Sonja Vernes | GSHMax Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics | Nijmegen | Netherlands

Education and positions held:
2004-2009: Doctor of Philosophy (D.Phil), The University of Oxford (University College), United Kingdom.

Short biography:
I am interested in understanding how human speech and language are biologically encoded, how these abilities evolved, and the causes of language related disorders. I was drawn to this research area during my DPhil at the University of Oxford that sought to understand the functions of genes that cause speech and language disorders. I demonstrated how patient mutations in one such gene, FOXP2, cause altered neurodevelopment in mouse and human models, and identified a relationship between FOXP2 and the CNTNAP2 gene, demonstrating a novel genetic mechanism shared across clinically distinct language-related syndromes. In 2016, I was awarded a Max Planck Research Group (MPRG) Grant and a Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) Research Grant to establish a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. My group uses bats for comparative studies of speech and language relevant traits. We focus on the abilities of bats to learn novel vocalisations (vocal learning), an ability they share with humans, and that underlies the human ability to learn to communicate via spoken language. I am a founding director of the Bat1K genome project that aims to sequence the genomes of all living bat species (www.bat1k.com), a Donders institute affiliated principal investigator, a visiting professor at the University of Turin, and a member of the FENS-KAVLI network of excellence (http://fenskavlinetwork.org/).

Research summary:
Our research group focuses on the study of vocal communication in mammals as a way to understand the biological basis of human speech and language and how this trait evolved. Many species of mammal, including our primate cousins, have limited vocal repertoires. But a few mammals such as bats, whales and elephants use complex and varied vocalisations that share some characteristics with human speech, for example, the ability to learn vocalisations from other members of their social group. Currently very little is known about the genetic basis for these sophisticated vocal behaviours in non-human mammals. Studying such species can provide clues about how human language evolved, and how language abilities are encoded in the brain and the genome.
We use cutting-edge neuro-molecular techniques to identify genes and neural circuits that are important for vocal communication and learned vocalisations in bats. Our work has demonstrated the feasibility of neurogenetic studies in bats, identified sites of action for key language-related genes in the brains of vocal learning bats, and their potential to contribute to our understanding of human speech and language. This new research area is allowing us to characterise the biology underlying vocal learning in mammals and will ultimately inform our understanding of spoken language in humans.

Sonja Vernes | GSHMax Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics | Nijmegen | Netherlands

Education and positions held:
2004-2009: Doctor of Philosophy (D.Phil), The University of Oxford (University College), United Kingdom.

Short biography:
I am interested in understanding how human speech and language are biologically encoded, how these abilities evolved, and the causes of language related disorders. I was drawn to this research area during my DPhil at the University of Oxford that sought to understand the functions of genes that cause speech and language disorders. I demonstrated how patient mutations in one such gene, FOXP2, cause altered neurodevelopment in mouse and human models, and identified a relationship between FOXP2 and the CNTNAP2 gene, demonstrating a novel genetic mechanism shared across clinically distinct language-related syndromes. In 2016, I was awarded a Max Planck Research Group (MPRG) Grant and a Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) Research Grant to establish a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. My group uses bats for comparative studies of speech and language relevant traits. We focus on the abilities of bats to learn novel vocalisations (vocal learning), an ability they share with humans, and that underlies the human ability to learn to communicate via spoken language. I am a founding director of the Bat1K genome project that aims to sequence the genomes of all living bat species (www.bat1k.com), a Donders institute affiliated principal investigator, a visiting professor at the University of Turin, and a member of the FENS-KAVLI network of excellence (http://fenskavlinetwork.org/).

Research summary:
Our research group focuses on the study of vocal communication in mammals as a way to understand the biological basis of human speech and language and how this trait evolved. Many species of mammal, including our primate cousins, have limited vocal repertoires. But a few mammals such as bats, whales and elephants use complex and varied vocalisations that share some characteristics with human speech, for example, the ability to learn vocalisations from other members of their social group. Currently very little is known about the genetic basis for these sophisticated vocal behaviours in non-human mammals. Studying such species can provide clues about how human language evolved, and how language abilities are encoded in the brain and the genome.
We use cutting-edge neuro-molecular techniques to identify genes and neural circuits that are important for vocal communication and learned vocalisations in bats. Our work has demonstrated the feasibility of neurogenetic studies in bats, identified sites of action for key language-related genes in the brains of vocal learning bats, and their potential to contribute to our understanding of human speech and language. This new research area is allowing us to characterise the biology underlying vocal learning in mammals and will ultimately inform our understanding of spoken language in humans.

closepopup
Edda Schulz | BMSMax Planck Institute for molecular Genetics | Berlin | Germany

Education and positions held:
since 2014 Max Planck Research Group Leader at the MPI for Molecular Genetics, Berlin
2010-2013 Institut Curie, Paris, France, Postdoc with Prof. Edith Heard, funded by HFSP long-term fellowship
2005 – 2009 PhD, Biophysics, Humboldt Universität, Berlin
1999 – 2005 Diplom, Biochemistry, Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen

Short biography:
The main goal of my research is to understand how complex regulatory networks govern quantitative information processing and molecular decision-making during mammalian differentiation processes. During my PhD, I combined quantitative experiments and modeling to dissect the gene-regulatory network governing differentiation of type 1 T-helper lymphocytes, whereby I solved a long-standing question regarding the respective roles of IFN-γ and IL-12. For my postdoctoral research, funded by an HFSP long-term fellowship, I moved to a new field, epigenetics, because I believed that this layer of regulation was crucial to understand how transcriptional states are maintained in mammals. I learned how to apply genome-wide techniques and found that genes within the same topologically associating domain (TAD) tend to be co-regulated, providing a first indication for the functional role of TADs, which has since then been confirmed in numerous studies. Moreover, I discovered fundamental sex differences in embryonic stem cells with regard to pluripotency and differentiation that are only relieved once X-dosage compensation has occurred through X-chromosome inactivation. In 2015 I started as a Max Planck research group leader to identify the regulatory principles that control transcriptional states in mammals, using the onset of X-chromosome inactivation as a model.

Research summary:
We are interested understanding how transcriptional states are established in response to multiple quantitative input signals and how they can then be stably maintained. As a model, we study the regulatory principles that restrict expression of Xist, the master regulator of X-chromosome inactivation, to exactly one randomly chosen X-chromosome in females. To this end, we combine theoretical, computational and experimental approaches. We have recently developed the first experimentally-validated mathematical model of the Xist regulatory network that can explain seemingly diverse Xist expression patterns in different species. Moreover, we use pooled CRISPR screens to identify missing regulators and cis-regulatory elements, combined with genome-engineering and (single-cell) genomics to quantitatively profile the players and interactions within the Xist regulatory network. In this way we aim to elucidate the principles the govern transcriptional and epigenetic regulation in the mammalian genome.

Edda Schulz | BMSMax Planck Institute for molecular Genetics | Berlin | Germany

Education and positions held:
since 2014 Max Planck Research Group Leader at the MPI for Molecular Genetics, Berlin
2010-2013 Institut Curie, Paris, France, Postdoc with Prof. Edith Heard, funded by HFSP long-term fellowship
2005 – 2009 PhD, Biophysics, Humboldt Universität, Berlin
1999 – 2005 Diplom, Biochemistry, Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen

Short biography:
The main goal of my research is to understand how complex regulatory networks govern quantitative information processing and molecular decision-making during mammalian differentiation processes. During my PhD, I combined quantitative experiments and modeling to dissect the gene-regulatory network governing differentiation of type 1 T-helper lymphocytes, whereby I solved a long-standing question regarding the respective roles of IFN-γ and IL-12. For my postdoctoral research, funded by an HFSP long-term fellowship, I moved to a new field, epigenetics, because I believed that this layer of regulation was crucial to understand how transcriptional states are maintained in mammals. I learned how to apply genome-wide techniques and found that genes within the same topologically associating domain (TAD) tend to be co-regulated, providing a first indication for the functional role of TADs, which has since then been confirmed in numerous studies. Moreover, I discovered fundamental sex differences in embryonic stem cells with regard to pluripotency and differentiation that are only relieved once X-dosage compensation has occurred through X-chromosome inactivation. In 2015 I started as a Max Planck research group leader to identify the regulatory principles that control transcriptional states in mammals, using the onset of X-chromosome inactivation as a model.

Research summary:
We are interested understanding how transcriptional states are established in response to multiple quantitative input signals and how they can then be stably maintained. As a model, we study the regulatory principles that restrict expression of Xist, the master regulator of X-chromosome inactivation, to exactly one randomly chosen X-chromosome in females. To this end, we combine theoretical, computational and experimental approaches. We have recently developed the first experimentally-validated mathematical model of the Xist regulatory network that can explain seemingly diverse Xist expression patterns in different species. Moreover, we use pooled CRISPR screens to identify missing regulators and cis-regulatory elements, combined with genome-engineering and (single-cell) genomics to quantitatively profile the players and interactions within the Xist regulatory network. In this way we aim to elucidate the principles the govern transcriptional and epigenetic regulation in the mammalian genome.

closepopup
Kathryn Fitzsimmons | CPTMax Planck Institute for Chemistry | Mainz | Germany

Education and positions held:
2016- Max Planck Group Leader (Terrestrial Palaeoclimates), Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Mainz, Germany
2016- Privatdozentin, Institute for Geography, University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany
2016- Affiliated Researcher, Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
2010-2016 Junior Researcher, Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
2007-2010 Postdoctoral Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

2016 Habilitation, Institute for Geography, University of Leipzig
2003-2007 PhD, Department of Earth and Marine Sciences, Australian National University
1998-2002 BSc(Hons), University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
1998-2001 Diploma in Modern Languages (German), University of Melbourne, Australia

Short biography:
I currently lead the Max Planck Research Group for Terrestrial Palaeoclimates at MPIC in Mainz. I am a Quaternary earth scientist and geochronologist, specialising in luminescence dating and dryland environments. I am Privatdozentin at the University of Leipzig and maintain affiliated researcher status at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

Prior to arriving at MPIC, I led the luminescence dating laboratory at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig for 7 years, developing records of human-environmental interaction over long timescales on the desert margins of Australia, eastern Europe, Africa and Central Asia. During this time I was awarded the DFG Albert-Maucher-Prize for interdisciplinary geoscience research, as well as the Hans-Bobek-Prize for my Habilitation thesis (awarded at the University of Leipzig).

Prior to arriving in Germany, in my first postdoctoral position, I ran the luminescence laboratory in the Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, investigating the history of aridity and drought in Australia. I obtained my PhD in 2007 from the Australian National University on the history of aridity in the central Australian desert dunefields over the last 200,000 years, for which I was awarded the Director‘s Prize in Scientific Communication.

As an undergraduate I studied earth sciences and German language at the University of Melbourne, though I must admit I never expected my German to be so useful!

Research summary:
The Quaternary is arguably one of the most significant epochs in Earth’s history. It has overseen substantial climatic and environmental changes, the evolution of humans, and their colonisation of most terrestrial landscapes. My research encompasses many aspects of this important time period, at different time and spatial scales.

My research aims to understand and quantify the nature of Quaternary land surface and environmental change, and the thresholds and causes of those changes. I also investigate the interactions between people and their environments over Quaternary timescales. I focus on abrupt environmental changes that may influence behavioural changes by people, and vice versa on instances where people overwhelmingly contribute to a breach of environmental thresholds, leading to landscape instability. To investigate these questions, we need well resolved, unambiguous palaeoenvironmental archives embedded within robust chronological frameworks.

With my group, I am working to develop new terrestrial proxy methods for the timing and variability of past change, in long sediment records deep in the continental zone, far from marine and ice core records. We combine the geochronological method of luminescence dating with geochemical, geomorphological, stratigraphic and sedimentological approaches. We are especially interested in generating the missing links in land-climate dynamics for wind-blown dust (loess) piedmonts and desert margin regions at risk of desertification.

Kathryn Fitzsimmons | CPTMax Planck Institute for Chemistry | Mainz | Germany

Education and positions held:
2016- Max Planck Group Leader (Terrestrial Palaeoclimates), Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Mainz, Germany
2016- Privatdozentin, Institute for Geography, University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany
2016- Affiliated Researcher, Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
2010-2016 Junior Researcher, Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
2007-2010 Postdoctoral Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

2016 Habilitation, Institute for Geography, University of Leipzig
2003-2007 PhD, Department of Earth and Marine Sciences, Australian National University
1998-2002 BSc(Hons), University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
1998-2001 Diploma in Modern Languages (German), University of Melbourne, Australia

Short biography:
I currently lead the Max Planck Research Group for Terrestrial Palaeoclimates at MPIC in Mainz. I am a Quaternary earth scientist and geochronologist, specialising in luminescence dating and dryland environments. I am Privatdozentin at the University of Leipzig and maintain affiliated researcher status at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

Prior to arriving at MPIC, I led the luminescence dating laboratory at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig for 7 years, developing records of human-environmental interaction over long timescales on the desert margins of Australia, eastern Europe, Africa and Central Asia. During this time I was awarded the DFG Albert-Maucher-Prize for interdisciplinary geoscience research, as well as the Hans-Bobek-Prize for my Habilitation thesis (awarded at the University of Leipzig).

Prior to arriving in Germany, in my first postdoctoral position, I ran the luminescence laboratory in the Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, investigating the history of aridity and drought in Australia. I obtained my PhD in 2007 from the Australian National University on the history of aridity in the central Australian desert dunefields over the last 200,000 years, for which I was awarded the Director‘s Prize in Scientific Communication.

As an undergraduate I studied earth sciences and German language at the University of Melbourne, though I must admit I never expected my German to be so useful!

Research summary:
The Quaternary is arguably one of the most significant epochs in Earth’s history. It has overseen substantial climatic and environmental changes, the evolution of humans, and their colonisation of most terrestrial landscapes. My research encompasses many aspects of this important time period, at different time and spatial scales.

My research aims to understand and quantify the nature of Quaternary land surface and environmental change, and the thresholds and causes of those changes. I also investigate the interactions between people and their environments over Quaternary timescales. I focus on abrupt environmental changes that may influence behavioural changes by people, and vice versa on instances where people overwhelmingly contribute to a breach of environmental thresholds, leading to landscape instability. To investigate these questions, we need well resolved, unambiguous palaeoenvironmental archives embedded within robust chronological frameworks.

With my group, I am working to develop new terrestrial proxy methods for the timing and variability of past change, in long sediment records deep in the continental zone, far from marine and ice core records. We combine the geochronological method of luminescence dating with geochemical, geomorphological, stratigraphic and sedimentological approaches. We are especially interested in generating the missing links in land-climate dynamics for wind-blown dust (loess) piedmonts and desert margin regions at risk of desertification.

closepopup
Juanma Vaquerizas | BMSMax Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine | Münster | Germany

Short biography:
I have a long-standing interest in understanding the molecular mechanisms that allow cells to use their genetic information to perform normal cellular and physiological functions, such as development and differentiation, and how the mis-regulation of these molecular mechanisms leads to disease, such as cancer. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies in Madrid, and with the advent of the first genome sequences, I became fascinated by the then recently acquired ability of using genomic tools to monitor biological processes, such as gene expression, for large number of genes. Using computational biology approaches, during my PhD I performed the first functional characterisation of the human repertoire of transcription factors, a dataset that became a reference in the field. For my postdoctoral training at the EMBL - European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, I switched my interest to chromatin, in particular focusing on understanding how specific chromatin modifications are used by cells to regulate the difference in sex chromosome dosage between males and females. Unexpectedly, this work revealed a link between the spatial organisation of chromatin and gene regulation, which fuelled my interest in the most current research focus of my Max Planck Research Group: the understanding of the spatial organisation of the genome in development and disease.

Research summary:
We focus on understanding how the two-meter long molecule of DNA in our cells is encapsulated in a few micron nucleus while all the regulatory mechanisms that make our genomes work properly keep doing so. To do so, we employ a wide range of experimental and computational techniques that allow us to monitor different aspects of gene and genome regulation, such as transcription, chromatin accessibility and chromatin architecture, in a genome-wide manner. Our work focuses mainly in two areas:

i) Early embryonic development. We use early embryonic development since this is a critical developmental time point when the epigenetic programmes of the fully differentiated gametes need to be reverted back to a totipotent state following fertilisation to produce a new individual. Studies in early fruit fly and mammalian early embryonic development have allowed us to discover specific mechanisms that determine how chromatin architecture emerges at the awakening of the genome.

ii) Disease. Chromatin architecture is of critical importance for the correct regulation of gene expression. Mutations in key elements controlling this level of organisation lead to developmental disorders and diseases such as cancer. In order to examine how the 3D genome is affected in disease, we have developed experimental approaches to study chromatin conformation using small amounts of biological material. These techniques allow us to specifically examine changes in chromatin organisation for disease cells.

Juanma Vaquerizas | BMSMax Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine | Münster | Germany

Short biography:
I have a long-standing interest in understanding the molecular mechanisms that allow cells to use their genetic information to perform normal cellular and physiological functions, such as development and differentiation, and how the mis-regulation of these molecular mechanisms leads to disease, such as cancer. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies in Madrid, and with the advent of the first genome sequences, I became fascinated by the then recently acquired ability of using genomic tools to monitor biological processes, such as gene expression, for large number of genes. Using computational biology approaches, during my PhD I performed the first functional characterisation of the human repertoire of transcription factors, a dataset that became a reference in the field. For my postdoctoral training at the EMBL - European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, I switched my interest to chromatin, in particular focusing on understanding how specific chromatin modifications are used by cells to regulate the difference in sex chromosome dosage between males and females. Unexpectedly, this work revealed a link between the spatial organisation of chromatin and gene regulation, which fuelled my interest in the most current research focus of my Max Planck Research Group: the understanding of the spatial organisation of the genome in development and disease.

Research summary:
We focus on understanding how the two-meter long molecule of DNA in our cells is encapsulated in a few micron nucleus while all the regulatory mechanisms that make our genomes work properly keep doing so. To do so, we employ a wide range of experimental and computational techniques that allow us to monitor different aspects of gene and genome regulation, such as transcription, chromatin accessibility and chromatin architecture, in a genome-wide manner. Our work focuses mainly in two areas:

i) Early embryonic development. We use early embryonic development since this is a critical developmental time point when the epigenetic programmes of the fully differentiated gametes need to be reverted back to a totipotent state following fertilisation to produce a new individual. Studies in early fruit fly and mammalian early embryonic development have allowed us to discover specific mechanisms that determine how chromatin architecture emerges at the awakening of the genome.

ii) Disease. Chromatin architecture is of critical importance for the correct regulation of gene expression. Mutations in key elements controlling this level of organisation lead to developmental disorders and diseases such as cancer. In order to examine how the 3D genome is affected in disease, we have developed experimental approaches to study chromatin conformation using small amounts of biological material. These techniques allow us to specifically examine changes in chromatin organisation for disease cells.

closepopup