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Sound instincts: Ignacio Sancho-Martinez specializes in crossing boundaries

The accompanying music doesn't satisfy. The drummer's role on the computerized recording is too repetitive. Boring. So Ignacio Sancho-Martinez ups the tempo, adding his own fills, changing the rhythm. Now it's more syncopated. Unpredictable. "I follow my instincts," he says. "I play what I feel."

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Ignacio Sancho-Martinez

It's that willingness to explore novel paths that's characterized how the Salk postdoctoral researcher has pursued his scientific career. Straddling disciplines and cultures, his ever-curious mind draws connections where none were noticed.

A native of Spain, Sancho-Martinez holds degrees in several fields. He graduated from the University of Oviedo with a bachelor's in biology and a master's in genetics and biotechnology before moving to the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. There he studied the migration of cancer cells, especially glioblastoma, eventually identifying a new signaling pathway of this deadly cancer. His team's findings are currently being used by a biotech company in clinical trials. Eager to expand his sphere of knowledge, he went on to earn a doctorate in mathematics and natural sciences, then moved to the United States and the Salk Institute in 2010.

Having lived and worked in three different countries with three distinct cultures suits Sancho-Martinez just fine; he feels that changing boundaries can change your outlook. "As scientists," he says, "we tend to focus on the research and data within our own fields. But if you look around and explore other fields, you make novel discoveries. "It was when I was working with glioblastoma in Germany that I decided I needed to go back to the basics," he continues. "If I am really focused on oncology, I told myself, I need to understand how cancer cells work, how stem cells work. That's what led me to the Salk."

Now in the Gene Expression Laboratory, headed by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, he challenges himself with a variety of projects, each equally attractive to his agile mind. "One of my favorites involves the endogenous regenerative response—the way the body regenerates damaged organs— especially as it relates to the mammalian heart."

Without skipping a beat, he adds, "And another project, the one that has probably always been in the back of my mind is utilizing reprogramming approaches to cancer cells, the idea of dedifferentiation, which is the regression of a cell to a more embryonic, non-specialized form. There are so many questions to be answered."

As he ponders the as-yet-unknowns, he grows more animated: "How do you regulate gene expression? How can you do it without iPSCs [induced pluripotent stem cells]? How do you get cells to revert to an intermediate state? The reversibility of cancer cells is very exciting."

Sancho-Martinez credits Izpisua Belmonte with creating a lab atmosphere conducive to this kind of intellectual roaming. "I like to wander around and see what other people are doing," he says. "It's not like that at every facility, you know. The Salk is very collaborative. Do you know how amazing it is that I can walk into a completely different lab and talk to the professor about what he or she is doing? They can tell you things that you never thought about. That takes you out of the box. That opens up possibilities, opens up the mind."

Izpisua Belmonte is more than happy to encourage Sancho-Martinez's curiosity. "He is an exceptional scientist and extremely bright," he says. "He consistently brings new and fresh ideas to our team. And he is unmatched in his passion and dedication to science." That restless mind keeps him exploring outside the lab, too, continually seeking new areas of study and making new connections. Take music, for instance.

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From left: Emmanuel Nivet and Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte. Seated: Ignacio Sancho-Martinez

He and some friends started a band in Spain when he was about 17, even though none of them knew how to play. Each simply chose an instrument, and Sancho-Martinez ended up with the bass guitar. Together they began playing hard rock, and while it was a lot of fun, they mostly got paid in beer. When Sancho-Martinez moved to Germany, he decided to get serious about his music and began taking lessons. "I wanted to play classic rock, like Led Zeppelin or AC/DC," he says. "But one day my instructor put on some music that was like nothing I'd ever heard. 'What is that?' I asked. 'It's jazz/fusion,' he said. And that opened up a whole new passion for me. Now I really like jazz, especially from the '50s. John Coltrane is a favorite."

But jazz is just one genre, and the guitar is just one instrument. There are so many other avenues to explore, including his current interest: drums. "This is a completely new world for me because it's basically about a feeling, just going with the music and then adding your own riffs and beats," he says. "I'm teaching myself because there's so much instructional software out there, and then I let myself improvise, just follow the groove."

Electronic drums and headphones allow him to practice without disturbing his neighbors, but the sessions are so stimulating that he won't allow himself to play the drums at night; he saves that for the morning. "I'm a big coffee drinker," he says, "so I brew some espresso, and then I sit down and drum for about 15 minutes. It's really a great way to start the day. Then I shower and head to work."

It's a routine he loves. "I don't see my work as a job. It's good to get paid, of course, but there's a duality to it. You follow your instincts, you go down the path because you're curious. Where is my research going to lead me next? You're just always exploring."