Published 30 May 2017 by Ulrike Böhm

The Breakthroughs Make It More Than Worthwhile, Says Shiran Barber-Zucker

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Shiran and get inspired.


Photo: Courtesy of Shiran Barber-Zucker
Photo: Courtesy of Shiran Barber-Zucker


Shiran Barber-Zucker, 29, from Israel is a PhD candidate in the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The cation diffusion facilitator (CDF) protein family has a critical role in maintaining the homeostasis of divalent transition metal cations; hence, they are important for normal cell function, as revealed by analysis of mutant CDF proteins that were found to be associated with severe diseases, such as skin lesion in infants, Parkinsonism and type-II diabetes. Shiran uses diverse structural, biochemical, biophysical and computational methods to study the relationship between the structure and function of these proteins and, more specifically, to understand the role of their regulatory domain and their metal selectivity mechanism.


What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

I am fascinated by the complexity of living organisms and amazed by evolution from childhood. When I was studying biology and chemistry in high school, I became interested in the interface between these two worlds – and specifically on how seemingly ordinary molecules in one situation can constitute life in another. There are so many fundamental questions that still need to be answered in the broad field of biochemistry, and ever since high school, I knew I want to be part of the effort to understand them.


Who are your role models?

If I have to choose one person who inspired me the most, that must be my father. He was injured in his military service when he was only 20 years old, fought for his life and after a long rehabilitation he learned how to talk and walk again. Ever since he constituted a fulfilled life and was the one who taught me to never give up and always strive to the top.


How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I feel as if I always knew I wanted to practice science. Before high school, I wanted to study medicine, but once I started to study chemistry and biology I knew that this is what I want to do in life – solve problems that relate to these fields. I started studying chemistry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and as an undergraduate student I found many different biochemistry aspects fascinating. I wanted to explore different fields and types of biochemical and biophysical research and worked in three labs, each using very different approaches, before finding the right place for me. In my current lab, an X-ray crystallography lab, where I am doing my PhD, I am free to use whatever methods needed to answer my research question. My supervisor, Prof. Raz Zarivach, believes in multidisciplinary research and wide collaborations in order to get a broad perspective on the topics we study, which is something I much appreciate. This is how I get to practice today many (but really, many) methods and to collaborate with researchers from very different fields from around the world.

Science is one of the most fulfilling occupations one can have.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

It has to be one of my current projects. We study magnetotactic bacteria in the lab, Gram-negative bacteria that biomineralize iron-based, nano-sized magnetic particles that enable them to sense magnetic fields. One of the projects that I am involved with is using genetic manipulation to change the magnetic properties of the magnetic particles and to utilize these new magnets for different biotechnological applications, from heavy-metal contamination removal to MRI and cancer treatments.


What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

Every time I give a talk in a conference I understand the importance of my work. I think that students sometimes feel as if our everyday work is very repetitive or boring and that we are studying a very niche subject – only the tip of the tip of a much broader scientific question. When I build my talks, I understand how all my different results gather to a whole picture, and when I present it, get positive responses from the audience and people are asking questions and are interested in my study, I feel satisfied and know that my persistence and long hours of work are definitely worth it.


What is a “day in the life” of Shiran like?

Since my work is versatile I don’t have a “common day in the lab”. You can catch me growing cells, purifying proteins, trying to crystallise proteins or scan protein crystals, which are all things I am doing in my home lab. You can often see me working on the computer, either for reading recent literature, running some computational studies (programming, data mining, etc.), solving crystal structures or analysing results of different experiments. You can also find me running experiments using different biophysical equipment in different labs in the university or quite often in other institutions running experiments with collaborators and sometimes measuring protein samples/crystals in synchrotrons abroad. I am also devoting a large part of my time to teaching during the semesters: preparing laboratories, exams, frontal teaching and meetings with students. All of that is usually accompanied by music and at least by two coffee/tea breaks with my lab colleagues when we exchange knowledge and consult each other on scientific matters (well, we actually usually just talk nonsense issues…).


Photo: Courtesy of Shiran Barber-Zucker
Photo: Courtesy of Shiran Barber-Zucker


What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I always tell my husband that I married an engineer just so he will bring the money and I will be able to do whatever I like, and I think I am quite successful doing that so far. Being a cliché, my biggest accomplishment would be if I wake up every morning and be happy to go to a work I enjoy. No matter what format I will choose, I have no doubts that I will practice science, and I would be more than happy to impact society using the skills I achieved in academia: on a personal level by mentoring younger scientists, but mainly on a global level – to see that my research leads, directly or not, to the creation of a new, helpful product.


What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

The first answer has to be eating – I am a real foodie and I love exploring new dishes, either by going quite often to restaurants or by cooking. To justify all the calories, I play basketball and beach volleyball. And, although I don’t do it quite often, I really love hiking and extreme sports (skydiving is the best!).

Once girls naturally strive to the top, I am sure that they will easily get there

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

Just do it! Science is one of the most fulfilling occupations one can have. It is not easy to be a scientist, I can promise that. The road is usually bumpy, full of failures, nervous breakdowns and there is a lot of politics involved. It is true that funding is not trivial, and the research positions in academia and industry are limited. Yet, when you are doing research and coming to a breakthrough in your studies you feel as if the long road was more than worth it and that you really achieved something significant. Also, you get to travel quite often and meet intelligent, fascinating people from around the world and make friends for a life, which is a nice bonus.


In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

Two different topics, climate change and cancer research, have been extensively studied in the past few years. Both problems were increased by modern society so, hopefully, modern society will be able to find effective solutions for them. As a lot of funding is devoted to these topics, and as their impact is global, I want to believe that the big scientific breakthrough will be from these fields. Personally, the big scientific question that I am the most fascinated about is the question of the origin of life (the field of abiogenesis), and I hope to see a great breakthrough in this field.


What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

It’s all about education. Parents, teachers, schools – they all should encourage young girls to be more individualists, to be curious, to explore the world and to follow their dreams. Once girls naturally strive to the top, I am sure that they will easily get there; it is true to every aspect of life but specifically to academia, a system which is sometimes more family-friendly than others.

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.