Published 20 February 2019 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research: “Seek for Enlightened Environments”

The following interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information about “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

Lindau Alumna Elisabetta Cacace from Italy is a PhD student at EMBL‘s Genome Biology Unit in Heidelberg, Germany. She is studying drug interactions in pathogenic bacteria. Some antimicrobial combinations are already used in clinics, but a systematic profiling of drug synergies and antagonisms against most pathogens is currently lacking and would allow a more rational, evidence-based, planning of combinatorial treatments. Moreover, by combining previously approved compounds, it is possible to tackle bacteria that are resistant to single agents, decreasing dosages and side-effects on patients, in an era where new antibiotics are dramatically needed. Elisabetta participated in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and wrote about the difficulty of combining resesarch and clinical practice for our blog. Enjoy the interview and get inspired!

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Elisabetta Cacace: “It is actually a funny story, that tells a lot about my questionable ability to take decisions. My high-school training was centered on classic literature, i.e. Latin and ancient Greek. I truly loved it, so I successfully applied for a tripod in classics at King’s College in Cambridge, UK. After quite some thinking, I decided to turn off the offer and pursue an MD degree in Italy. I was driven by two main reasons: first, the wish to terminate my training in piano (the music conservatory was in my hometown and I still had three years left of the ten-year course). Second, I had also liked science quite a lot since my childhood, especially neuroscience. But I definitely was not one of those people who know they want to be a doctor since they were five. I had no clue how it would have been like, and was very curious and intrigued to try and just expand my knowledge. Luckily, I really enjoyed it and decided to keep going.”

Lindau Alumna Elisabetta Cacace with Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. © Elisabetta Cacace

Who are your role models?

Elisabetta Cacace: “I have constantly been surrounded by role models, and only few of them are scientists or doctors. I have been lucky enough to meet many inspiring people, coming from many different backgrounds, including both friends of my own age and mentors who have guided me through my education steps. From each of them I have learned something different. If I consider the science world, I particularly admire brilliant women in science who manage to be amazing researchers, mentors and mothers. I have met quite a lot, both at EMBL and beyond, and I would like to be like them one day. And if a role model is someone whom we aspire to resemble to, I have to mention also my uncle, a great scientist and an incredible person with an immense knowledge. One of these people that you are always happy to talk to, because after one conversation you feel somewhat richer and brighter.”

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

Elisabetta Cacace: “Of course, it’s my PhD project. In it I see both long-term clinical applications and the chance to investigate many complex aspects of bacterial physiology that are not fully deciphered yet. Furthermore, I can combine experimental work and data analysis and no day passes by without learning something new.”

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

Elisabetta Cacace: “I am actually the harshest critic of my work, so in daily life it doesn’t happen so often that I feel proud of myself. Right now, I am a bit proud (immensely is too big of a word!) of the first results that I got, after a long time running experiments and implementing the analysis. I did feel proud when finishing medical school, though, and I was definitely very proud to get all the positions I had applied for after graduating, although it was awfully stressful to choose between them.”

What is a ‘day in the life’ of Elisabetta like?

Elisabetta Cacace: “I wake up and about once a week go for a swim very early in the morning. Then I go to the lab, a wonderful place in the forest. I spend most of my time analysing and thinking over the large amount of data generated by the experiments, that actually take less time in proportion. It is also the part that I prefer. When I’m not overwhelmed by deadlines, I try to talk as much as I can with other people in the group and beyond: for me research is a social endeavour and it progresses at its best when nurtured through exchange between scientists. Even short chats on the bus or over coffee can greatly improve the insight one has on a certain problem. Sometimes during the day, I try to clear my thoughts with a short walk in the woods around the lab. After the day in the lab I try to squeeze in some piano playing – EMBL has an awesome grand-piano. Otherwise I just go home and if it’s weekend time I hang out with friends. Heidelberg is small but has some nice spots to chill out.”

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Elisabetta Cacace: “I feel like my answer to this question changes every three months or so. I guess the common line is: to do what I love. Which is research at the moment, but I truly miss clinical practice: the contact with patients, the clinical case-solving process and management, the life lessons that every day brings over. I would love to have again the chance of a mixed clinical residency training with protected time for research. Now it would make more sense, with me being much more autonomous on the research side, something that is key in such a situation, where time has to be tightly optimised.”

Elisabetta Cacace and other young scientists from EMBL at the 2018 Lindau Meeting. © Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

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

Elisabetta Cacace: “Playing the piano, swimming and reading. Now that I stably live abroad, I also spend quite some time in phone calls with friends who remained in Italy or are living abroad as well.”

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

Elisabetta Cacace: “I am definitely privileged: I have rarely experienced sexism in my life, and not even a single time in my university years, that I spent in Pisa in a great environment, side by side with some of the brightest people I have ever met. I believe this is not a coincidence: a context with educated, open-minded people is the key for anybody’s personal and career advancement, but especially for women who strive to propel their careers in male-dominated fields. So one advice could be: the fact that science and medicine (at least at higher career stages) are a male-dominated field shouldn’t discourage you, so go for it if you like it, and, if possible, seek for this kind of enlightened environment, for this kind of bright, prejudice-free people and surround yourself with them. I understand that this is not always possible, and I know that culture does not always correspond to freedom from prejudices and egalitarian thinking. But I believe that anyway it is the key to cultivate and nurture your mind: by expanding your knowledge and keeping a dynamic thinking, and by choosing good companies.”

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology/medicine?

Elisabetta Cacace: “The coupling between fast diagnostics and tailored therapies. People talk a lot about personalized medicine, but there are different extents to which this can be realised. In the end, personalised medicine also happens when a family doctor is asking whether the patient has familiarity for cardiovascular diseases. Nowadays we have so many more powerful tools to make this happen and definitely more effort is needed to systematically identify individual molecular features that relate to a certain therapeutic outcome. The old motto from William Osler ‘treat the patient, not the disease’ has never been so realisable as today. I think that a tighter crosstalk between physician and basic scientists would strongly foster advances in this sense.”

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.