A Discussion With Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado

Science, music, art, running, nature, reading: It’s hard to find something Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado is not curious about.

By day, the Stowers and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator is a pioneering regeneration expert. By night, he’s a family man who spends as much time as possible with his wife and two children, while also maintaining a generous schedule dedicated to community outreach.

Sánchez Alvarado is recognized for transforming the planaria flatworm Schmidtea mediterranea—famous for its capacity to regrow complete individuals from miniscule body parts—from an unassuming, freshwater-dwelling oddity into a powerful model system for the study of regeneration.

Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Sánchez Alvarado received a BS in molecular biology and chemistry from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a PhD in pharmacology and cell biophysics from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Among his many awards, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018 and is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Latin American Academy of Sciences.

Sánchez Alvarado joined the Stowers Institute as an investigator in 2011, with his wife, renowned developmental biologist Tatjana Piotrowski, PhD. Piotrowski also heads her own lab at Stowers, where she uses zebrafish as a model system to study early developmental processes.

How did Schmidtea mediterranea come into your life?

When I was just starting my lab, I really didn’t know which organism and what system I was ultimately going to be working on. But my clock was ticking so I began a long, systematic effort to identify a potential organism that would help us interrogate and understand the process of animal regeneration.

I spent a lot of time traveling to some centers of knowledge, usually libraries. It was like searching for treasure.

Google was just beginning to arrive. There was no Google Scholar, and the only way to get to the information I was looking for was to go to libraries and look at the primary texts, or in some cases microfiche, which I also spent a lot of time looking at. When I say microfiche, I still get dizzy. Anyone who is old enough to remember those machines will understand. Microfiche was exhausting.

Eventually, I ended up at an abandoned fountain in Parc de Montjuic in Barcelona, Spain. There was a scientist from Barcelona, Dr. Jaume Baguña, who had written his PhD thesis on Schmidtea. He had mentioned to me and others that when it rained, this abandoned fountain filled up with water, and sometimes when it filled with water the animals would come from subterraneous aquifers to the surface to eat, and that we could probably find some there. So that’s what we did. I and my then postdoctoral trainee Dr. Phil Newmark waited for the rainy season and then visited Barcelona to collect them.

What were some of your favorite libraries from that time?

I spent time in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., poring through all kinds of documents, trying to find examples of animals that regenerated. I also went to the Smithsonian Institution, looking at collections of reprints from Dr. Roman Kenk, who had recently passed away and was a former Director of the Department of Worms, as it was called at the time. Dr. Kenk was completely smitten by planarians, like many other biologists have been in the past, and had amassed the largest collection of reprints in the world of this organism.

They let me go through some of his papers, so I could try to identify the right species. I had already narrowed it down to a specific group of planarians, but I didn’t know enough about them because the literature was not really accessible. The papers in Dr. Kenk’s reprint collection were of great help in overcoming this difficulty.

I also spent a significant amount of time at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where they have a remarkable collection of scientific work that spans centuries. I could walk through the carrels, pull out the volumes that I needed, and then just read.

I spent very long days, and very long nights, which I remember with great warmth, just reading. Getting into the heads of people who were writing those papers, 100, 150, 200 years ago, and appreciating that the questions they were asking were not too dissimilar from the questions that we’re asking today, except that they did not have the necessary tools to really delve for a solution like we have today.

Why is community outreach so important to you?

I realized very early on that if we are unable to explain to our fellow citizens what we do, it should be no surprise to us at all that our work is not really appreciated. Many human beings on this planet would like to know where they came from, and that question may take a philosophical bent, a religious bent, a scientific bent. It might even take an agnostic, or a completely nihilistic bent, but it’s always there. Hence the success of companies and services providing genealogical information via DNA sequencing. The way I see it is that, irrespective of what our individual drive may be, we are a way by which life can understand itself.

When we can capture and explain the idea that the work we’re doing is aimed at understanding basic biological processes that make our lives possible and present it to our fellow citizens, neighbors, and friends, it becomes more of a shared search for answers.

You like to say that science needs the humanities. Why?

Scientists and science cannot operate in a vacuum. The fundamentally shared goals of art and science are to understand and describe the world around us. In fact, the source that brings art and science into life is a shared source. Science and nature influence art, and art can expand the appreciation of science. Art has a really good way of communicating conflicts of emotions, and conflicts of interpretations of the universe. It’s always beautiful to see how artists do this.

Scientists are very good at revealing or lifting the veils of the unknown, to see what lies beyond the known, but we are not particularly good at representing that information. So, if you can bring art and science together, and allow the full breadth of our abilities to make sense of and represent that information, it is a much easier thing to appreciate, a much easier thing to understand.

One of the things I am doing right now is bringing practicing artists into my laboratory and sharing with them what we do. They see things that we don’t see. And we show them things they have not seen. That helps all of us to see things in a completely different light, and it informs all of our respective thoughts.

How do you and your wife balance two scientific careers and family?

We are still searching. It’s like a moving target, but we work in sufficiently different fields that we can still talk about each other’s research, and criticize each other’s research, without feeling that we are either competing with each other, or have a zero-sum game where one wins and the other loses. We’ve been lucky in that regard.

It’s allowed us to keep our own voice, our own research, and our own identity and way of looking at things. We have very different approaches to science and it constantly reminds me that there is no one way to do great science. That is one of the things I really, really love about having a partner who is also a scientist.

We also invest greatly in family, because no amount of accolades will ever make up for being a bad parent. You can win every prize on the planet, and at the end of the day if you were not a good dad or a good mom to your children, those prizes are meaningless.

You have recently been named Scientific Director at Stowers. What does that mean to you and how will that affect your research programs?

Finding intellectual ecosystems in which the practice of science can be carried out rigorously and with minimal distractions are few and far between. Seven years ago, when my lab members and I moved our families and research programs to Kansas City to join the Stowers Institute, there was a sense that we had finally found a place where we could take a stab at solving difficult, complex, and stubborn problems like, in my case, regeneration. I myself felt rejuvenated.

Today, I espouse the certainty that a place like the Stowers Institute can be a fountainhead of biomedical research innovation, a place where fundamental problems of biology can be systematically and rigorously dissected, a place where scientists can follow ideas of great substance, whether they are fashionable or not. Think about it: What Jim and Virginia Stowers envisioned, and many great leaders have cultivated during the past 19 years, is nothing short of extraordinary. Ours is a veritable engine of discovery: a simultaneous and graceful act of courage and optimism in the ability of our species to vanquish the unknown.

Our Institute is unique in many respects and unlike any other I am aware of. We are relatively young and are collectively building a distinctive and distinguishing culture of excellence and collegiality. I envision the Institute’s research efforts to not only grow in depth and complexity, but also extend into novel areas of inquiry where few would dare to go, while creating new models of how to carry out great science. I consider myself fortunate that in my career I will have a chance to contribute to this unique, collective effort to advance human knowledge.