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Dr Tom Levy

What is your field of expertise?

I am a marine biologist studying different aspects of reproduction in aquatic organisms. My fields of expertise include stem cell biology, reproductive physiology and endocrinology, as well as applying molecular biology tools to the development of biotechnologies for aquaculture and biocontrol. In my current research I am using flow cytometry, single-cell RNA sequencing and in-vivo stem cell transplantation techniques to study gonadial development and germline stem-cell competition mechanisms in a colonial tunicate.

Tell us briefly on your academic path?

I studied Marine Biology and Biotechnology at Ben-Gurion University and pursued a 2-year research project supervised by Prof. Moshe Kiflawi at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat studying factors affecting cleaning interactions by Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse. Following graduation with summa cum laude, I started the direct track to a PhD in Life-Sciences at BGU studying crustacean physiology and endocrinology mentored by Prof. Amir Sagi. During my PhD, I was lucky to perform my research over four continents while investigating genomic, transcriptomic, and physiological aspects of crustacean sexuality. Using gene manipulations and extensive fieldwork worldwide, I contributed to the development of a novel all-female biotechnology in prawns, revealed molecular insights behind naturally occurring sex-transformation in Alaskan and Mediterranean shrimps and performed a genetic study on intersexuality in the Australian redclaw crayfish that yielded a patent application valuable for aquaculture. Nowadays, I'm a postdoctoral researcher in Prof. Irv Weissman's laboratory at Stanford University's Stem Cell institute and Hopkins Marine station. My current research uses a colonial marine tunicate as a model to explore how germline stem cells compete to establish the gonad within an individual and define the determining factors behind the fitness of the fittest stem cells.

What type of research you do (what excites you mostly)?

I am excited to do research in which we don't only answer fundamental questions, but also harness the answers to those questions for innovative applications that may contribute towards humanity. For example, during my PhD, while studying sex control in crustaceans, a new window opened into the understanding of reproductive physiology of aquatic invertebrates, and we were able to apply this knowledge to develop biotechnology for all-female prawn populations. The latter are of global importance for yield improvement in sustainable aquaculture and for biocontrol over invasive organisms and parasites hazardous to humans and fish. Moreover, through my postdoctoral research, studying germline stem-cell competition in a tunicate will extend our understanding about evolutionary fitness from single organisms to single cells and, in the future, findings from this project may be relevant for applied biomedical studies in the field of human fertility.

How was your experience as a postdoc so far?

Doing research in a historical marine station at the heart of California's central coast presents a unique opportunity to meet and collaborate with marine scientists from different disciplines while exploring one of the richest, most dynamic, and diverse marine ecosystems on earth. Overall, it is an extremely exciting, interesting, and challenging scientific and cultural journey.

What are your professional plans/ aspirations?

The Red and Mediterranean Seas are unique ecosystems experiencing enormous challenges due to the continuous global climate change. Additionally, novel biotechnologies for aquaculture and mariculture are essential to provide food security for the increasing world population while oceanic sources are exhausted. Therefore, following my postdoctoral period, I plan to return to Israel and establish my research group that will harness unique tools from stem-cell biology, molecular biology, and physiology to study life-histories and reproduction of aquatic organisms. This approach will allow to address issues of invasive species and conservation efforts of vulnerable species. Moreover, the importance of food from marine sources and the ocean as a source for applied biomimetics are noted in recent years. Hence, I also aspire to focus on those issues which are enforcing the need for domestication of new species for aquaculture and mariculture and the development of technologies for yield improvement and novel sea-based products.

Can you give an advice to your younger self or a new postdoc?

Step out of your comfort zone. It is not a continuation of your PhD but a unique opportunity to conduct independent research under a less familiar academic and cultural environment. Try to learn new skills and not only practice your previous skills. Expose yourself to as many potential collaborators as possible. Make big efforts to be part of the new community you live in rather than consider yourself as a guest.

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