Magdalena from Poland is a Postdoc at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland. She studies the evolution of the vertebrate immune system, focusing on the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) – a set of molecules central to molecular self/non-self recognition and the adaptive immune response. The large population-level polymorphism of the genes encoding the MHC is the reason why it is so difficult to match transplant donors and recipients, but it also makes the MHC of particular interest to evolutionary biologists, as it exemplifies co-evolutionary dynamics between vertebrate hosts and parasites.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
I have been deeply interested in biology and nature for as long as I can remember. One of my favorite books as a child was an album called “The World Under the Microscope.” It showed in detail various things that could not be seen with the naked eye – from loads of bacteria that fit on the tip of a needle to crawling immune cells to various shapes and forms of Protista to the mesmerising compound eyes of flies and the terrifying scolexes of tapeworms. I was so fascinated by these images that I even asked Santa Claus for an electron microscope for Christmas – which, as you can imagine, I did not get… It seriously undermined my belief in Santa Claus – but fortunately, not my budding passion for science.
Later, I quite naturally chose a biological profile in high school and started studying biotechnology. At first, I thought I would graduate and go into industry, developing “cures for cancer” and such. But then I really became fascinated by evolutionary biology – its elegant simplicity and unique ability to answer the “how” of biology and the “why.”
Who are your role models?
It would be hard for me to name specific people, really, so many influence us at different stages of life. Certainly, all the successful women I met during my scientific journey were, perhaps even on a subconscious level, a confirmation that I belonged.
I think that Polish girls interested in STEM have a particularly strong role model to follow – Maria Skłodowska-Curie. She moved to Paris at 24 to pursue an academic degree, but (what is sometimes forgotten) – she was born and raised in Poland. She even named one of the radioactive elements she discovered (polonium) after her homeland. When one of the most brilliant and stereotype-defying scientists of all time is your fellow countrywoman, you have little doubt that science is a path you can follow!
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I studied biotechnology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, but my interest shifted to evolutionary biology early on. At the end of the second year, we had to choose a lab for our bachelor’s project. By the time I was ready to choose, the most popular labs had already been filled. So I started to think about which subject would be the most interesting for me. After some soul-searching, I realised that I was most excited by the evolutionary biology lectures. I decided to pursue this, even though it was not popular among biotechnologists-to-be…
By the end of my Master’s degree, I was pretty sure that this was the path I wanted to take. I did an ERASMUS internship at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, in the Department of Systematics and Evolution, where I started working on the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes. The experience I gained there soon proved to be helpful. A Ph.D. position opened up in a project on the evolution of the number of MHC loci in genomes, led by Prof. Jacek Radwan – who happened to be the professor whose lectures had sparked my interest in evolutionary biology in the first place. He became my mentor, and we continue to collaborate to this day. By the time I finished my Master’s degree, he was setting up a new research group at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, and I soon moved there to do my Ph.D.
Since then, my work has combined immunology and evolutionary biology, a quest that was further aided by a six-month internship with Prof. Jim Kaufman at the Division of Immunology of the University of Cambridge, UK. Prof. Kaufman first described MHC in chickens and remains one of the most prominent researchers studying non-mammalian MHC. During this time, I had the opportunity to step out of immunogenetics and gain more practical experience in immunophenotyping (e.g., flow cytometry, cell sorting). I used this experience to write my first early-career grant, which brought me back home to Krakow and Jagiellonian University. Later, I had the opportunity to work with Jim again last year during a research stay in his new laboratory at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
Currently, I am a postdoctoral researcher with Prof. Wiesław Babik at Jagiellonian University. In our new project, we are studying the evolution of MHC and early life immune responses in various amphibian species that differ in developmental mode (i.e., some lay eggs in water from which aquatic larvae hatch, some are larviparous, some lay eggs on land). We want to see how different ontogenies affect the adaptive immunity of this vulnerable and rapidly declining group of vertebrates.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I think my Ph.D. project on evolutionary trade-offs that optimise intra-individual MHC diversity was pretty cool – so much so that after defending my thesis, I wrote a grant to follow up on the new findings we discovered!
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
The first time – I think – was when I presented the main results of my dissertation at an international congress. The recognition from peers and senior researchers in the field was exhilarating. Then when a manuscript presenting our work was accepted in a prestigious scientific journal, then when I received my first research grant. Being selected to attend the Lindau Meeting was also a moment of pride and joy.
What is a “day in the life” of you like?
It depends very much on the type of work I have planned for the day, whether it is mostly “wet lab” work, more computer-based data analysis, manuscript writing, or whether we have scheduled seminars and meetings. However, I always try to schedule my day so that I can meet with my team for coffee and lunch. These times provide some routine but also an opportunity to discuss small hurdles on a daily basis – before they become big problems. I am also fortunate to work with people I genuinely like and enjoy being with, so it fosters a sense of community and gives us healthy breaks for laughter.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
If I can contribute to our understanding of the world around us, even in a small way, I will consider it an accomplishment. I also hope to help bridge certain gaps that currently exist between precise, focused, and mechanistic immunology, where experimental efforts are concentrated on standardised cell lines and model species of very limited diversity, and the broader perspective provided by evolutionary biology, which embraces and studies the breath and significance of genetic variation.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I love to travel, and I eagerly use my time off to do so. I also enjoy cooking and spending time with my family and friends. But I also enjoy a lazy time binge-watching Netflix as much as the next person.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?
If you find something that excites you – do it. Be proud of it, and have fun with it.
Find a supervisor who will help you grow. Find people who will support you, especially through the Ph.D. – it will be the best of times and the worst of times, and you should not go through it alone.
Do not be discouraged by failed experiments and dead ends in your research; they are a natural part of the process.
Try not to give in to the imposter syndrome – we all struggle with it, but it should never stop you from applying for internships, scholarships, grants, jobs you are interested in, or awards you may be eligible for.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?
The advent of next-generation, high-throughput DNA sequencing has forever changed my discipline. I am hoping for a similar breakthrough in proteomics, antibody production, and immunophenotyping that will allow specific, functional, large-scale assays in natural populations of non-model species. I believe that studies in genetically diverse populations and in a broader phylogenetic context will advance our immunological knowledge and help overcome the “translational valley of death” between basic and applied biomedical research.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?
I think we already have a lot of girls interested in biology in secondary schools; as far as I know, the number of women enrolled in undergraduate biology programs in Poland already exceeds the number of men. So the real problem would be the “leaky pipeline” – women dropping out of STEM careers at later stages. Here, juggling family and caregiving responsibilities, often under very unstable employment conditions and with high mobility pressures, may be the biggest problem. I believe efforts to address these barriers will help to retain women in my discipline.