Published 28 June 2022 by Ulrike Böhm
Women in Research #LINO22: Ida Marie Astad Jentoft
Ida from Norway is a PhD student in the Department of Meiosis at the Max Planck Institute for Multidisciplinary Sciences in Göttingen, Germany.
She studies a cytoplasmic structure specific to mammalian egg cells called cytoplasmic lattices. Cytoplasmic lattices were first discovered more than 50 years ago with electron microscopy in egg cells from different mammalian species. However, the composition and their function during meiosis and in the early embryo remains a mystery. We know cytoplasmic lattices are important for successful embryogenesis, and uncovering the role of these structures in the egg and embryo is important for our understanding of the regulators of the very first stages of development.
Ida is participating in the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Ida and get inspired:
What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
When I was younger, I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to live abroad and learn languages like several of my family members had done. Then, in my last year of high school, I spontaneously decided to take biology as an elective. We had an amazing, inspiring teacher, and one week we got to the topic of stem cells. I got to do a presentation on this topic and delved into the world of cell biology, regeneration, and developmental biology, and was completely fascinated. It felt like from one day to the next, I knew exactly what I wanted to study and started applying for molecular biology university programs. I quickly realized that my newfound passion for cells was very combinable with my urge to explore the world.
Who are your role models?
There are many people I look up to and who inspire me, and I feel extremely lucky to be surrounded by and have met so many fantastic people in my life. Role models to me are genuine, kind, and committed people, and among them, I count family members like my parents and younger sister and the many outstanding women in my family. My role models also include my colleagues and mentors, my fellow female mentees of the Dorothea Schlözer mentoring program, and also the many extraordinary scientists I have had the chance to interact with in different settings.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
For my bachelor’s degree, I studied molecular biomedicine at the University of Copenhagen. In my final year, I went to McGill University in Montréal, Canada, where I got to nurture my interest in developmental biology, embryology, and French. I did my bachelor’s thesis with Dr. Paul Goodyer at the Montréal children’s hospital studying embryonic kidney development and the priming of kidney progenitor cells. Because of the different credit systems between the two universities, I had to work a whole year in the lab for it to count as a bachelor’s thesis (in Copenhagen, the thesis was usually only for half a semester). Spending an extended amount of time in the lab, getting comfortable doing my own experiments under great guidance from both the PI and other students, was a great experience, and the enthusiasm the people around me showed for their projects and science was contagious. I particularly remember one episode where, after weeks of optimization, my supervisor, another lab member, and I stood tense in front of a machine that, in real time, would spit out numbers indicating whether our experiment had worked or not. It had. Finally, we got the results we had been waiting for, and we were all literally jumping up and down with joy. This feeling is unbeatable, and it was clear to me that I would continue with a master’s degree to get more of this. But I also realized that in Montréal, however francophone Québec may be, I was speaking predominantly English, and my French did not improve as much as I had hoped. So, I put my master plans on hold and went to study French in Montpellier in the south of France for a year first. This was the best decision I could have made. The friendly southern French climate is great for many things, including sipping wine at an outdoor restaurant in one of the many small squares in the old city and contemplating my next career steps. My original plan was to go back to Copenhagen to continue with a master in molecular biomedicine; however, after my experiences in Canada, I was starting to think that I wanted to do a Ph.D. But I also wanted a chance to work in several different labs to make an informed decision – how was I supposed to know what I wanted to work on after just one research project? I read and googled and found the International Max Planck Research School for molecular biology program in Göttingen, Germany. In this integrated MSc/Ph.D. program, you go through a series of lectures, methods courses, and lab rotations tailored to make an informed decision about your future Ph.D. lab. Göttingen is a hub for super interesting science; it was perfect – and I also didn’t speak German! During my lab rotations, I was supervised by inspiring and talented Ph.D. students who introduced me to super-resolution microscopy and meiosis. Now, four years later, I get to combine both in my Ph.D. project! For my Ph.D. project, I was awarded a Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds PhD fellowship. If I ever feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or have dug myself too deep into my project, forgetting the bigger picture, the events gathering BIF fellows, such as the yearly summer seminar, are like a breath of fresh air. Getting out of the Göttingen bubble, meeting fellow students from all over the world, talking science, and sharing enthusiasm, struggles, and ideas always leave me with an enormous appreciation and motivation for both science and my project. Doing a Ph.D. is great, but it is also challenging, and having a network like BIF and the IMPRS-Molbio makes it so much easier!
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I have worked on many cool projects, but studying the cellular components regulating the development of the egg and early embryo is the most exciting thing I have done so far. Studying these processes using a microscope, I have gotten to see things I know no one has ever seen before and may be, for a little while, the only person in the world having these new pieces of information. It is an exhilarating feeling, and it is beyond cool to be able to observe these first steps of mammalian development, appreciating its immense complexity and beauty.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I recently went to a Ph.D. retreat with my Ph.D. program. I had spent quite some time making my presentation, trying to fit it to the knowledge and scientific background of the audience and consciously attempting to incorporate the tips and tricks I have learned in several presentation courses. I tried to keep the nitty-gritty details to a minimum, thinking hard about what story I was going to tell and why the listeners should care. After my talk, several people came up to me, saying that my talk made them feel smart because they could follow and understand what I was explaining. Because people could follow and understand the story, I also got a lot of questions sparking super interesting discussions about my data and the project. I am very proud that I managed to not only present my science but to present in such a way that people got excited, understood why I think it’s important, and could contribute to making it better!
What is a “day in the life” of Ida like?
Every day starts with breakfast and a cup of Earl Grey tea before biking the 30 minutes uphill to the institute. I usually get to the lab around 8 AM and start by checking my emails and the plan for the day. I normally have every day of the week planned out with a list, so when I get to work in the morning, I start working through the list, starting or continuing experiments which mostly means preparing samples for imaging or bringing them to the microscope. After lunch, I continue with my experiments or sit at the computer analyzing, reading, or planning the next experiments, often (always) accompanied by a cup of coffee. The day is also spiced up with small breaks or discussions with my colleagues, outside in the green surroundings of the institute if the weather allows. Then, at the end of the day, I reap the fruits of my morning labor and roll downhill on my bike all the way home.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
So far, all my decisions regarding my career have been based on my motivation and enthusiasm for what I am doing or would be doing. I want to continue doing what brings me joy and excitement, in whatever shape or form that may take in the future. If I can do this, then I consider myself lucky. I also wish to become a good supervisor and teacher, sharing my enthusiasm and experience with students to help them find their strengths and pursue their goals.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
If you can’t find me in the lab, there is a good chance I am at the bouldering gym or out for a run. I love moving, stretching, and the feeling of holding on to really tiny climbing holds. Right now, after some time of neglect, I am also trying to restart my sourdough, but sadly so far, unsuccessfully. Luckily, I don’t need the sourdough to make cinnamon buns!
What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?
Being a scientist lets you dive into the processes you find the most fascinating, and it is so much fun! But it can also be really hard, don’t despair when things are not working. Make sure to take care of yourself and find good mentors and an inspiring environment! There will always be (and I’m guessing this is not unique to science) people who you think know more, read more, and are more confident, but believing you are good enough will take you a long way! Even if you don’t believe it fully, tell yourself that you are anyway! Imagine how much more fun things will be this way. Go for it!
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?
As a molecular cell biologist passionate about early development, I excitedly follow the development and use of organoids to model the early stages of embryogenesis. Studies on human development come with many ethical concerns, and mammalian embryogenesis is generally limited by relatively scarce sample availability. I am curious to see how much we can improve the recapitulation of these early developmental stages to learn more about the regulation on the proteomic, transcriptomic, and epigenomic levels. And, of course, to combine this with the ever-increasing resolution of light microscopes to follow these processes at the molecular level!