NorthenLab: Exometabolomics linking genomes with environments to understand how webs of microbes sustain biomes

New Lab Member Highlight: Vlastimil Novak

The Northen Lab would like to welcome Vlastimil Novak, a new postdoc with a background in plant science and mass spectrometry! We are looking forward to working with Vlastimil and you can learn a bit about him in this interview.

What is your area of expertise? Could you talk a little bit about your background and what brought you to your field? 

Because I loved growing bonsai and orchids as a teenager, Plant Biotechnology seemed like an obvious choice for my Bachelor’s program. After graduating, I moved from the Czech Republic to Denmark where I continued studying Biotechnology. My MSc thesis dealt with the biochemical characterization of plant membrane transporters for plant specialized metabolites. As a consequence, the work sparked my interest in mass spectrometry (MS) based metabolomics analysis. I stayed at the University of Copenhagen for my Ph.D. to investigate nutrient cycling in agrosystems via stable isotope ratio MS. So far, I haven’t gotten tired of looking at MS peaks. Therefore, I would like to apply my background encompassing metabolomics, stable isotopes, and plant biology in the multidisciplinary environment of the Northen Lab. 

Do you have any anecdotes or funny stories from your previous research?

I participated in a course where we used stable isotopes to determine added sugars in honey. One of the participants brought in premium ecologic authentic honey from wild rainforest bees. Just the price tag would be enough to turn the honey bitter. However, the smell alone was so off-putting that any consumption was out of the question. To the surprise of my classmate and everyone in the room, the data revealed that this was the first-ever sugar-free “honey”. 

What research topics or experimental techniques are you most excited to work on in the Northen Lab? 

I am excited to contribute to the Northen Lab development with my expertise in plant research. I plan to use the EcoFAB platform to study the relationships between plant exometabolome, plant nutrition, and rhizobiome. It is exciting to have this cutting-edge reproducible technology at my disposal. Naturally, I am also interested in using the state of the art mass spectrometry capabilities. 

Could you name a favorite book, piece of music, video game, or movie?

In my free time, I enjoy playing strategy PC games such as Starcraft 2 or Warcraft 3. I am also a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy books as well as movies. I want to read the novel Dune by Frank Herbert before the movie adaptation airs in cinemas this year. A second book that I recommend is The Day of the Triffids, where killer plants called Triffids, once cultivated as a source of fuel, take over the world. The underlying concept of humans trying to tame nature with catastrophic consequences resonates with me. 

Is there anything you are excited to see or do in the Bay Area? Or, if you have been here before, any recommendations? 

I visited the Bay area for one week in 2018, but I was only able to explore San Francisco and its immediate surroundings. Already then, I realized that the Bay Area offers some excellent hiking. Especially since coming from flat and cold Denmark, I appreciate that one can stay outdoors and enjoy the hilly California landscape all year round. I created a list of a few must-do activities: see giant sequoias, go whale watching, and visit the Yosemite National Park.