Memories from Mario A. Fares, by Santiago F. Elena

Mario Fares Riaño
Highlights, News

In September 1994, I returned to Valencia from a short research stay at UC San Diego. Full of energy, ideas and motivation to finish a few remaining experiments and to start writing my PhD dissertation. When I got in the lab, a new 4th-year undergrad student was there waiting for me. His name was Mario. At first, his accent confused me a bit. Since his last names, Fares Riaño, sounded Galician to me, I thought he was from there. But was not. He turned out to be born in Valencia but grown up in his father’s home country, Syria. That made sense, the way he always pronounced the “s” revealed his Arabic-speaking childhood. From the very beginning, Mario was interested in learning everything about virus evolution, cell cultures, quantifying fitness, and all the techniques we used in the lab those days. By far, he was the most excited and eager to learn undergrad student I had so far. He was so passionate, that a few months after, he was willing to present a paper in the group’s journal club. In English! Something that even last-year PhD students were reluctant to do...

While working in the lab, Mario and I had long conversations about his life in Syria and the Arab culture: his family, the strict school he attended, the reasons why they left the country and returned to Valencia, the difficulties to acclimatize to the new country and high school. But mainly, we talked about science, viruses, quasispecies, fitness, competitions experiments, data, statistics, computers...

Some months later, I got my PhD and headed to Michigan State University (MSU) for my postdoc. During that period of time, we kept exchanging e-mails often, so I knew how he was progressing during his last two years as undergrad. When I returned two and a half years later, Mario was there, finishing writing up his bachelor’s thesis on experimental phylogenomics using foot-and-mouth disease data. As every new assistant professor, I was struggling to begin my own research group and setting up a new lab. To my frustration, I couldn’t retain him to work with me, as he had already obtained a fellowship to do his PhD under the supervision of Eladio Barrio and Andrés Moya on the molecular evolution of the symbionin GroEL. Luckily, at that time we all moved to the brand-new building of the Institut Cavanilles for Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology. And lucky me, Eladio and I shared the same lab in the basement of the building, meaning that Mario and I were, again, in the same lab. That was a very exciting time! Full of new ideas, lots of young new people joining the lab, dissecting frozen cockroaches (what a disgusting thing!), and exciting discussions on how to tackle the role of GroEL during bacterial symbiosis from an experimental evolution perspective. Indeed, we ended up designing and running what we called our secret “project X”, which turned out being a paper published in Nature.

After completing his PhD, he was deciding between pursuing a postdoc in Rich Lenski’s lab at MSU or moving to Ken Wolfe’s lab at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). We had some intense chats about what may be a better choice in terms of science and of future. I must say this was the only time he disappointed me: he opted to go to Ireland and pursue a more comparative genomics career. The facts proved my concerns were all wrong and that his choice was good: he made his way to success fast! He quickly published a number of papers on the fate of duplicated genes and produced a number of algorithms to predict molecular covariations and to detect selective constraints along the branches of phylogenetic trees. The sky was his only limit and he was willing to get there fast. After less than two years as a postdoc, he was selected for a fully- tenured faculty position in the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, where he created his own group on Evolutionary Genomics and Bioinformatics. He won the President of Ireland Young Research Award in 2004, with a substantial budget that served to grow the lab bigger and to hire a group of brilliant students and postdocs. Shortly after, he moved his group to the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, consolidating his group and after some time becoming a fellow of Trinity – a special honor bestowed by his peers in recognition of his academic excellence.

A combination of personal and family reasons – not to mention that the cloudy grey and cold Dublin could not compete with the bright blue skies of warm Valencia – made him to decide applying for a National Research Council (CSIC) associate professor position in Molecular Systems Biology at the Institute for Molecular and Cellular Plant Biology (IBMCP), the place where I’ve been working since 2002. I can’t describe how delighted I was to hear about his decision! A great day. Obviously, he got the job and joined IBMCP a year later. Since then, I enjoyed having him downstairs as a colleague and very close friend. We went back to the long scientific discussions, designing evolution experiments with bacteria and yeast, discussing the best way to analyze data, collaborating in a few projects, traveling together to conferences (how good was the seafood at Roscoff and the spicy-to-hell huevos divorciados for breakfast at Santa Barbara!), and thinking big to create the new Institute of Integrative Systems Biology (I2SysBio), a join adventure between CSIC and the University of Valencia... Every day at 11:00, we had a coffee break with a group of colleagues (los “sunormales” cafeteros) where we fixed all the problems of the scientific system in Spain, teaching, politics, kids’ education, new cars, new houses... life itself. Mario was such a nice and friendly guy, genuinely interested in science, and he quickly established a number of collaborations with different groups at IBMCP.

Throughout his time in Valencia, he also retained his position in Trinity College Dublin. For someone else this might not have been possible, but Mario continued to teach molecular evolution to very grateful students, and also run a productive, competitively-funded research lab. On the day of his funeral the university flags were flown at half-mast in Dublin.

I have never met anyone that was so optimistic and positive as Mario was. Even during the very hard times during his illness, he never gave up. Every time we visited him at the hospital, he was sitting there working with his laptop. He was thinking of future projects and making plans to move his lab to I2SysBio at the other side of the city, writing papers and grant proposals... As we learned afterwards, even his last afternoon, he was uploading grant reviews for the Ministry.

As he told me a number of times during those bad days, he was full of energy and enthusiasm for a future with the most important things in his life: Christina, Noa and Lucia.

Thanks Mario. We all miss you, my friend.