The last of a 3-part series featuring members of our ECR community, with a glimpse into what drew them to life sciences, and where they're at in their careers.
What were you like as a child?
Growing up in Bari, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, I wanted to be a fisherman. At school, I was definitely a maths-and-science type and I would spend hours watching documentaries and reading up about animals. Relatives aware of my passion would even bring newspaper articles to our house to fuel my clippings collection.
What led you to choose the field of cancer?
That word, “cancer”, has been part of my universe since I can remember. I lost my father to the disease when I was six and instantly had that childhood dream of one day “fighting back”. Then, in the early 2000s, a book by Umberto Veronesi, an Italian oncologist, touched me greatly. At a time when cancer remained a taboo subject for society, Veronesi’s unfailing campaign to make sure that it could - and should - be talked about, and to turn the focus from the disease to the patient was really inspiring.
How did you select your university studies?
Nearing the end of high school, I was uncertain whether to opt for biology or medicine. At the University of Bari open day, I discovered a relatively new section of the university: biotechnology. The field covered the middle ground between classic biology and medicine and I liked that it seemed more proactive and into problem solving. This, combined with the fact that all its professors were a great deal younger than the average, sealed my choice. I did my bachelor’s and master’s in Bari, joining the lab of Prof. Thomas Vaccari at the Campus IFOM-IEO in Milan for my thesis - my first step as a scientist.
After your master’s, were you set on a career in academic research?
Like many, I was aware early on that academia should not be my plan A; it should be plan C or D because there is no certain path or security in academia! So, I decided to explore the other opportunities open to me and enrolled in a second master’s, in management of biomedical products, at a business school in Rome in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson. Though I enjoyed the syllabus, I realised I carried the "sacred flame" of research and at the end of the master’s I applied for subsequent PhD opportunities, supported by one of my fist mentors, Prof. Susanna Cotecchia.
I visited Vienna, Zurich and Basel but when I came to interview at the EPFL, Lausanne immediately became my preferred choice. I was accepted for its 2013 Doctoral program in Molecular Life Sciences (EDMS), in the laboratory of Prof. Daniel Constam, supported by the ISREC Foundation.
Do you know how many of your fellow university students are still in academic research?
Of our class of fifty, the vast majority went on to do a PhD. I would say half of them are still in academia. The others have moved to industry, or teaching in secondary education.
How do you view your PhD experience, looking back?
The whole experience opens your mind. Going into it, you think it only relates to science but it is so much more than that, and so enriching. You need to be organised, deliver a message, master the soft skills - including the ability to communicate about your science, and put in teaching hours. Doing a PhD also involves a lot of project management; on one hand, you have your duties, and on the other, you have your expectations. You learn to find a way not to collide your idea with the ones of your boss or colleagues! If I had to do it over again, it would be without hesitation.
Working with Daniel Constam at the EPFL was great and I consider myself lucky to have been in his team. With the many learning curves of a PhD, it’s so important to have colleagues who support and motivate you.
You mentioned teaching duties as a PhD. Did you enjoy that?
The teaching assistant’s role generally involves providing support to bachelor’s or master’s students for exercises or bench-related work. This can be challenging as it makes you “start over”, and we are all prone to forgetting how hard it was to learn -which makes teaching a great exercise in empathy! There’s a Latin phrase - docendo discimus- that states: I learn by teaching. I think that’s so true.
How did you come to join the Vannini lab?
It's important to be dynamic in research. At EPFL, I was working on fundamental cancer biology and I wanted to move towards translational research. My interest in metabolism coincided with Nicola opening a position for a postdoc in 2019. I found his research super interesting and a fit with my need for a new challenge. I also appreciated the outside-the-box thinking behind his work.
What do you enjoy most about your current position?
As a postdoc, I relish that I still have the chance to learn so much on how to manage a project, and how to perform experiments -not forgetting the science, of course! My focus is on T cells but as we are just three lab members with Nicola, we really help each other in experiments and in the analysis of our data. This allows me to learn a lot about the lab’s other projects. The times when you see that your hypothesis was not correct can be tough. But in those situations we are there for each other with ideas on how to move on, and to give a sense that, in a lab, no one is “alone”.
What do you consider the challenges of working in science?
Both that come to mind are evolving but remain key. One, is being able to do research within an integrated community. Different specialisations bring as many perspectives and in environments such as have been created, for example, at the AGORA in Lausanne, having exchanges between different experts, from different corners of the world, definitely accelerates success.
Communications is also really important. If our work is only spoken about in the lab, then it is a lost opportunity. Sometimes, as scientists, we are in our ivory tower with our jargon and we wonder why people are not hanging on our every word. Whilst the public may sometimes lack the motivation to inform itself, it is, more often, because we scientists have not given them the tools to do so.
After your postdoc, what’s next?
I have another 2 years before funding on my position ends. I will decide on my next step, based on how the super interesting project I’m on evolves, and family considerations. My daughter was born the week of the COVID lockdown in Switzerland; I am a total science fanatic but, as for many, the COVID experience underlined to me how important a life balance is.
Other than becoming a PI or group leader, postdocs who want to stay in academia can apply to be a lab manager or a senior scientist. To be a PI, you of course need to publish as much as possible. Bearing in mind that academia is one of the top-5 competitive fields, personally I took this opportunity to learn techniques and methodologies relevant to non-academic positions. As a postdoc, you practice leadership and part of that is being honest enough with yourself to decide if you have the enormous skill and motivation it takes, or whether you would be more aligned to other career options.
And finally, name a key quality a scientist needs?
Being brave enough to change the mindset. From early on, we learn science as a dogma but as soon as you’re part of the scientific community you realise everything is in flux. It is a constant learning process; we are hypothesis driven and when we find we’re wrong we have to come up with another hypothesis. That’s what makes scientists so resilient!
On being a postdoc in Vannini lab…
What does the Vannini lab work on?
Nicola’s fields of interest are hematopoietic stem cells, T cells, metabolism and aging.
What impact does this work potentially have on effective cancer treatment?
The scope of our research holds a huge potential for therapeutic approaches in general. In hematopoietic stem cells and T cells, you are dealing with two key systems. On top of their complexity, Nicola’s idea is to add two further layers: those of metabolism and aging.
Historically, the field of metabolism stood as the study of countless chemical reactions, compounds and metabolites, considered relevant in the context of weight loss. Today, we are dissecting the complicated link between the metabolism and the function, the differentiation state, and the activity of a given cell. If we act on the metabolism of a given cell, maybe we can affect its activity. The hope is of course, in the long term, to uncover a nutritional approach to ward against cancer, through diet and/or changes to the gut microbiome, as has proven effective in Crohn’s disease, for example. We know that the gut microbiome can effect immunotherapy. So, by extension, diet can effect immunotherapy.
Aging is another factor that seems just too evident to overlook. Aside from a few forms of the disease, most cancers affect older patients, 50 years and above. Yet the majority of animal models typically used in laboratory research are young. To give you a sense: the average age of a mouse model is equivalent to - and mimics - 10 years of age in humans. Our research on aging in the Vannini Lab is involved in working with cells that come from older mice.
All images, including @Twitter, are courtesy and copyright of Vannini Lab.