, Nordic EMBL Partnership for Molecular Medicine, Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University, Denmark)
May 16, 2016

Keisuke Yonehara
- How did you come to set up a research team in DANDRITE? What are your thoughts about conducting research overseas?

Before I first arrived at DANDRITE in 2015, I had spent six years as a postdoctoral research fellow at the research laboratory of Professor Botond Roska at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI) in Basel, Switzerland. There, I conducted research on the functions and development of visual neuronal circuits. With the beginning of my involvement in research work in the field of neuroscience, and in particular, after I made an interesting discovery during my time at graduate school, I was constantly thinking about elucidating this phenomenon using a research method that I was well-versed in, and of continuing the research work in a laboratory of my own.

Hence, after engaging in research at FMI, I began to apply to various research institutions in search of an environment where I could set up an independent research laboratory. I was greatly drawn by DANDRITE as it provided the best start-up funds among the institutions that I had applied to. My work of retina research is unique, requiring expensive research equipment, as well as a constant and sizable source of research funds due to the use of mice for experiments and other factors. As DANDRITE offers an extremely generous start-up fund of € 2 million, I eventually decided to set up my own research laboratory here. Currently, there are three postdoctoral researchers and one technician in my laboratory, and I have plans to start on a new project after accepting two new doctoral students this spring. I had been in search of a better research environment, and the place that brought about the realization of one of the dreams I had envisioned for some time turned out, coincidentally for me, to be in Denmark.

- You have been selected to receive ERC Starting Grant when you joined DANDRITE. What do you think about the Starting Grant?

DANDRITE had been recruiting researchers who were in the process of applying for the ERC Starting Grant. The ERC Starting Grant was established with the aim of providing assistance to young researchers who had received their doctoral degrees in the last seven years or less, to establish and lead independent research laboratories in Europe. It utilizes a bottom-up system, and is an open grant that researchers outside of Europe can also apply for. Among the other European research institutions that I applied for, there were even institutions that set the winning of the ERC Starting Grant as a criteria for applying. Hence, in Europe, there appears to be competition among the research institutions when it comes to winning the ERC Starting Grant. My feeling is that it seems to be more important to research institutions to have a few ERC researchers, than to have research papers published in Nature.

I had originally intended to apply for the grant, and had already been making preparations to do so. However, DANDRITE has an organization-wide support system for young researchers applying for the ERC Starting Grant, through which it offers advice on how to fill out the application forms and make presentations at the interview. Thanks to this grant, I was able to hire three outstanding postdoctoral research fellows immediately after setting up my research laboratory. In Europe, in addition to the ERC Starting Grant, there are many other grants offered to young researchers, and I believe these are also high-quality grants. In Denmark, as well as the rest of Europe, researchers are conscious that they will become group leaders after completing their postdoctoral research work. This may be a driving factor behind the birth of such support systems in the region.

- In your efforts to date, as you delved deeper into your own research, what have the concepts of joint research and international collaboration come to mean to you?

I always feel that nothing can start if you do not first place yourself in that environment and pursue the path that you believe is a good one, instead of blindly following those around you. If collaboration and joint research are necessary to this process, then I would like to readily and aggressively incorporate them. I was lucky to have made an interesting discovery in knock-in mouse during my graduate school days, and developed an interest in the workings of direction-selective ganglion cells in the retina that detect the direction of light movement. However, advanced technology in the form of a special microscope was needed in order to measure the optical response of these cells. Furthermore, I wanted to acquire methods that would allow me to carry out measurements under even more refined conditions. The Roska laboratory at FMI was a place where I could achieve both of these goals at the same time. Among other things, Professor Roska taught me that nurturing successors is one of the ways in which a researcher attains success, and my experience there not only expanded the breadth of my research in the technical sense, but also had a significant influence on preparing me for my current role as the leader of a team in my research work.

There are many experts among the faculty of Aarhus University whom I can potentially cooperate with, and study groups have been established in the university on topics such as bio-imaging and genome editing, which is a new experimental technique that has emerged in recent years. Hence, I participate in these study groups, where we learn from mutual experiences and consult with one another. I feel that the collaboration among researchers at workshops, as well as presentations on the latest research findings and exchange of knowledge and information, are highly effective.

- What are your thoughts on the future outlook for your research?

Direction-selective cells are involved in the work of stabilizing visual image on the retina. There is a genetic disease, called congenital nystagmus, where the patient does not possess the eye movement reflexes that sight is dependent on. When I conducted research on the disease model mouse, I learned that the direction-selectivity had been lost in the retina. In my most recent research paper published in January this year, we reported the circuit mechanism of congenital nystagmus. As such, going forward, I aim to continue with research to elucidate the causes of neurological diseases, and move forward on fundamental research on how the causative genes work and form circuits in the retina.

At the same time, I would also like to introduce applied research into some of the research work at the laboratory in the future, which can provide data to contribute to the treatment of diseases. I think that it would be ideal if we could have both fundamental and applied research in one laboratory, like two wheels on a cart. That is my second or third dream, and I aim to continue pursuing these dreams going forward.