“'Work on what motivates you and stimulates your curiosity,” Sarah Teichmann advised Roser Vento-Tormo, when she began running her own research group at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge (UK) in 2019. “It's the The best advice I have been given, I am guided by it”, explains the Spanish immunologist. “What motivates me the most as a scientist is to better understand the complexity of the immune system.”
Four years later, Vento-Tormo has just been recognized by Science magazine with a Michelson Award for Immunology. The award is given each year to three researchers "who are early in their careers [and] conducting transformative research with impact on vaccine and immunotherapeutic discovery."
In the case of Vento-Tormo, his research is focused on understanding immune tolerance, which allows the mother's immune system not to attack proteins from the fetus during pregnancy or that of adolescents not to attack proteins from the testicles during puberty. Her discoveries may shed light on how tumors develop immune tolerance mechanisms and help improve immunotherapies against cancer, according to an article published in Science on the occasion of the Michelson award, in which Vento-Tormo has been recognized with cat.
"The award has not surprised me at all," says Esteban Ballestar, who supervised her thesis at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (Idibell) between 2011 and 2016. "I was a student who wondered if the questions we asked ourselves were the best. It is not very common for someone who is starting their doctorate to tell you 'we might have to do this differently'. But she is special. She had the ambition, from a very young age, to address important issues.”
Vento-Tormo came to the Idibell precedent from the Polytechnic University of Valencia, where he had completed his degree and a master's degree in biotechnology. Fascinated by the mysteries of biology, she did not hesitate to introduce herself to Ballestar, ask him to direct her thesis and change cities. After finishing her PhD, she introduced herself to Sarah Teichmann, she offered to join her lab in Cambridge, and she packed her bags again. “In addition to being brilliant and working very hard, she is brave,” Ballestar points out.
“I am not afraid of challenges, on the contrary. That the immune system is so complex and so difficult to understand is what makes it so attractive to me”, explains Vento-Tormo. “But I am zero competitive. I understand science as a collective work and I like to cooperate, not compete. The projects need people from different fields to share their knowledge”.
He cites his own research team as an example, which includes specialists in immunology, developmental biology and bioinformatics, among other specialties. Another example is the Human Cell Atlas, an international project that aims to identify all types of cells in the human body and to which Vento-Tormo has contributed since 2016. Last year it made its most outstanding contribution with the surprising discovery of a type of cells that regulate immunity in the testicles during development that no one suspected existed.
“I get excited right away when we find out something important, but I try to be very skeptical,” she explains. Seeing that she had found a new type of cells, “first I thought ‘how cool!’ And then I thought ‘it can't be.' We had to review the data carefully, ask ourselves if there was something that we had not interpreted correctly, see if we had to do more experiments”. Once all the checks were done, it was confirmed that she had discovered a new type of immune cell, a breakthrough that was published in Nature last summer.
Intellectually restless and physically active, her favorite occupations when she is not interested in science are reading and playing sports. “I like to walk, run, swim… Here in Cambridge I go to the gym a lot. One of the things I miss about Spain is playing sports in the open air”. The other is the Pyrenees, “I really like the mountains”. She keeps great memories of her five years in Barcelona, “where I enjoyed the cultural offer, the beach, the mountains and where I have very good friends”.
He is not considering returning at this time because “the resources that I have here to investigate would not be available in Spain. It's not just the money. It is the technical means, the support staff, the entire organization that allows me to focus on science and minimize bureaucracy”. But he has established scientific collaborations with various research groups in Barcelona and Valencia, including the one in Ballestar.
“For us it is a privilege to collaborate with her”, declares the researcher, who currently works at the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute. “He treats the people with whom he collaborates well and makes you feel that you are part of a collective project. He is a person with whom you learn a lot.”