News / 20 April 2017
Harald Janovjak headshot

His passion for regenerative medicine has seen him work all over the world and now Dr Harald Janovjak is bringing his expertise to EMBL Australia as a group leader based at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University either later this year or in early 2018.

Currently an Assistant Professor in Synthetic Biology at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria), Dr Janovjak began his tertiary education in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland, before heading to Dresden, Germany to undertake his Honours degree and PhD in biology, followed by The University of California, Berkeley, for post-doctoral training. Now, Australia is calling.

His teams innovative research uses optogenetics – a biological technique involving the use of light to control cells in living tissue that has been genetically modified to express light-sensitive ion channels. The focus of his work in tissue regeneration is an area in which existing research methods have reached significant obstacles.

Dr Janovjak’s research lies at the interface of synthetic biology and physiology, with a focus on understanding and manipulating how cells talk to each other in health and disease. One of the major challenges lies in manipulating the communication between cells in situ and targeting selected cells or only cells at certain stages of development.

Dr Janovjak and his team re-engineer the cell’s signalling machinery (in particular, membrane receptors) so they can control it non-invasively and with the utmost precision, applying their research to problems in physiology in cell, tissue and animal models.

Dr Janovjak’s goal is to better understand how the balance of cell death and cell growth is regulated and to ultimately be able to control it in potentially fatal disorders, such as cancer (where excessive cell growth is a hallmark) and degenerative diseases (in which cell death features).

We chatted to Dr Janovjak about his work and recent appointment as an EMBL Australia group leader.

What aspect of your new position with EMBL Australia are you most looking forward to?

“Australia is a research power house: there are many world-class researchers in Melbourne and elsewhere around the country whose work I have been admiring for years. I cannot wait to become part of this vibrant academic landscape. Equally important are the unique possibilities offered by the EMBL group leader scheme, such as a nine-year time horizon. Furthermore, Australia offers a perfect mix for us, as young scientific professionals – strong academic atmosphere and excellent life quality, amazing nature and impressive culture. One of the best things about our move is that my wife has lived and studied in Australia; she is very much looking forward to returning to the country she calls home.”

We know the rigorous EMBL Australia recruitment process is very different to how other medical and science institutes recruit for their group leader positions. Did you find the interview process challenging?

“Besides transferring knowledge and skills to my students, one of my favourite aspects of my job is discussing science with colleagues, both from my field and from other fields. The interview was all about science, so I enjoyed those four days very much.”

What led you to your particular area of research?

“While I am a basic biology researcher and want to discover how proteins and cells work, there has always been an engineering angle to my work. This may not be surprising as engineering has been running in my family for four generations now. I am happy to be able to combine these two passions with a focus on regenerative medicine in the future.” 

Congratulations, Dr Janovjak – we look forward to you joining the EMBL Australia team!