After months spent working on papers and coding projects from home, postdoc Andres Florez Amaya of the Garner Lab was one of the several Harvard researchers who re-entered the physical labs in late June.
“It has been relatively smooth so far,” Florez says. “One thing I find interesting about this new schedule is that it seems to make me more efficient, in the sense that you have to plan your week in advance because you only have one week…And then next week you can sit down and analyze data and think about experiments, although it can become exhausting at times.”
Returning to the bench still requires many precautions: most lab workers can only go to the on-campus lab in small groups every other week; distance from other people must be maintained at all times; every surface they touch must be wiped down; and, of course, everyone has to wear masks in the lab.
During the shutdown, Florez kept himself busy at home by taking online courses in management, attending online conferences, and building a computer program to analyze microscope images. The program plays the “Hallelujah!” chorus at full volume whenever it finishes a data set. Still, returning to the lab was a relief. “Sitting down and writing software was great, but I was excited to go back. It felt like the first day of school,” he says.
Florez originally hails from a city in Colombia, near the border with Venezuela. He lived there with his mother, who worked as a civil engineer and built bridges. Coordinating construction crews as a woman was often challenging, especially when dealing with her systemic lupus. “My mother was the model of perseverance for me,” Florez says. “Looking at her as a person who never gives up was fundamental for my career.”
His mother and his grandmother were religious but gave him nonfiction books and encyclopedias to learn about the outside world. Florez recalls liking biology as a kid. When he was in high school, a prominent Colombian scientist gave a guest lecture at his school. “He was saying, ‘Whatever you do in science, if you do it for the good of people, that’s going to give you a purpose,” Florez recalls. “That resonated a lot with me.”
After undergrad at Universidad de Pamplona, Florez traveled to Medellín, the second-largest city in Colombia. Though his interest in biology and medicine grew, there weren’t many opportunities for undergrads to conduct research at Pamplona. Going straight into a Ph.D. program would be a challenge, so Florez took a job as a research assistant at Universidad de Antioquia, and wrote to Stanford professor Russ Altman, asking to participate in Altman’s online “Introduction to Bionformatics” class. His request was granted. “Very few people in Colombia at the time was doing bioinformatics …so it was amazing to have access to that,” Florez says.
The experience encouraged Florez to apply for opportunities in the United States. In 2010, he arrived in Boston for the first time to conduct research in Jeremy Gunawardena’s lab at HMS. “It felt like a dream to be exposed to great science, great discussions and so much passion for science ,” Florez said.“When I was at Harvard, it was the first time I did wet lab, and it was challenging when also doing computational work at the same time…My supervisor was impressed that I managed to get interesting results in the short time I was there, and I think it was all about the passion.”
Afterward, Florez headed to a graduate program at the German Cancer Research Center (DFKZ). Though the labs were run in English, he says that adjusting to Germany was more difficult than adjusting to Boston. One factor was that native German-speakers, even when speaking in English, tend to structure their thoughts differently from Americans.
His thesis research centered on a type of childhood cancer called neuroblastoma, which typically disappears on its own. Florez wanted to know why this cancer went through “spontaneous regression.” After many experiments, Florez and his colleague Hamed Alborzinia, found evidence that the cancer recedes through a process called ferroptosis, where exposure to high levels of iron kills the cell. “When cells are exposed to iron and there’s oxidative stress, the membranes in the cell get heavily oxidized, and then they break,” Florez explains. Cancer cells are uniquely vulnerable to ferroptosis, because they grow so quickly, consuming huge amounts of iron and producing lots of reactive oxygen species. In childhood neuroblastoma, Florez and his colleagues found that the rate of cell death through ferroptosis overtakes the cancer’s growth, causing the tumor to die on its own.
In his current work, Florez is investigating how bacterial cells control their growth and whether ferroptosis also plays a role in controlling bacterial multiplication. He uses CRISPR,degrons, microfluidics, and advanced microscopy to figure out how bacteria sense their growth and adjust their cell machinery to either speed up or slow down. He has found key genes that dictate the speed by coordinating DNA replication with growth. His other experiments show that bacteria can sometimes die through ferroptosis, although he says this finding is still preliminary.
He met Garner at a conference on bacterial growth in Germany. “My first impression of Andres when I met him was:‘This guy is great! Really smart, extremely quantitative, and really friendly and collaborative,’” says Garner. “I’m really glad he joined us, he is an invaluable addition to the lab: excitable, outgoing, and super helpful,” Garner adds. “And his research, which has taken off in the last year, I expect to blow people’s minds in the field. He also is an ‘experimental early adopter’; he loves to test out any new technology he sees.”
As a Harvard postdoc, Florez had the opportunity to participate in Clubes de Ciencia, an initiative that organizes educational workshops for students in Latin America. The workshop Florez taught took place in his hometown. “When I was in the Clubes de Ciencia, I saw so much talent,” he says. “I still have contact with the kids from my Club…It’s all about passion…Action comes from your motivation, from your determination. And, given the right environment, kids can definitely be here, at the top universities. We are insecure because we come from developing countries, and we think we don’t know much, but we are talented, and we are creative. We are good at problem-solving.”
Though his current research focuses on cell growth, Florez wants to use his bacillus genetic engineering knowledge to counteract COVID-19. One idea he is developing is to engineer bacillus spores to express COVID-19 antigens for vaccine production and work on a vaccine that can be delivered to developing countries.
Florez plans to start his own lab in the not-too-distant future and hopes that his lab can help address the growing concerns about mental health in academia. But his research will focus on the same fundamental questions that have fueled his passion for biology since he was young. “When I was in undergrad, one thing that would always strike me is: How do you make a living system? Why are the cells alive? But this is kind of a philosophical question,” Florez says. “Nobody knows!”