Welcome to: Dr. Oliver Billker, newly appointed Director of MIMS

Oliver Billker joined MIMS as Director in October 2018. He was previously a senior group leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and one of the lead investigators for their PlasmoGEM Malaria Programme project. Here, he tells us a bit more about his research, and what he hopes to achieve in his time at Umeå. Billker also holds a professorship at the Department of Molecular Biology, Umeå University.

2018.10.31 | Annabel Darby

Dr Oliver Billker

Could you describe your research in a nutshell?

Malaria is a disease that still kills nearly half a million people a year, mostly children under five. Our ultimate aim therefore is to find new targets for drugs and vaccines. To do this, we need to better understand how the ‘Plasmodium’ parasites that cause malaria work, how they develop, how they are transmitted between humans and mosquitos, and how they cause disease. We use rodent models, which we infect with the malaria parasites, to do this. 

During the last few years, we have developed new genetic technologies which now allow us to interrogate the whole genome of the parasite at once. Through genetic screens we can now, for the first time, find all the genes that contribute to a particular capability of the parasite. This is what sets our approach apart. In our new lab in Umeå we will use this process to look for all the parasite genes required for mosquito transmission. We will work out what they do and think about how we can use this knowledge to block transmission of the disease.

What got you interested in science in the first place?

It all started when I was given a chemistry set one Christmas. That present must have been a success, because for Easter I was given a fire extinguisher… I always wanted to know how things work, so science was really a natural career choice for me. 

My interest in malaria came later, when I began studying biology. I found the incredible complexity of parasite life cycles fascinating and liked to think about how they may have evolved. Whilst I am fascinated by the cell biology of parasites, it is also very rewarding to think that through our research we can contribute to the understanding, and ultimately to the control, of an important pathogen. 

What are you hoping to achieve as Director of MIMS, and what is your vision for the Centre?

Simply put, my role is to foster the ground-breaking research of our group leaders, and to help further their career. There is a great sense of team spirit here at MIMS, and Umeå University and the departments that host our group leaders have a very strong reputation in infectious disease research. I look forward to building on this and ensuring that it carries on well into the future. 

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Two things come to mind. An early highlight of my career, which is also relevant to the Nordic EMBL Partnership, goes back to my own years as a PhD student in London. With my PhD advisor I regularly visited EMBL, where Fotis Kafatos had just arrived from Harvard to become Director General. A highly respected Drosophila geneticist, he chose to change direction and almost single-handedly created a new research focus in Europe on mosquito-malaria interaction. His aim was to find new ways to block the spreading of malaria. To see him in action, and to play a small part in that emerging research was really a great privilege. I was incredibly impressed and inspired by his commitment, his vision, his kindness, and his ability to make things happen. Fotis then went on to become one of the founding fathers of the European Research Council. On a more personal level, I really enjoy seeing researchers that I have trained being able to combine their career successes with a happy life.

What will you be looking for as you build your group in Umeå?

My group will be largely made up of newly-recruited researchers. I’m aiming to have about ten scientists who are ambitious, creative, and who have lots of varied and unique skills. I think that bringing people from a mix of backgrounds helps to create a very dynamic and productive research group; I'm a strong believer in the idea that we can achieve far more by working together than we can by working alone. 

Do you have any initial plans for furthering collaborations within the Nordic EMBL Partnership?

It would be wonderful if we could raise funds for researchers to undertake joint projects between the nodes of the Partnership. In my experience it is such projects that function as the glue to bring people together.

What advantages and possibilities do you feel being a part of the wider EMBL universe brings for MIMS?

Many of the global challenges that infectious disease research faces can only be tackled through multidisciplinary approaches. Umeå University has a lot to offer, but the Nordic EMBL Partnership gives MIMS a unique opportunity to contribute to, and benefit from, an even broader range of high-quality science. Importantly, our EMBL connection also gives us a model of how to recruit the most talented early career scientists to Umeå.

What are you most looking forward to about living in Sweden?

That would have to be bringing the family together in one place for the first time in ten years. I’ve been travelling back and forth between the Sanger Institute in Cambridge and our family home in Oxford, where my partner has been running her research group. We will finally all be in the same city, which I’m really looking forward to. 

About Dr. Oliver Billker (from MIMS' website)

Born in Germany, Oliver Billker studied biology at Freie Universität Berlin. He earned his PhD from University of London for his thesis on “Regulation of Gametogenesis in Malaria Parasites”, which is based on studies that he performed at the Imperial College in London. Billker was from 1999-2002 postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin funded by an EMBO Long Term Fellowship and – as Marie Curie Fellow – postdoctoral fellow at the Imperial College in London. In 2003, he became Senior Research Fellow and five years later he earned associate professor status as Principle Research Fellow. Since 2007, he was a Senior Group Leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and one of the lead investigators for the PlasmoGEM project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Malaria Programme.

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