Last 18th of January, Andrea Pauli from the IMP (Viena, Austria) visited the CABD. She gave a wonderful talk about ‘Small proteins with big roles! During her visit she met Principal Investigators (PIs) as well as members of the Junior committee and the Gender Equality Commission from the CABD. Andrea was invited by Juan Ramon Martinez Morales, a PI from our unit. She is a young female PI that started her group recently with great success. Get to know more about the interests of her group and her plans to achieve it in this interview.
Andrea Pauli during her talk at the CABD auditorium.
Please explain your research in a nutshell.
We are interested in the molecular mechanisms of embryogenesis: how do sperm and egg fuse to form a single cell, and how does a patterned organism develop? One area we have been particularly excited about is short proteins. Many of these have not yet been annotated, and their functions are still unknown. During my postdoc we discovered one of these short proteins, Toddler, that is essential for cell movement during zebrafish embryogenesis. In my own lab, we recently made the surprising discovery of another one that is expressed on the egg and mediates species-specificity of fertilization. Since it acts as the gate-keeper for the egg, we called it Bouncer. Apart from short proteins, we are also very interested in translational and post-transcriptional gene regulation in the early embryo. How is translation kicked off after fertilization, and how is the germline re-programmed into a somatic cell?
You moved as a PI to the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in 2015. What are the main reasons/advantages for you to choose this institution to develop your group?
I have complete freedom in doing the science that I want to do, with no restrictions! The IMP is part of the Vienna BioCenter, which has a fantastic setup: great colleagues, a collaborative environment and state-of-the-art facilities. Every group here is working on and excited about very different topics. I really like and value this diversity for two main reasons: there is no competition between labs on campus; and it enables collaborations between groups that work in principle on very different questions. Such collaborations greatly enrich our own science since they allow us to ask questions that we would have never been able to address on our own. Also, the hierarchy is flat, with a lot of support and interactions across labs, both at the faculty level and at the level of students/postdocs. That was very appealing to me and definitely contributed to my decision to join the IMP as a junior group leader. And apart from that, I immediately ‘clicked’ with the faculty when I interviewed here, and felt that this was the right place for me where I wanted to start my own lab.
And you can always move back to the US?
That I don’t know, maybe I can…(laughs) You never know that! I wanted to have the best possible conditions to establish my lab. And I felt that the IMP would be the right place to do the science that I wanted to do, which is curiosity-driven research. I am not afraid of venturing into new areas if I feel that we are onto something exciting, where our research can really make a difference. Having the time and also resources to actually develop something new in my own lab was very important to me.
What is your philosophy for running a lab?
I am very passionate about science, and really love what I do. I try to instill this spirit in everyone in my lab. One way how I try to achieve this is to ensure that everyone is in the driving seat of their project. I want them to ‘own’ their project, which also ensures that there is no competition within my lab. We are very diverse, what also helps in this respect, but is at the same time also a challenge. What helps here is to identify synergies and collaborations between lab members, where each one has their own project within a bigger overarching topic. My aim is to create a collaborative environment where each student can grow and learn to become an independent scientist. I would like to foster an environment where each lab member feels part of the team – so successes should be enjoyed by everyone as success of us as the Pauli lab. I have an open door-policy, and I am always happy to talk to and offer advise to my lab members. I also encourage them to discuss amongst each other, since this is super important to create a team-atmosphere where everyone contributes their part. I don’t think I am a micromanager – I want to help my students to develop their own ideas, and I want to give them the freedom to look outside of the box and to explore their own ideas. I do meet every week with my students since I see my role in providing as much guidance as they need, depending on the stage of their career.
You lead a group for a few years and were able to publish a high impact paper. What are the keys for your success?
One of the keys to my success has been to dare to go out of my comfort zone, meaning to venture into areas where I had no prior knowledge or experience in. Other people in my situation would have likely stopped. We had a phenotype that I suspected to be related to fertilization, yet I had no background in this area. I was curious to try to find out what was going on. I think one key to success is to have a good ‘nose’ to focus on questions that will lead to new insights in areas where you can make significant contributions to science. There are 400 of these small proteins, and it’s clear that not all of them will have a phenotype. So you have to have the right nose (and/or be lucky!) to pick the ones that will be interesting. We have managed twice, during my post doc and now in my own group, to discover an essential factor that we had no clue about that it existed. You also have to be persistent and keep pushing when there are set-backs. This is easily said, but hard in practice. And of course, you always need to be lucky! But as my PhD supervisor Kim Nasmyth quoted Louis Pasteur, ‘fortune favors the prepared mind’.
What impact would you like your research to have (long term)?
I would like to make discoveries that provide important insights into our understanding of how cells work and how an organism develops. Moreover, I would like to pass on the passion for science and curiosity-driven research that I feel myself, and train the next generation of scientists!
What unresolved question would you most like to answer?
There are actually several questions I would really like to answer, and it’s hard to pick a single one. If I had to pick a single one, then currently one of the biggest questions for me is how fertilization works. Despite its universality amongst sexually reproducing organisms, it’s still a big mystery how a sperm and an egg interact and fuse to give rise to a single cell, the zygote. One other question that I find fascinating is how translation is regulated in the early embryo, particularly during the egg-to-embryo transition when translation needs to be induced. Moreover, and linked to this question, why does a cell translate so many regions that do not seem to generate ‘functional’ peptides? This is still very poorly understood.
Recently you were selected as an EMBO Young Investigator Programme (YIP). How do you think this will benefit you and your lab members?
Mostly the networking opportunities! It’s a great community of people, and having been selected as a member ‘puts you on the scientific map’ in Europe. It will support me and my lab in attending conferences, and it will allow me to network and exchange ideas with other EMBO YIP awardees that are at a similar career stage. In March I’m going to attend the EMBO YIP meeting in Singapore, where we will give talks and get to know each other, and I hope that this will just be the beginning of many more fruitful interactions. I also very much like the idea of getting support to organize our own ‘brainstorming’ meetings in more focused areas. Such self-organized meetings could be a great way to interact with scientists of similar research interests in informal settings. Being part of the EMBO YIP community gives you and your science visibility across and beyond Europe.
In the picture (from left to right): Miguel Moreno-Mateos, Andrea Pauli, Juan Ramon Martinez-Morales and Juan Pablo Couso.
Thanks Andrea for your visit!