As a postdoctoral fellow at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC, Peter Fabian, PhD, has consistently excelled in his work. Only three years after joining the USC Stem Cell laboratory of Gage Crump, PhD, to study craniofacial development in tiny zebrafish embryos, Fabian has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pathway to Independence Award. Known as the K99/R00, the award will help him transition from the postdoctoral to the faculty stage of his career.

In the past four years, two other postdoctoral fellows from the Crump Lab received K99/R00s and successfully transitioned to tenure-track assistant professorships: Lindsey Barske, PhD, at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and Joanna Smeeton, PhD, at Columbia University. Fabian is the third member of the Crump Lab to earn the prestigious award. In a recent interview, he discussed his research and life outside the lab.

Tell me about your NIH fellowship project.

Stem cells reside in specialized microenvironments called “niches.” My project investigates a new population of cells that may function as a niche to support skeletal stem cells, allowing them to maintain and repair the vertebrate face. My work can provide new insights into how proper niche function ensures normal development and maintenance of the skull, and how genetic mutations impair niche function and cause craniofacial birth defects in humans.

What inspired you to become a stem cell researcher?

I just love science. I did my studies as a biochemist, but my real passion for biology started at Charles University in Prague. Seeing how developing fish embryos change from hour to hour under the microscope is one of the most fascinating things I have experienced. When I’d show that to almost anybody, immediately, they’d start to ask how or why questions. I believe that by understanding the fundamental processes of developmental biology, we will be in a better position to control stem cells to help human patients.

How do you spend your free time?

I try to be with my family as much as possible, and then it doesn’t really matter where we are or what we are doing. Every day, I try to spend a couple of hours with my kids.

What do you like most about living in Los Angeles and working at USC Stem Cell?

Possibilities in Los Angeles are really endless. I enjoy having the opportunity to relax with my family in nature or nearby parks. I live couple of miles from our campus, so I bike to lab. And what I like most about the Crump Lab are the people. It is a pleasure to work with them. I also appreciate the huge support from USC Stem Cell.

What do you miss most about your native country of Slovakia?

Of course, our families and friends, whom we now miss even more. I also miss Slovak and Czech beer. And honestly, I would appreciate functional public transportation here in Los Angeles.

What is the goal of your career?

I’m inspired by my mentor Gage Crump and my colleagues, as well as the environment here at USC. After my postdoc, I’d like to start my own lab and continue exploring the interactions of stem cells and their environment. I believe that the animal models that I am establishing as part of my postdoc training will be useful not only to me, but also to the broader scientific community.

How have you been spending your time outside of the laboratory during the COVID-19 remote work period?

The first couple of weeks, I was considered essential personnel. I spent a couple of hours every day in our vivarium, feeding 25,000 zebrafish. Then we worked on finishing a paper. However, I need to come back to lab to finish the last experiments. I’ve spent endless hours behind the computer on Zoom meetings and analyzing single cell sequencing data. The most challenging has been to combine all this work effort with home-schooling my children and getting used to the new “normal.”

Has the pandemic been a source of additional stress as you pursue an already competitive academic career?

On top of the pandemic, travel bans and curfews, we are witnessing a huge, historical movement for equality. All of it is definitely adding uncertainty and stress, but also excitement and optimism. My wife Zuzana is helping me face these situations every day. She is very supportive. Without her, I wouldn’t be here.

— Cristy Lytal