Published 3 August 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Zuzanna Kozicka

Zuzanna in the lab. All photos/credit: in courtesy of Zuzanna Kozicka

Zuzanna from Poland is a Ph.D. graduate / bridging postdoctoral researcher at the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Biomedical Research, Basel, Switzerland. Her research focuses on molecular glue degraders, a new paradigm in drug discovery that allows targeted destruction of disease-causing proteins.

Zuzanna participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and took the time for this interview.

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

I’ve always been fascinated by science. Initially, I was drawn to medicine because I wanted to impact people’s lives positively, and it was a career path I was more familiar with. However, after attending some lectures at a local university in Kraków, Poland, I began to appreciate the appeal of academic research and discovered my first passion: chemistry. It is an exciting field, and I realised that by pursuing a chemistry degree, I could learn how to design innovative medicines and directly impact patients’ lives.

As I delved deeper into my studies, I became captivated by the process of drug discovery, which blends the realms of biology, chemistry, medicine, and computational approaches. The more I learned about this interdisciplinary field, the more I became hooked. Now, working at this very interface, I find it just as fascinating as when I first embarked on this journey.

Who are your role models?

When it comes to role models, a few scientific figures come to mind. Groundbreaking scientists like Marie Curie-Sklodowska and Dorothy Hodgkin have always been sources of inspiration. However, in terms of female scientists who have gained enough visibility to become common role models, there aren’t as many readily identifiable names that come to mind. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness and recognition of remarkable individuals, such as Nobel Laureates Frances Arnold and Carolyn Bertozzi, who are making their mark in our global consciousness.

When I embarked on my journey to become a scientist, especially as someone coming from Poland and venturing abroad to study, there weren’t many individuals in my immediate sphere in whose footsteps I could aim to follow. However, I would be remiss, not to mention my mother. She was pursuing her Ph.D. when I was a kindergartener, and I was always in awe of her determination and passion for her work, which revolved around contemporary Polish literature. Witnessing her unwavering motivation and the immense satisfaction she derived from being an academic, researching new ideas, and sharing knowledge with others, truly inspired me. Though our fields may be vastly different, her dedication to her profession and belief that it is the best job in the world profoundly impacted me.

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

I was born and raised in Poland and always had a strong desire to study abroad. I applied to various universities in the UK and ultimately chose the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. It is an excellent institution, and the fact that the Scottish government covered tuition fees for European students eased some of the financial challenges (though I still worked in bars part-time for the first three years of my degree).

I pursued an Integrated Master’s in Medicinal and Biological Chemistry, a five-year programme featuring a fourth year abroad. During my time at Edinburgh, I received career advice emphasising the importance of exploring various opportunities. I actively sought out different projects, applied for funding, and participated in summer schools – finding paid research opportunities was a great way to continue learning while still making money in the summer to cover some of the living expenses. For example, I received a scholarship to attend a crystallography summer school in France after my second year. Then I undertook a funded project at a neutron source facility, which ignited my interest in solving protein structures for drug discovery (which I now do!).

Zuzanna is currently focusing on degrading disease-causing proteins for therapeutic purposes.

I spent my fourth year abroad – at ETH Zurich in Switzerland – where I gained valuable experience in biochemistry and structural biology in the laboratory of Professor Nenad Ban. This was new and exciting (although a steep learning curve for a chemist), and the experience brought me closer to the interface of chemistry and biology.

Before my final year, I undertook a brief (albeit very influential) summer project at the University of Dundee under the mentorship of Professor Alessio Ciulli. This introduced me to the concept of degrading disease-causing proteins for therapeutic purposes, which is my current area of focus. During this experience, everything “clicked.”

Given my newfound fascination with the field of targeted protein degradation and appreciation for living in Switzerland, I sought a Swiss laboratory that focused on targeted protein degradation. I discovered the lab of Dr. Nicholas Thomä at the Friedrich Miescher Institute (FMI) in Basel, specialising in molecular glue degraders. Choosing a Ph.D. laboratory was challenging, especially since I moved from Edinburgh with my husband, a fellow scientist, but I followed my intuition. For the past four and a half years, I have been conducting research at the FMI, exploring the topic of molecular glue degraders in a fun and supportive environment.

Overall, my career path involved actively searching for and seizing opportunities, exploring diverse topics, seeking mentorship from influential figures like Professor Alessio Ciulli or my Ph.D. supervisor, Dr Nicolas Thomä, and trusting my gut when making important decisions.

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

I currently work on degrading disease-causing proteins with small molecules – I think it is very cool! The idea that a small molecule can bind to various proteins in the cell and influence their interaction patterns is fascinating, and figuring out how to design compounds to prospectively bring together a target protein implicated in disease and the cellular waste disposal machinery that can inactivate it is a very exciting challenge.

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

Experiencing a deep sense of pride in oneself or one’s work is rare and can be challenging, especially when faced with impostor syndrome and similar feelings common in our community. I do feel a sense of pride when I achieve something significant, such as delivering a successful conference presentation or having a paper accepted. However, the moments that truly stand out in my memory are the ones that catch me off guard. One particular example that comes to mind is being featured on this year’s Forbes Europe 30 under 30 list in the Science&Healthcare category. I genuinely did not anticipate it, and receiving the recognition that also spoke to my family and non-science friends was very gratifying.

Still, I really believe in appreciating the smaller everyday victories is a valuable skill to have. Celebrating the completion of long-overdue tasks on your to-do list or conducting an experiment that produces conclusive or promising results can be just as important, if not more so, than reflecting on major achievements.

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

Zuzanna frequently travels to international conferences.

Recently, my days have been filled with a lot of computer work. Whether drafting a research paper, working on my thesis, or preparing presentations, writing has been a major focus. I typically aim to start my work around 8.00 in the morning. However, to break the monotony, I make it a point to take a short walk during lunchtime whenever possible. Sometimes, changing my surroundings between my office, local cafes, libraries, and my home office can help me maintain a productive flow.

When I’m in the lab, my time is divided among multiple projects. I assist students, analyse data, and conduct experiments at the bench. Often, I have multiple experiments utilising different techniques running concurrently. For example, I might have a protein expression and purification process running in the background for a few days while I conduct fluorescence-based assays to measure compound activity.

Additionally, I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to travel frequently. This year alone, I attended a CSHL conference in the US and a summer school in Erice, Sicily, and I’m now heading to Lindau. It’s an exciting time!

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

In my career, my primary goal is to make impactful discoveries that positively affect people’s lives. In the field of drug discovery, this entails identifying compounds that can serve as a basis for drug discovery programmes, eventually leading to the development of medicines that can directly benefit patients.

Making impactful discoveries that positively affect people’s lives is an important goal for Zuzanna.

However, I also appreciate the impact that can be made through purely academic drug discovery research. This involves pushing the boundaries by exploring new concepts and conducting innovative work that may not be commonly pursued within the pharmaceutical industry. I strive to develop strategies, ideas, and principles that can lay the groundwork for new medicines.

My ultimate aspiration is to establish a laboratory dedicated to these goals. By utilising novel pharmacological strategies, I will strive to tackle previously undruggable targets.

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

When I’m not working, I really enjoy exploring the world of art and design. Basel, in particular, offers a vibrant arts scene with the annual Art Basel event and various art and design museums to explore. Additionally, pottery is a passion of mine. I love the immersive experience of working with clay, creating unique objects (in my case mostly dogs or similar creatures), and momentarily forgetting about everything else. I also love traveling, discovering new places, and savoring new and exciting cuisines. Cooking and baking also hold a special place in my heart, especially when it comes to hosting friends and throwing parties. All the above provide a much-needed balance to the demands of academic life.

In addition to these interests, I actively participate in various outreach events and advocate for women and minorities in science. It is important for me to contribute to creating a more inclusive and diverse scientific community.

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

While I’m unsure if I’m in the position to give advice, I am happy to share some thoughts. Firstly, I would encourage you to try different things and explore various research areas. Finding something that truly ignites your passion and brings you joy will help you navigate the inevitable ups and downs you encounter along the way.

Secondly, it’s important to recognise that science is a collaborative field, very strongly reliant on teamwork and interpersonal connections. Simply put, try to be a person that others enjoy working with. When able to select mentors and colleagues to work with, seek out people who are not only knowledgeable and intelligent but also kind and supportive and who share your enthusiasm for science!

Finally, for people who identify as female in particular, I appreciate that we may face additional challenges, such as a scarcity of visible role models. In such cases, it can be beneficial to engage actively, e.g., in women in STEM organisations or programs tailored to support female researchers. For instance, I have found great value in being a board member for TWIST Basel and participating in programmes such as Antelope at the University of Basel, which provided networking opportunities and workshops for women striving for professorships in Switzerland. Building a network of like-minded individuals who can offer support and understanding throughout your journey can be incredibly valuable.

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

It’s hard to predict one specific breakthrough. Still, I believe that artificial intelligence will play a growing role in drug discovery, propelling forward experimental work and helping researchers make new discoveries.

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

Firstly, the achievements of female scientists should be recognised and celebrated. Public awards and acknowledgments can highlight their contributions, and efforts should be made to ensure more diverse representation at conferences and events. All this can provide visible role models for aspiring female scientists.

Challenging stereotypes is another important aspect. By promoting diverse and inclusive media representation of scientists, we can inspire kids, regardless of their gender or background, to consider careers in science. Moreover, raising awareness about unconscious biases, e.g., through institutional equity training, is important.

Initiatives like TWIST, in which I am involved, aim to empower scientists who identify as female through networking opportunities and support. From our discussions, it has become evident that creating a more family-friendly work environment is essential to combat the ‘leaky pipeline’. This could involve offering on-site childcare facilities, longer parental leave options for trainees and early career group leaders, and financial support for private childcare.

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.