Published 1 February 2024 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Cornelia Schwayer

Cornelia Schwayer aims to answer the question how organs regenerate. All photos/credits: in courtesy of Cornelia Schwayer

Cornelia from Austria is a postdoctoral researcher at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI) in Basel, Switzerland, and participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

She would like to understand how organs regenerate. To address this question, she studies the intestinal organoid, a self-organising system that forms a complex tissue from a single cell. She uses a multiscale analysis approach to identify the different extrinsic and intrinsic cues cells are sensing and integrating to trigger various cellular behaviors, such as cell division or differentiation.

Enjoy the interview with Cornelia and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

During high school, my focus was economics. I learned a lot about financial mathematics, marketing, and accounting. As much as I liked going through schemes of calculations to get to the result and knowing that this is the ‘correct’ way of solving the problem, something was missing – something exciting that would keep my interest and curiosity. In contrast, during biology classes, learning basics about DNA, blood types, and early development sparked my interest. My biology teacher had great ways of transferring knowledge, and this combination of fun classes with intriguing content enhanced my level of engagement even more. When I discovered that many biological processes were not yet well understood, I got inspired to try and dig deeper into the underlying principles of life.

Who are your role models?

Luckily, I have many role models in my life who were my mentors in one way or another. My first role models in my scientific life were Daria Siekhaus, my former supervisor, and Aparna Ratheesh, a former postdoc in the same lab. Daria and Aparna taught me how to think critically and how to give constructive feedback, which are necessary skills in science. They introduced me to the interdisciplinary scientific world by encouraging me to attend talks from other fields, such as Math or Computer Science, to get inspired for my research.

Another role model is Carl-Philipp Heisenberg, my PhD supervisor and one of the leaders in the field of morphogenesis. He always encouraged me to try out crazy ideas and to think out of the box. During my PhD, I learned how to work independently on a project and how to drive it.

Prisca Liberali, my current supervisor, definitely also counts as one of my role models. Prisca is pushing the stem cell and morphogenesis fields forward by using multiscale analysis approaches to cross scales, e.g., connecting genomics data with morphological tissue dynamics. Prisca has a great intuition of what the future challenges and chances could be and is fearlessly heading into new directions implementing the latest technologies into 3D organoid models.

Finally, it has always been very inspiring to see that combining academia with family life is possible. At this point, I would also like to mention role models in my private life: my parents and my aunt. My mum is one of the most hard-working people I know, and she is always trying to go the extra mile. My parents taught me never to give up and that you can reach anything if you work towards it. My aunt also inspires me; I see her as a very strong and independent woman since she was the first person in the family to move hundreds of kilometers away for her career and personal life.

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

I grew up in a small village close to Vienna. After falling in love with biology in high school, I was drawn to study Molecular Biology at the University of Vienna. Next to my studies, I gained my first experience in critical thinking, wet lab work, and communicating in an international environment in the group of Daria Siekhaus, where we were interested in studying immune cell migration. My initial plan was to go for a Master’s degree after my Bachelor’s, which is the standard way in Austria, but Daria mentioned an optional path, which was to go straight for a PhD after my Bachelor’s. Initially, I was pretty intimidated by this thought, but I decided to try it and succeeded. For my PhD, I decided to study how mechanical forces affect tissue spreading during early development in Carl-Philipp Heisenberg’s lab at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria. In a later stage of my PhD project, I realised that the tissue spreading process was best described by applying a concept from physics (phase separation). This time of trying to figure out the mechanistic details of my project was the most challenging but, at the same time, also the most rewarding. I had to learn a lot about a new field in a relatively short time, but in the end, I could apply this knowledge, which allowed me to identify an unknown mechanism. For my postdoc, I went from developmental towards regenerative and systems biology to join the lab of Prisca Liberali at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel, Switzerland. Now I am studying how symmetry breaks in a tissue to increase the functional complexity of organs. I work with ‘big data,’ which means that I need to establish ways of analysing the data, including training neural networks using machine learning or coding my own scripts in Python to extract cellular features. I am very happy that I took on this challenge.

Finally, I would like to mention that I am a first-generation academic in my family, and moving to another country was quite a challenge. What I learned from this time is that first, it’s helpful to have a very good support system of mentors and friends who can give advice because they have gone through similar situations; and second that it is important to improve communication about science and academic life to people outside the field to increase support and understanding.

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

The two coolest projects I’ve worked on are my PhD project and my current postdoc project. My PhD project was very exciting because I learned how to measure forces in a developing organism and could image large-scale tissue deformations of zebrafish embryos in the process of 10 hours. Within this short amount of time, an organism with head and tail features is formed from a single cell, which still fascinates me. It is also one of my favorite projects because it showed me that sometimes concepts from other disciplines, such as physics, are necessary to explain a biological process.

In my current project, I am trying to understand how an organ can regenerate from a single cell. More specifically, I am identifying the external and internal signals that help cells decide whether to divide or differentiate. To address this question in an unbiased way, I am using a multiscale analysis pipeline, ranging from RNA and protein signatures to cellular and morphological features. What I like about this project is that we are bridging scales from small molecules, such as RNAs, to entire tissues during several days of regeneration. Another lesson I’ve learned early on in my project is that if the first and most simple hypothesis turns out not to explain everything, this likely means that something even more interesting is to be discovered.

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

Attending conferences and talking about my research are among the moments when I feel very happy about my work. These interactive settings force you to zoom out from the daily business and provide opportunities to assess the progress of the last few months. They are great chances to see what other scientists think of your project and to reflect on its strengths and weaknesses. In moments of success, I also feel proud of my work, for instance, when my PhD paper got accepted or when I got the EMBO and HFSP postdoctoral fellowships.

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

Cornelia Schwayer in the foyer of the Inselhalle in front of the logo wall
Cornelia at #LINO23

Usually, the first thing I do in the morning is to go to the cell culture room and check on my little organoids. Then it depends if it is an ‘experiment’ or ‘analysis’ day or a combination. If I run experiments, I spend the morning in the tissue culture lab to set up a time course experiment for high throughput imaging, which involves plating thousands of cells and adding different media for treatments. If these steps have been done already in previous days, I will stain and image the organoids, which entails setting up the microscope for several days of imaging. If it is an analysis day, I would either start one of my analysis pipelines to extract cell intensity or shape features or write new code to extract more advanced and project-specific features. In between, I would attend a talk or lab meeting, which is usually very interactive. Days on which I discover new experimental phenotypes or finish writing a new piece of code count to the best ones.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

My dream would be to study the biophysical mechanisms of how an entire organ or organism can form from a single cell. Specifically, what are the environmental stimuli and the cell-intrinsic properties that underlie cellular behaviors to form an intact tissue? Next to solving scientific riddles, I would like to become a good mentor for other young scientists, to see their potential and support them in all possible ways. I am still very thankful to every role model and all my peers who helped me to get where I am now, and I would like to do the same for others.

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

I really like traveling, discovering new places, and experiencing new adventures. Of course, spending time with friends and family counts as the most fun and relaxing moments in my life. To balance my work life, I like to do sports. Besides going for a run, I enjoy dancing a lot, specifically choreography dance. Even though dancing sounds rather relaxing, it is hard work and requires discipline and training. The kind of focus you need for dancing, for example, coordination and timing is very different from the kind of focus during daily lab business, and it helps to switch off; additionally, the group spirit is very motivating.

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

I would like to cite some advice from my personal and professional life. First: You can do it! And second, a sentence that I’ve heard several times in my life from different and very smart people: Most importantly, you need to love what you are doing. I believe it is true! If you enjoy what you are doing, you will manage to get through challenging phases and gain a lot of new experiences along the way. If you need support, try reaching out to your peers, your role models, or inspiring personalities you’ve met at conferences. There are already more and more offers for connecting with other women in science on a mentorship basis, for instance, on dedicated platforms (e.g., leading edge), during conference workshops, or maybe even at your institute.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in your discipline?

I think the next significant breakthrough in biology will emerge at the points of bridging scales and/or disciplines. With bridging scales, I mean on a spatial or temporal scale. For instance, combining genomic and proteomic information of a single cell with large-scale collective tissue behaviors (e.g., using omics to generate maps or landscapes of biological processes). Crossing temporal scales entails creating memory over seconds, minutes, or longer periods, which is important for later decision-making (e.g., integrating different signaling information or epigenetic information). Further, working on the interface of biology and physics will help us understand the contribution of physical laws during biological processes and add a more predictive character to biology.

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

In general, raising awareness of inequalities and biases already in the early education phase is definitely a necessary foundation for building fair social structures. There are two phases during which many female scientists decide to quit academia; before becoming a postdoc and before deciding to become a PI. Partially, these decision points are still influenced by the question of choosing between career or family. To aim for both career and family, I think we still need to improve the support system for female scientists, for example, by providing funding for technical support during maternity leave or more easily accessible childcare options.

Further Information

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.