10 Questions with Martine Abboud
Martine Abboud from Lebanon is a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford.
Her doctoral research involved the use of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study two classes of enzymes which are involved in important biological processes. She studied the bacterial β-lactamases which are involved in antibiotic resistance and the human 2-oxoglutarate dependent oxygenases which are involved in oxygen sensing and epigenetics. Her work has led to novel method applications, the mechanistic understanding of these enzymes, and the development of inhibitors for them. She is currently working on metabolic enzymes involved in cancer.
Martine participated in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Martine and get inspired (an additional #LiNo18 video interview with Brian Malow can be found here):
- What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I have always been driven by curiosity. I grew up asking my parents loads of questions about everything around us. I was so fascinated by the stars and galaxies that I wanted to become an astronaut. However, during my teenage years my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. He was one of the closest people to my heart, and his illness made me question my career choices. I wanted to help people but did not feel suited to working in a hospital, so I decided to pursue a career in scientific research.
- Who are your role models?
My role model in science is a bright mind, who makes impactful contributions, and who is a beautiful human being at the same time. To me, academic merit is as equally important as being kind.
During my time in Oxford, I have discovered a genuine enthusiasm for scientific research, which has undoubtedly been enhanced by my supervisor’s support and positive attitude. Prof C. Schofield has given me the freedom to work on various fascinating and rewarding projects which span multiple areas of research. His guidance style suits my curious nature and has helped my development as a scientist enormously, allowing me to acquire practical skills in a range of topics and biochemical/physical techniques. My NMR work with Prof T. Claridge has also nurtured my passion for research even further. These two along with former mentors at LAU, Profs S. Tokajian, C. Daher, R. Taleb, and S. Ammous, are people I look up to. They have inspired me to thrive.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
At the undergraduate level, I started by learning biology to better understand physiological processes and their pathological implications. Soon after, I realised that biology and chemistry are complementary and that an understanding of both fields is important to achieve results of clinical relevance. Hence, I went for a secondary focus in chemistry, both at the Lebanese American University (LAU), from which I graduated with the President’s award for excellence and leadership skills.
The interdisciplinary doctoral programme in Chemical Biology at the University of Oxford caught my attention as I was excited to work at this interface. Coming from a minority background, I was scared of applying to Oxford because of how competitive and prestigious it is, but my mother was right – not applying is a definite rejection. I am glad I did. During my time there, I was provided with opportunities I never dreamt I would be lucky enough to have. Three years later, I graduated with a Thesis Commendation at the university divisional level, winning awards from both academia and industry.
Being Lebanese, another major challenge was securing funding. The government does not have support funds and most non-Lebanese funds are available to select nationalities. My doctoral studies would not have been possible without the support of the British Biochemical Society through the Sir Hans Krebs Memorial Award, college and departmental grants and prizes, and the guidance of my former and current mentors, to whom I am beyond grateful.
Having been granted a Junior Research Fellowship from Kellogg College, Oxford, last year, I am developing my skills further. I think basic research is important in understanding molecular mechanisms and I have enjoyed doing both proof-of-principle and applied studies. I am interested in enabling science, community, and policy to combat antimicrobial resistance and I am pursuing work on the metabolic enzymes involved in cancer with the aim of starting my independent academic group in the future.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
During my doctoral studies, I worked on antibiotic resistance and, more specifically, on metallo-β-lactamases (MBLs) which degrade the β-lactam antibiotics: the most commonly used class of antibiotics. My method development using protein-observe 19F-NMR has provided new structural insights into MBL catalysis and the requirements for inhibitor development. My work with cyclobutanone shed light on MBL mechanism and showed that it may mimic the formation of the oxyanion tetrahedral intermediate in β-lactam hydrolysis. I have studied the susceptibility of avibactam, the first clinically useful non-β-lactam β-lactamase inhibitor, to MBL-catalysed hydrolysis. The results revealed that avibactam is not an MBL inhibitor and a poor substrate of most members of all three clinically relevant subclasses of MBLs.
I have also applied NMR methods to study the human prolyl hydroxylase domain-containing protein 2 (PHD2), which is crucially involved in the chronic hypoxic response. The hypoxic response is important under normal conditions, but also at high altitudes and in cancerous conditions. My work showed that the substitution of a single amino acid, as occurs with PHD2 variants linked to erythrocytosis and breast cancer, can alter the selectivity of PHD2 towards its substrates. Competition and displacement assays were designed and applied to investigate PHD inhibitor binding modes. Comparative studies on the activities and selectivities of PHD inhibitors in clinical trials should aid in the work on the therapeutic manipulation of the natural hypoxic response.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I was beyond thrilled to be selected to represent the university at the 68th Lindau-Nobel meeting and to be named a Future Leader in my field by the American Chemical Society CAS SciFinder programme. Unlike traditional conferences, these two meetings were focused on what shapes a scientist and on the importance of science communication, leadership, outreach activities, interdisciplinary science, and global integration. All of these topics are close to my heart as I have advocated for them on internal committees in our department. My proudest moments have always been about lobbying and succeeding in introducing change to internal policies. My recent achievement, along with other committee members, was introducing management trainings for new principal investigators/group leaders. I believe that being great at science and people management are not necessarily related; these trainings will help to further create a better environment for graduate students, ensure their wellbeing, and encourage a culture of proper life-work balance.
- What is a “day in the life” of Martine like?
A day in the lab is never typical. It varies a lot depending on what types of experiment are being done. But one thing is common: we always encounter surprises! Working in a lab environment is flexible but never boring, and that’s an aspect I enjoy. A protein preparation, for instance, requires spending a few hours in a cold room (4°C) while protein NMR-ing takes an overnight run in the basement. I have spent so much time with these machines that I have even given them nicknames! Experiments do not always go as planned and this is okay. Life in research has taught me how to deal with failures, enjoy the small successes, and keep going. It is important to troubleshoot all the time as some of the most exciting discoveries in science come from mistakes. Determination, perseverance, and serendipity are keys in scientific research.
My day will, however, always include a cup of tea. Our group is very international and we enjoy sharing a dynamic environment. I end up learning exciting cultural aspects over tea most of the time. Other days in the lab involve writing or meeting with collaborators and these are as important as doing the experimental work. It is crucial to communicate our findings with the scientific community: it puts our science into perspective, shapes our future direction and, sometimes, even helps in influencing policy.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I have come to realise that success in science is not an overnight effort. It is the accumulation of years of hard work. I would love to have an independent academic career and I aspire to meaningfully contribute to society. There is nothing better than leaving a legacy. My dream is to contribute back to my society by helping build a research centre in the Middle Eastern region. I have worked with Oxford Entrepreneurs earlier this year and helped in organising the Oxford Hackathon. Over 300 students from 90+ universities attended; there are so many bright minds and ideas out there that just need to be given the right opportunities. I hope to inspire the next generation of scientists through Oxford and build bridges between science and entrepreneurship in both regions as science has no nationality.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
In my free time, I like painting and poetry writing. Science and art are complementary on various levels. Art sets me free; the alchemy of colours with no boundaries is very relaxing to me. I do enjoy attending events and talks which are stimulating and intellectually challenging. Recently, I have become interested in coding and computer science. Electronic information and machine learning are on the rise. Chemists are not meant to be lifetime technicians. Accordingly, we need to learn how to keep being creative in a technological era. Using the power of AI will help us with our daily tasks. I also write scientific articles to various magazines and blogs, contribute to different societies (including the Oxford Arab Society and Oxford Entrepreneurs), and run events and social media outlets. My ultimate guilty pleasures remain travelling and watching football though.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
As young women, we are more prone to being victims of implicit bias. We need to be more assertive in the workplace. Curiosity is the driving force of a scientist. The most exciting discoveries arise from mistakes. My advice is do not be afraid to make mistakes. Troubleshoot and think critically all the time. It might feel hard sometimes, but keep going. Do not lose confidence in yourself. Manage your time and do your tasks. There are networks of more experienced women who can help and support us; do not be afraid to speak out, reach out, and get involved.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology/medicine?
Our understanding of the human brain and of driving forces in developmental biology is still very limited. Novel discoveries in these fields will definitely be breakthroughs. The same applies to developing novel and more powerful methods enabling quicker drug discovery and deeper biological understanding.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
Encouraging women to become scientists is unfortunately not enough. If we do really want more women to be involved, we need to create the right environments for them to thrive. As much as mobility is important to provide scientists with wider perspectives, the current culture of “postdoctoral nomading” is very destabilising and difficult for people with partners and/or caring responsibilities. It should not be a prerequisite on fellowship applications; women should not feel pressurised into changing environments every couple of years. Another simple example for creating suitable environments is by not holding talks/seminars after 4 pm. People with caring responsibilities are directly excluded from these meetings and this can make them wrongly feel guilty and/or less dedicated than their colleagues. Proper life-work balance is important and nurturing; it enhances productivity and happiness.