10 Questions with Melania Zauri
Melania Zauri, 31, from Italy is EMBO Postdoc at the Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
Her research interests lies in metabolic alterations that arise in cancer. A particular focus of her research in the recent years has been towards nucleotide metabolism and cancer. With her research, she is trying to understand if this pathway can be challenged to provide an avenue for cancer treatment.
Melania is a participant of the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Melania and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in science / chemistry?
I am extremely curious by nature and I have always been motivated to answer the many Why this and Why that questions which arose in my mind. Very early in my life, when I was teenager, I decided I wanted to have something to do with science. In my secondary school I had an extremely good biology teacher that always motivated us to understand things and to observe the world surrounding us. She would even take us outside on little walks to explore nature. I think that my interests towards science and later biology was shaped by this influence early in my life. My family always let me explore and find my way to the answers I wanted, nothing came really obvious for me. That is what inspired me to pursue a career in research, which is essentially the way to find answers to the challenging questions of our times.
- Who are your role models?
My role model number one is my mother. Without her energy, enthusiasm and support I would not be where I am now. She successfully managed to have a family and a working life and it will always represent for me the idea that if you want something you can really achieve it. In general I am fascinated by people that achieved something by putting a lot of effort in what they have done. It is always very motivating for me to learn that success comes from real efforts and not only by any given luck.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I am from an Italian town in the mountains in the province of L’Aquila. It is since my university years that I left it and moved to study to the oldest university in the western world: Alma Mater Studiorum of Bologna. My dad came with me when I had to sit the admission exam to get in the course in Biotechnologies. Luckily I passed it and I was admitted to this fantastic course. In Bologna I learned the fundamentals of the scientific career and a lot of life tips for a successful endeavor in the life sciences. It was there that I first entered in a laboratory and I enjoyed the successes and frustrations of a researcher. In Bologna the course had a really high reputation thanks to the modern setup established by the president of the course Prof. Masotti. Very brilliant teachers and scientists fueled my passion for molecular biology and biochemistry. I learned there to ask questions and how to answer them. In my practical development as a scientist, I would name, as of fundamental importance, Dr Bruno Amati and his team at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, where I worked on my MSc thesis on the role of Myc in stem cell biology, and Prof. Lingner and the EPFL in Lausanne, where I was admitted for a summer school working on telomeric RNA interacting proteins. Later on, I acquired my independence as a scientist under the supervision of Dr Kriaucionis at the Ludwig Cancer Research within the Oxford University. My Oxford times were gorgeous scientifically and humanely. In there, I was the first PhD student of my supervisor and I could follow my curiosity driven research step by step trying to find the answer to problems as they appeared to me. It was luckily a successful journey that did not stop my motivation to continue a scientific career. Oxford was a great time for me since I met there a lot of role models and super smart people that I always enjoyed having a chat with. My project started from epigenetic and turned into nucleotide metabolism almost from the beginning. That is where my curiosity has been growing in the recent years and in my postdoctoral career too with a desire to broaden the horizon from single genes and enzymes research into a system biology one.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I would define one of my PhD project the coolest one. It started with the idea of affecting DNA methylation in the cells by administering to them epigenetically modified nucleosides. If this would work then we had a way of reversing a pathway that frequently goes wrong in cancer. However, very early I discovered that this was not the case and later on I found out that cells are not ready to recycle these modified forms of nucleosides. Indeed, they would convert into something damaging for the cell that would lead to their death. This process was only present in certain kind of cancer cell and therefore could be used to achieve cancer specificity. For me this revealed to be a very cool project, since it challenged evolution and I could test hands on how perfect is the cellular machinery to avoid endangering itself with the incorporation of important epigenetic nucleotides. Indeed epigenetic DNA modifications are inherited through cellular replication and errors in their positioning might be lethal for the cells and the pathways that are related to them.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I almost never feel pride in myself. There was one time though where I could not believe in reality. When my PhD supervisor got back the reviewers comments from the journal I was already back home in Italy for Christmas holidays. He sent them to me and I thought: Oh no, that is the end of my holidays…When I opened the email it said that he considered them extremely good and I could stay home and enjoy the rest of my holidays. In there I realized that I could felt proud of my work.
- What is a “day in the life” of Melania like?
My typical wet lab scientist day starts around 8 am at home where I check literature while having breakfast. Around 9 am I get to the laboratory and start my day typically in tissue culture or with experiments I think will take longer time. In my intervals or incubation times I check my emails and if long, I catch up on literature or I schedule meetings with coworkers. In my spare time, something I enjoy doing, to share my enthusiasm, is science communication (at the moment I manage the Twitter account of my laboratory!). I typically get out of the laboratory around 6 pm to 7 pm and sometimes keep working on data analysis from home. I prefer to be quiet and relaxed and work from home if I have only computer work to accomplish. I need my cooking time and some friends/family time every day and this usually I manage to get it in the evenings.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
In my career I would like to make an impact with my research for people suffering from cancer. This would be for me a life fulfilling achievement. In order to accomplish this, at some point of my career I would like to develop a small team of investigation into challenging areas of cancer research. I would also appreciate the possibility to do some teaching, as this would allow me to give back to the community what I got from my teachers: enthusiasm for science.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
If I am not in the lab my curiosity is oriented towards music and cultural activities. At the moment in Vienna I had the opportunity to join the choir of St Augustin, one of the best in town. Additionally, I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle and therefore I enjoy cooking from scratch, sourcing good ingredients for my meals and doing a bit of sport to challenge my body. At the moment I am a bit into running as I would like to qualify to run the New York Marathon at some point in my life.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in science / chemistry?
I would say persistence and a bit of self-confidence are good advices. I would also stress the fact that a good work-life balance and psychological state help in building confidence and in believing that one is the best supporter of himself. I would say that in many difficult moments or when women are perceived as disadvantaged, it is best to keep strong and to demonstrate that we do not owe things to other people and we can equally compete with man.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / chemistry?
In cancer research, the next breakthrough will be probably the clinical application of the protein degradation technology. Thanks to this technology any protein that can be specifically targeted by a molecule can be selectively degraded. It offers hopes in the targeting of previously thought undruggable genes.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
I think that this is a cultural problem of education and until there will be gender discrimination at school or within the families, women will believe to be inferior to man. I was lucky to grow up in a family that raised me and my brother very similarly on this aspect, as my mother was convinced that man and woman should be considered equals. In many contexts I see this was not the case for everybody. On the other side, I see that in Austria, for example, very limited experiments in a wet laboratory can be conducted as soon as you declare you are pregnant. This might be disadvantageous for women and there should be compensatory mechanisms in place to make sure that this time is not professionally wasted. Many of these things I believe should be discussed at EU level and unified across research locations in the EU.
First photo: credit to Martin Fritzsche.