Professor Leoš Valasek

By Matthew Rollins

Jana Plavec, Czech Academy of Sciences
 Photo Credit: Jana Plavec, Czech Academy of Sciences

Professor Leoš Valasek is the head of the Laboratory of Regulation of Gene Expression (LRGE) at the Institute of Microbiology at the Czech Academy of Science (CAS) in Prague. Since starting his lab in 2006, he has had a prolific career and was elected to the Academy Assembly of CAS in 2014. Over the past 15 years, Professor Valasek has led research into the complex area of translation initiation in both yeast and mammalian cell lines. But when asked how he came to study eukaryotic translation, he admits that he didn’t arrive at his path to this field in a straightforward way.  “It was pure serendipity,” he said. “As a PhD student, I was working on an unknown protein that was supposed to influence the dynamics of cytoskeleton in the budding yeast. Three years spent with my PhD efforts and I still had nothing to present. Then, out of the blue, Bill Merrick’s lab published a JBC paper showing that the human homologue of ‘my’ protein is the largest subunit of eukaryotic translation initiation factor 3 (eIF3). Even though it was not mine, it was one of the most important papers of my entire career. Thanks again, Bill!” After receiving his PhD in 1999 from The University of Vienna, he completed his post-doctoral training at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the NIH in Bethesda, MD in 2004 working with Dr. Alan Hinnebusch.

Dr. Valasek returned to the Czech Republic in 2004 after receiving the “Welcome Back Home” Fellowship of J.E. Purkyne from The Academy of the Sciences of the Czech Republic. Since then, he has won the Wellcome Trust International Senior Research Fellowship, becoming the first Czech researcher to have it renewed, first in 2010 and again in 2015, and also won an NIH FIC Global Health Research Initiative Program Award, became the Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Research Scholar, and very recently won the most prestigious Czech scientific award Praemium Academiae from CAS. Professor Valasek’s lab is at the cutting edge of technologies for measuring translational control. Their newest technology, called Sel-TCP-seq, is able to capture the footprints of the 40S and 80S subunits associated with immune-targeted factors in vivo and represents a substantial leap in our ability to measure translation. Reflecting on the rapid advances in RNA research since beginning his career, Professor Valasek says “The field has changed a lot. Everything is so fast that it is no longer possible to keep track with the current progress. Everyone is super-busy, overwhelmed with tons of work (administrative above all, unfortunately). It is harder and harder to find at least a bit of time to relax and enjoy real science. New technologies are absolutely amazing, old dogmas are falling down like bowling pins nearly every day, and sometimes I have a feeling that we are reaching a point when we will realize that everything in the cell regulates everything else.”

“Be honest, modest, cheerful, friendly, and open minded… And last but NOT least, value and treat those who work for you (with you) as you value/treat yourself. It MUST be fun to work for you.”

Those advances don’t come easy, and Professor Valasek has some advice for young researchers. “Stay focused – ‘bring it home’, instead of diluting your power/energy by working on too many exciting things at the same time. Be honest, modest, cheerful, friendly, and open minded. Do not push, let it flow – I have always worked hard but the most exciting discoveries kind of happened on their own; the more I clung to some idea, the harder it was to look around for alternative ideas. And last but NOT least, value and treat those who work for you (with you) as you value/treat yourself. It MUST be fun to work for you.”

Professor Valasek has stayed active in RNA society and encourages students and young researchers to get involved. He considers RNA Society highly valuable and critical to the community. “It is like a family,” he said, “you are welcome, you are seen, you are heard, and you can always come back.” He fondly recalls his favorite RNA Society memory: “A boat trip during the RNA society meeting 2017 on the Vltava River in Prague with ~60 participants, good food, and beer was a lot of fun. The sun was setting over the lit-up Prague’s castle, a pleasant breeze was refreshing our overheated faces and everyone was amazed by the beauty and rich history of this town – it was a great moment of the unity of many different people.” 

Dr. Valasek is not on social media, but he and his lab can be found on their lab website, sporting laser-tag gear and big smiles. His favorite RNA molecule is, unsurprisingly, rRNA. Outside of lab, Professor Valasek is an avid outdoorsman whose hobbies range from skiing and climbing to cycling and scuba diving. He is fond of traveling and fine dining, and is the happy father of 3 young boys, raising them where he grew up and tending to his garden in what used to be his grandparents’ field.