Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Lukas Chmatal
Lukas Chmatal is a postdoc in the Whitehead Institute Member David Page’s lab, and he is investigating the higher incidence of certain cardiac diseases in men versus women. We sat down with Chmatal to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What do you investigate?
I am trying to understand why some cardiac diseases are more common in males compared to females even though the factors that trigger these diseases are equally represented between sexes. Understanding why being male represents a significant risk factor or being female is protective will be important for designing better diagnoses and treatments benefitting both male and female patients. Specifically, I am investigating the origin of male bias in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a genetic disease in which the heart muscle aberrantly thickens. HCM affects one in 500 individuals and is twice as common in men as in women. The known mutations that cause HCM do not explain the prominent male bias, so I am trying to understand the mechanisms underlying that bias.
What’s something fascinating about your research area that most people might not know?
The coolest thing that keeps me fascinated is a paradigm shift my colleagues and I explore together in the Page lab: a hypothesis that sex-bias in human diseases originates in molecular sex differences between male (XY) and female (XX) cells in healthy conditions. There is a commonly held view that being XX or XY is of direct consequence only in the gonads, and that differences between males and females outside the gonads are attributable solely to the sex hormones produced by the ovaries or testes. However, the Page lab’s research has identified and investigated Y-linked genes expressed outside the reproductive tract, including in the heart. Differences between the protein sequences and expression levels of these Y-linked genes and their X-linked counterparts may result in biochemically distinct environments in XX and XY cardiac cells and, we surmise, in most if not all tissues and organs. This likely affects all dimensions of human biology, including how HCM susceptibility differs between males and females in both severity and incidence.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was young, I enjoyed running in fields covered in fresh snow with no footprints around. It gave me enormous pleasure to make the first footprints. I felt the same pleasure drawing on a blank sheet of paper. I think that a century ago, I would have been a traveler exploring unknown places on Earth, and as a kid, that is what I wanted to be. Now I find that searching for the unknown in science is also very exciting and adventurous. It’s also much safer than being an explorer — although trying to get papers published can sometimes feel like a matter of life and death.
When did you become interested in pursuing science?
As a kid, I didn’t know what a scientist was; it was too abstract for me. But I was something of a botanist, learning the names of every plant that grew in my area and everything about them. When I was in 5th grade, our school had a biology competition for all students, from 5th to 9th graders. We had to answer scientific questions, name selected plants, and identify displayed animals. I won the competition and discovered my passion for finding the answers to scientific questions.
After that I got hooked on the Biology Olympiad, which builds up to an international competition for students. I represented the Czech Republic at the International Environmental Project Olympiad in Turkey and at the International Biological Olympiad in Belarus. As a result, each summer for seven years I participated in a three-week camp for successful Olympiad competitors. That summer camp was a transformative experience in my life for two reasons. First, I met the Czech scientific elite from our top universities, who were there giving lectures about the most recent advances in science. Second, I met many friends with a similar passion for science.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
I like to run, and I’ve developed a passion for marathoning. I am not a fast runner, but I can run for a long time. Many fellow scientists at Whitehead Institute are also passionate runners, and we often go jogging together. After running six marathons and qualifying for Boston 2019, I am exploring new challenges like ultra-marathons, which cover even longer distances. I ran one in the Swiss Alps last summer that was 28 miles, with an 8000-foot elevation gain, and it was so amazing that I am doing it again this year. It was like having a sightseeing tour except instead of traveling in a car I carried myself on my own feet. Many times during the race the scenery was so breathtaking (sometimes literally) that I had to stop running and stare at the incredible views.
Besides running, I do yoga to keep up the flexibility and core strength I need for endurance running. I also studied art when I was younger. I think art and science have some fundamental similarities; when I spend a weekend drawing or painting, I am experimenting with a brush instead of a pipette.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?
I like when I discover something new that nobody else knows yet. I keep it just for myself for a few minutes, and then I share it with my colleagues with excitement. But these are rare moments. The most frustrating part of my job is when I think I’ve discovered something new, and then I share it with my colleagues to discover that I was wrong. This happens more often than I would like, but that’s the nature of research. “Failure is the mother of success” is the mantra of many scientists, including me.
What’s the biggest disaster you’ve ever had in the lab?
When I was an undergraduate, my friend and I were preparing chemical buffers on a heated stage. We got into some exciting conversation and completely forgot about the buffers, which boiled over. Smoke filled the whole room, which triggered the fire alarm, and then the firefighters came faster than we could send the cancelation call. As a result, the whole building had to be evacuated for a few hours. It doesn’t seem so bad now, but at the time it felt like a disaster. I’m happy to say that none of the fire alarms triggered at Whitehead Institute over the past three years have been my fault.
What was one surprise or culture shock of moving to the U.S.? What do you miss about where you grew up?
It has been almost ten years since I came to the U.S. to get my PhD. Now I feel a reverse culture shock when I go back to my own country for a holiday. What I still miss about where I grew up is the natural forest and the overall hilly character of the region in the Czech Republic I come from. Thanks to historically-rooted and environmentally-friendly agriculture in my region, the lands there are well-cared for by people in a way that shows and makes you feel at home.
Do you collect anything?
I collect tropical orchids. I have around fifty in my apartment, mostly species from genera like Gongora, Dendrobium, Paphiopedilum, and Oncidium. My apartment is not ideal, but with a combination of humidifier and fans they are quite happy there. I used to have a relatively large collection of cacti when I was living in the Czech Republic — around 250. I think cacti and orchids are similar in a sense. In both species, there is a sharp contrast between the appearance of the plant without flowers and after it blooms. You would not believe how beautiful the flowers are that grow on an ugly looking cactus. The same is true for the orchids, many of which bloom on dull leafless canes.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I would like to learn enough during my postdoctoral research experience to be ready to run my own lab. I also like mentoring students and teaching. Ideally, I would like to combine all these in my future position.
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