DDW’s Diana Spencer meets Dr Stephen Jones, Research Professor and Group Leader at the EMBL Partnership Institute for Genome Editing Technologies at Vilnius University’s Life Sciences Center.
DS: Can you tell us what you do and what you’re working on at the moment?
SJ: I lead a research group at the EMBL Partnership Institute in Vilnius, Lithuania. For the most part, my job revolves around two things: mentoring my team as they develop as scientists, and communicating what we do – making sure that the discoveries we make are shared as widely as possible, so they can have the most value to us, and to the rest of the scientific community.
At the moment, we are focused on gene editing tools, and specifically CRISPR nucleases, trying to design strategies that allow us to use them more safely and effectively. We’re really focused on understanding how they can find the right target when they’re working within a particular genome, because they don’t always behave themselves. Our goal is to develop strategies that allow us to understand how they work and how they find their targets, so we can hopefully improve them.
Gene editing is a fascinating area of research, as these tools could be used to cure disease or to build models for understanding diseases, but they’re also useful for engineering crops or designing diagnostic tools – there’s such a wide range of applications.
DS: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
SJ: It’s definitely been having the opportunity to build my own team here in Vilnius. As I was going through my training, I saw a lot of examples of things done right and things done wrong, so I hope to create a positive culture where people want to be here and to participate in this expansion of human knowledge. I find that when you create a good culture and environment, people want to spend time there, and that’s when amazing things happen. That’s been a really rewarding process for me. I understand that this position comes with a lot of privilege, so I try to make sure that I use that privilege to advance the team first and foremost.
DS: What drug discovery breakthrough has been most impactful to your research?
SJ: CRISPR is the obvious one. The fact that we can now very quickly and effectively programme these tools is immensely powerful. Though I would go a little further back in history to more foundational discoveries. Antibiotics are absolutely critical to the work we do in the lab. And a lot of the techniques and tools that we use are based on the original gene editing tools that aren’t as programmable as CRISPR nucleases, but showed us what was possible. That’s one of the amazing things about science, that we’re able to build on one another’s efforts – it’s exciting to be part of this much larger enterprise.
DS: What has been the best piece of career-related advice you’ve ever received?
SJ: To really put the work in to become an effective communicator. No matter how amazing your discovery is, if you can’t effectively share that with people and it’s stuck in your head, you really do a disservice not just to yourself, but to the whole community. Learning how to share is, to some extent, something we learn in kindergarten, but the next step is learning how to share in effective ways. This was important for me to learn and has paid dividends so far in my career. It’s a very important part of being in science and research, and it can make up for other weaknesses at times.
DS: What advice would you offer to someone hoping to pursue a similar career?
SJ: Get started as early as you can. I realise that is not always easy, but aspiring scientists really need to just get in there and get their hands dirty. For someone that’s starting down a research career path and looking at different universities, it’s worth asking which one is going to offer the experiences that align best with what you want to do. And the other thing, of course, is to get up to speed in your field. You want to know what we have achieved and where we are going next, so attending conferences and reading around the subject is very important. It will also get you excited, and that excitement is what will get you through some of the challenging times that are inevitable when you’re on the edge. When you’re creating and discovering things that were not there or not known before, it can be a challenging place to be, so those things that build you up are critical.
DS: If you could make everyone read one book article or academic paper, what would it be? And why?
SJ: This isn’t a book per se (and it’s really a recommendation specific to aspiring scientists), but one ‘collection of knowledge’ that was instrumental in my development was an online course titled ‘Writing in the Sciences’ led by Dr Kristin Sainani from Stanford. It improved my written communication so much, and it’s a resource I continually find myself referring back to.
Originally from the US, Stephen Jones earned his doctorate in Molecular Biology, Cellular Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University. He produced his postdoctoral research in CRISPR biochemistry and cellular ageing at the University of Texas. In 2021, Jones moved to Lithuania to become a research professor and founding group leader of the EMBL Partnership Institute for Genome Editing Technologies at Vilnius University’s Life Sciences Center. In 2023, he became Lithuania’s first winner of the European Research Council’s Starting Grant, leading a project titled PROTEGE: Profile Nucleases and Repurpose Off-Targets to Expand Gene Editing.