Published 19 October 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Greta Zaborskyte

Greta at the ASM conference. All photos/credits: in courtesy of Greta Zaborskyte

Greta from Lithuania is a postdoc at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Her work revolves around a critically important bacterial pathogen, Klebsiella pneumoniae. She studies how it evolves inside human hosts during colonisation and infection and explores how K. pneumoniae can improve its biofilm formation, which is often associated with the infection, by means of experimental evolution.

Greta participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Greta and get inspired:

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

I find it thrilling to be on the edge of the unknown. I am a curiosity-driven person, and discovering something through experimentation is kind of addictive to me. Bacteriology specifically attracted me because, while at first sight, bacteria might seem simple, they are equipped with fascinating and complex molecular mechanisms and have an immense role in our lives.

Who are your role models?

I think the main feature of a role model is serving as inspiration, but without really pushing you in any specific direction, and I am happy to have met such inspiring people from different countries and groups throughout my scientific journey so far. I also believe that the definition of a role model changes at different stages of your career. Now, I think the success and impact of a scientist is measured not only by where their work gets published or how many awards they get but also by how kind and supportive they are towards their colleagues and students.

From a personal point of view, my parents, although not related to science at all, have always supported my career choices, even though it meant moving countries multiple times and having limited time together. I am very grateful for that.

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

Greta after Ph.D. graduation
Greta after her PhD graduation

Coming from an “art-focused” family, I had associated myself with an artistic side up until the ninth grade, and, in general, I was interested in many subjects and participated in various activities. Probably one of the most influential people was my biology teacher, who suggested that I participate in a yearly biology competition. I won in my town and was invited to compete on a national level, and that ignited a whole new chapter of competing every year. It culminated in me representing Lithuania at the European Union Science Olympiad (EUSO) in 2009, where my team won a silver medal. It was a huge step for someone like me who comes from a small town in a small country like Lithuania.

At the end of high school, I was absolutely sure that molecular biology was my path, and I started studying at Vilnius University. Early on, I wanted to be close to research, so in the second year, I was lucky enough to get into the molecular microbiology lab led by Prof. Dr. Edita Suziedeliene, where I worked on bacterial toxin-antitoxin systems. In 2013, I was also selected for the Amgen Scholar’s Programme, which allowed me to conduct a research project on bacterial elongation factors with Dr. Daniel Wilson in Munich. This was my first international research experience, which was eye-opening in many ways. I really enjoyed working in an international environment, and it gave me confidence knowing that I already have a good practical and theoretical background. After this, I was convinced that I wanted to focus on bacteria and that moving abroad would open up more opportunities.

That’s when my life in Scandinavia started, first with a Master’s programme in Molecular Microbiology at Lund University. Although moving to another country comes with many personal challenges, I truly enjoyed my studies there and was “drinking all the knowledge” to help me prepare for the next step. For my degree project, I decided to challenge myself even more, and I joined Prof. Dr. Oana Ciofu’s group at the Costerton Biofilm Centre in Copenhagen as an Erasmus+ trainee. There was yet another big change in my professional life: I was introduced to bacterial biofilms that took over my interests quickly. I explored how antibiotic-resistant mutants emerge in Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms. After this successful project, I moved back to Sweden, this time to Uppsala, to pursue a PhD in the group of Dr. Linus Sandegren. There I have become genuinely fascinated by evolutionary approaches to study infections and pathoadaptive changes relevant to the life of the pathogen inside the human host. I am very grateful for a lot of freedom to shape and drive my own projects, even though it was challenging due to a broad scientific scope and all kinds of life events, including the Covid-19 pandemic. I am currently looking for ways to advance my career as a postdoctoral researcher.

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

So far, it is my PhD work that consisted of multiple projects, but they were all very closely intertwined with each other. I studied how the bacterial pathogen K. pneumoniae evolves in vivo (within-host evolution) and in vitro (experimental evolution during biofilm growth on clinically relevant surfaces). The experimental work was diverse, from modeling development to growing biofilms to analysing hundreds of genomes, running infection assays, or performing genetic engineering. This work was mostly exploratory, and what initially appeared to be small “side projects” evolved into exciting research directions that we would not have anticipated. Furthermore, since I have identified several novel genetic changes as adaptations selected during infection, it could potentially contribute to guiding new treatment strategies for K. pneumoniae.

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

Greta during her Ph.D. defense, presenting her research at a screen, talking to the audiencew
During the PhD defense

I feel proud when I see my own progress, that is, comparing myself to my past version and seeing how far I have come. It is, of course, even more satisfying when I receive some external recognition as well. For example, I felt extremely proud of myself after my PhD defense last September when I received a lot of really positive feedback from the evaluating committee and the opponent, knowing how much effort professionally and personally I had to put in to achieve it. Selection for LINO23 also felt really rewarding and, in a way, served as a reassurance that I am going in the right direction in my professional life. I think in academia, people tend to oversee the victories as there are always more experiments to do, more papers to write, and more awards to get. I am learning to recognise these moments and enjoy them actively.

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

My daily work is really dynamic. There are days when I am constantly running in the lab with many experiments in parallel. My experiments themselves can be highly diverse, ranging from several weeks, like experimental evolution, to some quick assays. Since I work with living organisms, I often have to adjust to their “schedules.” There are also days when I deep dive into many genome sequences, analyse other experimental data, or write and prepare my results for seminars and meetings. Most of the time, it’s a little bit of all these, and the biggest challenge is finding the right balance.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Greta working in the lab
Working in the lab

While satisfying my curiosity is important, I think it is essential for me to feel that my work can also positively impact people’s lives. Most likely, I would like to lead my own research group that would focus on the evolutionary dynamics of bacterial pathogens and their molecular mechanisms in an attempt to develop novel strategies to manage infections. After all, modern medicine is supported by the pillars of controlling infectious diseases, especially when it comes to hospital-acquired infections.

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

I am an experimentalist at heart, so my free-time activities often involve creative experimentation. For example, I am obsessed with gardening – I like planning what to plant, the actual planting, and then observing how it all comes together with beautiful flowers. Baking has also become one of my big passions as it reminds me of experiments but with faster and more delicious results. Art used to be a big part of my life, especially watercolor or ink painting; now, I’m trying to bring more of it back, as it really calms me down and helps me shift my focus. I also have a cat Klebsie, whom I named after my favorite bacterium. She requires a lot of attention but also brings many cute and cozy moments in my life outside the lab. Walking or biking along nearby forest paths or, in general, being outdoors in nature is another way for me to recharge. I also like trying new things, for example, contemporary dancing or pilates.

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

I think it is helpful to get as many diverse influences as possible so that you can “mix and match” them to your own profile and carve your own path, even if that path only makes sense to you. Therefore, I would highly suggest proactively seeking as much experience as you can so that you can decide what really fascinates you.

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

Nowadays, we have amazing opportunities in both generating large datasets, like genome sequencing and going deep into the atomic details, for example, by advanced microscopy techniques. This is a truly inspiring time for me as a molecular microbiologist with an evolutionary perspective. We also see a shift towards more complex analysis, for example, microbiome research, interaction between different microorganisms instead of studying them in isolation in standard culture conditions, and identifying the vast genotypic and phenotypic diversity in bacterial populations. I think all of these hold the potential to bring new possibilities to fight against hard-to-treat infections. Maybe it is not so much of a prediction but rather a hope that all of these approaches can contribute to the rapid diagnosis and treatment of infections in a personalised way.

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

Graduate studies and early post-PhD research most often coincide with age, when many women make family-related decisions. There are often very tight timeframes for applying for certain grants or getting tenure positions, at least here in Europe, which in many cases means that women often have to make a super difficult choice. It feels like no one should choose between family and work but instead have a balance between them. I wish that such a view would be promoted more instead of sacrificing one or the other.

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.