Meet molecular biologist Jonatan Matalonga-Borrel

| Written by Monica May
Jonatan Matalonga-Borrel, Ph.D. in the lab

Matalonga-Borrel is on the hunt for a treatment that could help children born with a rare, life-threatening condition

Thanks to the sequencing of the human genome, scientists have helped parents get answers to the cause of mysterious conditions that have affected their children. Now, researchers are tackling a new challenge: translating this knowledge into life-altering medicines.

Molecular biologist Jonatan Matalonga-Borrel, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Dong lab at Sanford Burnham Prebys, is at the forefront of this effort. We caught up with Matalonga-Borrel as he prepares to take the virtual stage at DASL (the Diversity and Science Lecture Series at UC San Diego) to learn more about his work and his interests outside of the lab.

Jonatan Matalonga-Borrel at Torrey Pines Golf Course
When not in the lab, Matalonga-Borrel can often be found at Torrey Pines Golf Course, which is located across the street from Sanford Burnham Prebys.

Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?
I actually wanted to be an airplane pilot until my senior year of high school. But during the application process, I learned that I have very mild color-blindness, so I had to quickly decide what I wanted to do next. I pivoted to biology, a topic where I had some interest, thinking I would become a teacher. Then, when I was in college, I got the opportunity to complete a lab internship, which is where I discovered my passion for research. I would have never guessed that I would be where I am today, leading a project that might directly help families and children.

What do you study, and what is your greatest hope for your research?
I study Alagille syndrome, a rare disease that affects kids from the day they are born. Many organs are affected, especially the heart and the liver, and almost half of these children die before the age of 19.

Luckily, Alagille syndrome is associated with mutations in only two genes, both belonging to the same pathway, called Notch. This makes our goal easier to achieve: identify drugs that target Notch, which currently don’t exist. I'm excited that we've identified a promising option. My greatest hope is to create a medicine that truly helps these children and their families, who currently live without any treatment.

Jonatan Matalonga-Borrel poses with his son
Matalonga-Borrel poses with his son. He is grateful for Skype, which allowed his parents to “meet” their first grandchild despite the pandemic.

When you aren’t working in the lab, where can you be found?
You will likely find me playing golf at Torrey Pines! There is nothing like playing a twilight round, feeling a slight breeze and looking at the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. With that said, since I became a father, my golfing time has been severely impaired. Now it’s most likely that you’ll find me at home, entertained by the early stages of development of my son...and changing a lot of diapers!

What do you wish people knew about science?
How patient one has to be to move science forward. It can take weeks—or months—of trial and error until a big breakthrough happens.

We live in a world that seems to spin faster and faster. It is critical for our society to understand that proper science is not about rushing experiments. It is about setting the right ones.

How do you think your lab colleagues would describe you?
Upbeat, reliable and organized (hopefully!).

How has the pandemic affected your life?
I had my first baby last June, and the pandemic prevented any relatives to come from our home country, Spain, and meet their first grandchild. Thankfully, we had Skype to get in touch. Looking on the bright side, daycares have never been so clean, and the rate of sickness around kids has dropped significantly!

What is the best career advice you have ever received?

“Have fun and make friends,” from Dr. Eduardo Chini of the Mayo Clinic. It is possible to do great science and have fun—don’t feel guilty about it. My best collaborations came from my greatest friendships among colleagues.

What do you wish people knew about Sanford Burnham Prebys?
It’s an amazing community. Science moves forward thanks to communication and collaboration and it wouldn’t happen without a strong sense of community. This includes wise faculty members who train graduate students and postdocs, an Office of Education and International Services that offers year-round seminars and workshops, and a group I am part of, called SBP-Social Network (SBP-SN), which organizes fun social and scientific events. All of this creates a place where scientific excellence thrives.

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