Yana Bromberg: “I want to find the origins of life.”

In 2009 Yana Bromberg visited TUM for the first time as a post-doc. Today – ten years later – she is an internationally successful professor for Bioinformatics and remains closely linked to her former host university. She is visiting Munich regularly to exchange ideas with TUM professor Burkhard Rost and also to meet the numerous friends she has in the city, because work and pleasure are inseparable for the researcher from the US. Yana Bromberg believes that success is achieved by setting clear goals and making the right decisions. Not only her own research is important to her but also supporting talented young scientists. Research Alumni Yana Bromberg on Bioinformatics, a gymnastics ball that changed her life and on why everyone is the architect of their own good fortune.

Ms Bromberg, born in Ukraine, raised in Brooklyn, PhD at Colombia in Manhattan, now a successful career in research on an international scale. It almost sounds like a cliché. Are you the embodiment of the American Dream?

It seems like that (laughs). I came to New York with my parents with the last wave of Soviet refugees in 1992. As an immigrant child it was naturally hard at the beginning. I picked up English very fast, as I was still at an age where languages are picked up easily. But I missed my friends in Odessa very much. I went to high school in Brooklyn, to college in Long Island, to grad school in Manhattan. So, I’m pretty much a New Yorker by those standards. Today I am a professor and scientist in Bioinformatics. Maybe my career is actually a bit like the American Dream.

What exactly does a Bioinformatics scientist do?

Bioinformatics uses biological data to model computer-supported simulations of biological systems. It’s no longer necessary to carry out real experiments.

So there are no pipettes and glass flasks in your lab?

No, only computers. I find biology laboratories awful – especially pipetting. I did an internship in Plant Pathology over the summer between my sophomore and junior year, non-stop pipetting – that was terrible for me.

Biology and Informatics. Probably still an unusual combination in the late nineties when you studied. Have you already wanted to go into research back then?

No. I wanted to be a medical doctor. My great-grandmother was a doctor. She died in the war. My grandmother grew up without her and missed her very much, and she encouraged me to become a doctor. In high school we had to pick a major, and I picked Pre-med Biology. I went to school with a lot of Russian immigrants, and many of them studied Computer Science. So I was one of the very few doing Biology. Then – four years after I came to the States – I applied to study Medicine at all these famous, big-name universities. Everybody, except MIT, accepted me. That was kind of nice, but then came the disappointment. My parents had no money to pay for my school – we had just come to the US a couple of years earlier with nothing and were still setting up life in a new country. However, they had good jobs, so I didn’t qualify for need-based scholarships. And as I was only 16 years old and not yet of age, I couldn’t get a student loan. We could not afford those studies.

That must have been hard.

It was a very difficult and emotional time. The only solution I saw fit was to give up on the idea to study at the famous expensive schools. I first went to Stony Brook University to study Biology in preparation for medical school. It’s a very good state university in New York. I went there and because it was ‘next-door’, half of my high school went with me. Everybody was doing Computer Science and I was doing Biology.

And then you also caught the Informatics bug?

At a college party I was talking to a friend of mine who studied Computer Science. He was trying to provoke me, saying that I had no idea what it’s like to really work, saying that biologists had an easy life as scientists. This aroused my curiosity and ambition, and I took my first Computer Science course. I liked it so much that I took another course right away. I thought at the time, “It probably is a good thing to have something unusual in my CV when I apply to medical school later”. And so I began to study Computer Science in addition to Biology. And by year three I realised that I liked Computer Science so much, I didn’t really want to go to medical school anymore but instead cure diseases through Biology and Informatics.

 You realised that you wanted to go into research?

Yes. But, to be precise, it actually happened in two steps. First, during my final thesis at Stony Brook with Professor Moises Eisenberg. He is a physicist, but he had a project for me ‘proving’ evolution by investigating the similarity of the genome of the worm C.elegans to other organisms. I was supposed to take the worm genes and create sequences of the same length. I would then try to align them to other organisms to see if other organisms have similar sequences. The thesis was that the worm would have significantly more similar sequences to other organisms than my random sequences. In retrospect it was very simple, but this was the first time I ever came into contact with this type of research. I was thrilled.

And the second step?

While I was still writing my thesis, I got a place in 2000 at the Summer School of the Weizmann Institute in Israel with one of its most renowned researchers, Dr. Doron Lancet. I had to write codes for updating GeneCards – a biological database and was working on this in a group of outstanding people. We spent eight weeks researching together, and we also spent time together outside the lab. It was a very intense time, but an unbelievable feeling. I was intoxicated, and it just clicked for me. I knew all of a sudden that research was the right thing for me. It was the right time and the right place for me, and that’s where I got the right credentials for my subsequent research career.

The right time, the right place. Do you believe in destiny?

Things happen and then we make our own destiny. The next 24 hours have infinite possibilities for you. You could be walking down the street and run into somebody who offers you a job paying a million dollars a year. You can then take it or not – your choice. Or take another street and meet nobody.

This takes us back to the American Dream. So everyone is the architect of their own good fortune?

Everyone makes their own choices. There is basically nothing that prevents you from doing something. From where you are right now, the world is open to you. We just tend to give much more weight to what has happened to us, than to what we actually initiate and decide ourselves. If you do the things that you are supposed to do, the things that are supposed to happen, will happen.

Is your PhD at Columbia University an example of that?

Basically, yes. I was just 20 years old at the time, wanted to stay on the East Coast and wanted to do research on diabetes at all costs. Even then I really wanted to cure the disease. I didn’t just want to study it. Shortly before that, a Medical Informatics program had been started at Columbia. After I had been accepted, I went directly to Rudolph Leibel, the diabetes expert. I wanted him to be my study advisor and was able to convince him to take me on. However, he said: “I can direct you in pipetting, but that’s not what you want to do, so, you need to find yourself an advisor who would take you on from the mathematical perspective.” I looked at all my options – a difficult decision when faced with so many outstanding scientists. In the end, I wrote to five professors, Burkhard Rost being one of them.

What happened next?

To my absolute disbelief at that time, four of the five didn’t answer me. Today, as a professor, I understand how little time there is in everyday life for additional questions. What is more, the lab’s financial resources are one of the biggest restrictions. In the US, in order to have a graduate student, you need to bring in at least sixty to eighty thousand dollars in grants for the support of that student. It’s quite possible that the people I wrote to simply didn’t have the funds. The truth was that I had a fellowship which secured funding for me for four years. But I did not think to mention this in my e-mails because I assumed everybody knew.

But Professor Rost did answer you and offered you a cooperation?

In hindsight this was obviously the best thing that could have happened to me back then. When I first met him, I was very sure that I wanted to work with him. Not only because he is an absolute genius, but because he was so pleasantly unusual. I came into his office and he was sitting on an exercise ball – one of these huge exercise balls. I now have one myself. I think if I’d come to his office and he’d been wearing a tie and a pressed shirt, I probably wouldn’t have done my PhD with him. I’ve always been a bit unconventional, and he fits in very well with that (laughs).

Up to the present day nothing has changed in this perfect research duo. You also worked together at TUM. As an outstanding young scientist, you were accepted as a Hans Fischer Fellow at TUM-IAS in 2013.

That’s right. After my PhD, I stayed at Columbia as a postdoc and came to TUM for the first time in 2009. That was when Burkhard moved to TUM. I received the Hans Fischer Fellowship in 2013. The first year I tried to work in one of the beautiful TUM-IAS offices, but it just didn’t work. So I went to Burkhard and stayed in his work space all the time. I am very grateful to the IAS that I was able to continue working intensely with Burkhard, also got a PhD student and had the opportunity to research microbes – which was a new field for me at the time. Most of my collaborations came about this way – something that my colleagues at my home university have noticed negatively (laughs). I am at Rutgers University and my collaborative projects are all in Europe. So lately I’ve been building American collaborations way more extensively.

Do you think you will still be coming to Munich regularly once the funding phase is over?

Of course. Burkhard’s lab is my lab. And two of my Rutgers students originally come from here. Also Munich is my base in Europe. For example, when I teach in Italy or have to go to Denmark for a dissertation defence, I never fly directly there, but always via Munich, so I can say hello to everyone and travel from here. You really have a unique research landscape here. That is beyond question. Privately I would prefer Portugal or Spain because of the warm climate (laughs), but scientifically Germany is simply unbeatable.

That means you feel a sense of belonging at TUM, as well?

There is a funny story about this. When I applied for NASA-funding with a team, the main organizer of the corresponding workshop wrote ‘Technische Universität München’ under my name as the first associated facility and ‘Rutgers University’ in second place. I had asked him to change it, of course – Rutgers is my home institution. But I also realised what drove that – when you don’t know TUM, you think: “It’s technical, it has to be good”. Meanwhile, I hear again and again that TUM is to Germany what the MIT is to the USA. The TUM students in my lab are the best example of this. They work excellently, precisely and very quickly. I really appreciate it when people are fast.

Let’s take a look at your future. What does it look like?

I want to find the origins of life, solve the microbiome problem, and cure diabetes. That’s my plan for the next 70 years.

Sounds like an ambitious goal. Maybe you will receive the Nobel Prize one day.

Why not? But this award is not the most important thing for me. My view on that might be a bit unconventional. There are a lot of people who deserve the Nobel Prize. Nobel Laureates are mostly people whose work attracts the most attention, out of a number of people who would all deserve it. This in no way diminishes the performance of these award winners. He or she is still outstanding – by the way, there should be many more women – but there are other researchers who are just as good.

And there are also other important prizes and awards…

Absolutely. And there’s no question about it, for me it is very important to get recognition. But to be honest, it doesn’t make me any less of a researcher if I don’t get this form of recognition. What does make me feel less of a researcher is if my proposals don’t get funded and I can’t afford to bring in talented students. It is very important to me that they get acknowledged and I support them extensively. Thus, an ideal future would be working at an institution in which I don’t have to apply for funding. Because there are always situations when students come to me whose supervisors suddenly no longer have any money. Such cases bother me, and I often stand up for them. Frequently there are some possibilities that their advisors should have considered more intensely. For example, you can find someone else to support the students for a year, or they can apply for additional scholarships. But as sad as this is, I also have benefited from this situation in having recruited two outstanding students from outside my field.

Your work and your team are very important to you and you spend a lot of time together. It seems you are almost like a family, or am I wrong?

No, you’re not. We like to think that. This sometimes leads to friction or conversations about our private lives and maybe may not be the most efficient way to work, but for me it is definitely not only about efficiency. The boundaries between work and private life are fluid, and that’s a good thing. For me it is about enjoying life and science to the fullest and making sure that the people around me do this, too and are being recognised as scientists.

Prof. Dr. Yana Bromberg

TUM-IAS Hans Fischer Fellow 2014-2017

Yana Bromberg, Ph.D. lives in New York and New Jersey. She is an Associate Professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Department of Genetics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. At the age of eleven, she came to the US from the Ukraine with her parents and lived in New York in a humble home. From 1997 to 2001 she studied Biology and Computer Sciences at Stony Brook State University of New York. Subsequently she completed her M.Phil. and did her doctorate in Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University with today’s TUM Professor Burkard Rost, gaining her PhD in 2007. For the following three years, she remained at Columbia as a postdoctoral research scientist until she moved to Rutgers University in New Jersey as an Assistant Professor in Biochemistry, Microbiology and Genetics. There she was given her own lab. From 2014 to 2017 she was a Hans Fischer Fellow of the TUM Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Her research focuses on molecular functions of proteins and genes. Her laboratory investigates human genetic variations for predisposition to disease, builds tools for microbiome analysis, and is also searching for protein-based origins of life. Yana Bromberg is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Society for Computational Biology and is actively involved in the Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB) conference, as well as its European equivalent, the European Conference on Computational Biology (ECCB). In her spare time, she goes hiking or sailing and loves to visit her family and friends all over Europe – usually from her base in Munich.

This article was published in KontakTUM 1/2019

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Photo: Adobe Stock/sumnersgraphicsinc; Graphics: dietrabanten, München