Conversations with alumni: Immuno-Oncology

An interview with Mathias Wenes

Mathias Wenes will kick off the recent insights into immuno-oncology with a presentation on metabolic interventions to improve CAR T cell therapy. Mathias works at the University of Geneva and MPC Therapeutics, but has his roots in VIB. In this interview, we talk about his career trajectory, the role of conferences, and his time at VIB.

Hello Mathias. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Could you tell us a bit more about your current position, and can you explain a bit more about what it entails?

My current position is dual. On the one hand, I am a research fellow at the University of Geneva. You can compare this to the equivalent of a Senior Post-Doc position. In this role, I lead my own project that focuses on the metabolism in CAR-T cells. This is the more academic part of my current position.

On the other hand, I am also CTO (Chief Technical Officer) at MPC Therapeutics, a Geneva-based start-up. Here, I try to translate the findings of my Post-Doc Research at the University of Lausanne into better cellular immunotherapies for clinical use. This job is more focused on management and supervision in an industrial context.

Can you tell us a bit more about your link with VIB and how your time at VIB influenced your career trajectory? 

After my master’s in biomedical sciences at KU Leuven, I joined the lab of Prof. Massimiliano Mazzone of the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology as a PhD student. I can honestly say I am a very proud VIB alumnus. I was there for 6 years in total, and it really shaped my scientific thinking and future career. Two things that come to mind are the density of world-renowned brilliant group leaders at VIB, and the training packages the company offers. I specifically remember the training in “Effective Oral Presentations,” which made me more confident in giving scientific presentations or lectures at university. The environment VIB creates by bringing together top scientists is very stimulating. You want to perform at your best by seeing others perform at their best. It shaped my mentality and work drive.

Mathias Wenes with his wife Giusy Di Conza , also a VIB Alumnus
Mathias Wenes with his wife Giusy Di Conza , also a VIB Alumnus

Talking about being surrounded by top scientists in your field, did attending conferences play a role in your career path? For instance, because of contacts you made when attending conferences or new insights you took home?

Conferences are critical for scientists. For me, there are two main reasons. On the one hand, there is this fixed date to work towards. It pushes you to advance your project. You want to present your peers with the most recent data and best hypothesis. You want to get the most valuable feedback and return to your lab with fresh, new ideas. I feel that the weeks surrounding a conference are always boosting my projects.

The second reason is networking. Getting in touch with the best minds in your field. You can learn a lot from them and get great feedback. I think it is a good idea for PIs to join their younger PhD students during conferences. Established PIs often have good contacts with peers and can introduce them to younger students. I can imagine as a scientist at the start of your career, you might be a bit shy or intimidated to go talk to established scientists. Someone to bridge this might help. Also, don’t only focus on the big conferences, I experienced smaller conferences are often better for networking and spontaneous interactions.

What skills are necessary for your current position? Knowing this, would you have done something different in your PhD and postdoc (focus on different things, take extra training/courses...)? 

Like every scientist, I find critical thinking hugely important. The ability to critically assess your research, the research of peers, and scientific literature is really a necessary skill. I worked on these skills by joining journal clubs and performing peer reviews. It makes you a more mature scientist.

Being tenacious is also important. Many experiments will fail but use a combination of critical thinking with a bit of gut feeling to tweak and finetune details in your setup. This is something I learned during my PhD, to repeat and adapt over and over again.

Besides that, the course on effective oral presentations really helped me with my presentation skills. It not only helps me at conferences, but it also improves my teaching skills. I think being able to explain science to students makes you a better researcher.

Something I would have done differently is learn more about science in industry. As mentioned before, part of my job now is CTO at a start-up. I have done this now for two years, and those two years were a very steep learning curve. My skills and mindset were focused on academia and less on industry and translational research. So, I feel I had to learn all of this quite suddenly. If I could do it again, I would develop my knowledge of industrial projects and translational research earlier in my career. Also, even when you decide to focus on Academia, I think knowing the basics of industry research is still valuable.

Mathias Wenes in the lab
Mathias Wenes in the lab

Do you have any tips for young researchers starting their scientific careers and looking to go into immuno-oncology?

Immuno-oncology is a field of science that has an important translational factor. Keep this in mind. As scientists, we love to figure out the details of how something works, but there is a bigger picture. To better understand this bigger picture, talk not only to scientists but also listen to patients and clinicians. These testimonies are very valuable and can help you gain new insights in your own research.

Also, try to supervise a master’s student as soon as possible. Explaining your research, thinking about the next experiments, and involving someone in your work is valuable. It can help you look at your research in a different way.

In an interview with Massimiliano Mazzone and Karin de Visser earlier this month, Max spoke very fondly of you. He was also looking forward to your presentation at the Recent insights into Immuno-Oncology conference. About your time at VIB, can you think of a nice anecdote that illustrates how you experienced your time at VIB or, more in general, how the atmosphere was in your lab back then?

I have many anecdotes from my time at VIB, but most of those better remain confidential (laughs). You see, in the lab of Max we were more than colleagues, we really became friends. Whenever someone left, we would get together and make a little goodbye movie for them. We would do a harmless caricature of the person leaving. It was our way of showing them the little mannerisms and characteristics we would miss. And also, the team spirit between our lab and VIB was always nice. I fondly remember going to conferences and having an aperitif moment. This fostered a good team spirit.

Thank you very much for this interview

Would you like to learn more about Mathias' research? Make sure to subscribe to the Recent Insights into Immuno-Oncology conference and Talk to him there. Mathias will also be a speaker on the topic of Metabolic interventions to improve CAR T cell therapy.

Steve Bers

Steve Bers

Science Communications Expert, VIB




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