Sanne from the Netherlands is a postdoctoral researcher with Prof. Xiaowei Zhuang at the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department at Harvard University.
Sanne was highly excited to be able to attend this year’s Lindau meeting, as her actual in-person attendance was prevented during the pandemic. At the time, she was a Ph.D. student working with Prof. Marvin Tanenbaum at the Hubrecht Institute (KNAW) in the Netherlands. During her grad time, she developed several live-cell single-molecule imaging assays to study the dynamics and heterogeneity of mRNA translation and RNA virus infections. During these projects, she got fascinated by the complex competition between virus and host and, more generally, the ‘tug-of-war’ between a pathogen and our cells.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
Ever since I can remember, I liked understanding how things work. It took me a while to commit to Biomedical Sciences/Biology. Still, once I got to experience the joy of working in a research lab and exploring the secrets of Biology, I fell in love with this field of Science. To me, Science is like a puzzle; it is up to scientists to figure out how all the pieces fit together. In Science, we often work in teams, and in my puzzle analogy, this means that someone else’s perspective on a piece may help to put the puzzle together.
Who are your role models?
I have a long-standing fascination with Nobel prizes and the Laureates, as the Nobel discoveries include some of the most impactful and influential findings ever made. When I had just started working in Science, I was trying to study Nobel discoveries and trying to identify the secret recipe for a successful scientific career. However, I have realised that there doesn’t seem to be such a secret recipe. As role models, I tend to look closer to myself and my career path. So far in my career, I have met and worked with many awesome people, and I have been very fortunate to have had some great peers, coworkers, advisors, and mentors. I aspire to pay their lessons and feedback forward and one day be a mentor or role model myself.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I have been fortunate to have met and been supported by so many mentors, supervisors, collaborators, and coworkers at different stages in my career so far! As a Bachelor’s student in Biomedical sciences at Utrecht University, I developed an interest in cell biology and the dynamics of cellular processes. Upon the suggestion of one of my teachers, Dr Adri Thomas, I joined the lab of Prof. Sander van den Heuvel to study cellular decisions during the development of C. elegans. This project was led by, and I was supervised by, then, Ph.D. student Suzan Ruijtenberg. She became the first person to introduce me to the wonderful world of science. Although the initial project was more complicated than anticipated, it was fun to experience the back-and-forward between experiments-hypotheses-models.
I joined the Master’s program Cancer, Stem Cells, and Developmental Biology at the same university. Because I enjoined the Van der Heuvel lab so much, I continued to work in the lab with Suzan for another year. Among many things, I learned during that year that it requires a lot of patience to do science well. Experiments don’t always work out on the first try, and it takes a couple of months before one is familiar and confident with all techniques. I also experienced the excitement of starting to build my own questions and designing experiments. For the last part of my Master’s program, I moved abroad: to the research group of Prof. Iain Cheeseman at the Whitehead Institute in the USA. This was another exciting time for me; not only did I experience living in the Boston area and all of its science, but I also got to do different experiments and study mitosis in great detail. My time in Iain’s lab was particularly helpful for me to decide to pursue a career in science.
Upon returning to the Netherlands, I joined the new research group of Prof. Marvin Tanenbaum at the Hubrecht Institute-KNAW in Utrecht. Although some people warned against joining a new lab, I found Marvin’s enthusiasm and ‘let’s-just-do-it’ attitude motivating and contagious. Unfortunately, my first Ph.D. project didn’t work out, and it was hard to recognise that I had to move. Luckily there are so many fascinating questions to be addressed that there is no need to dwell too long on failed projects. My next project, together with Deepak Khuperkar, turned out very successful. Deepak and I spent much energy and microscopy time developing a multi-color imaging assay to simultaneously study canonical and non-canonical translation on the same single mRNAs. To our surprise, non-canonical mRNA translation is quite an abundant process, and it may challenge our rather simplistic view of how cells can produce proteins. This project illustrated that most of our textbook models are incomplete and may be more complex and worth studying.
While working on this mRNA translation project, I started another project in collaboration with Prof. Frank van Kuppeveld, which was supposed to be a side project. In this project, we aimed to apply our mRNA translation assays to visualise the translation of viral RNAs. Our findings on viral RNA translation were not very groundbreaking, but it turned out that our assay exposed very interesting elements of early viral infection dynamics. Whenever I present this project, I always introduce the research question as if we intended the assay to unfold early infection dynamics. However, that is not the case; we did not expect our assay to be useful in interrogating viral replication. I am excited to see where this research direction is heading to.
Since leaving the Tanenbaum lab, I have joined the research group of Prof. Xiaowei Zhuang for a post-doc at Harvard University in the USA. Once again, I am back in Boston and still enjoy it. Throughout my past projects, I have discovered that I am very passionate about microscopy; nothing is as convincing as seeing something taking place through a scope! Also, gene expression and virus-host competitions are fascinating processes to me. I hope to combine these interests and apply some of the cool imaging techniques in the Zhuangs lab in my future projects.
I recently graduated and got my Ph.D. degree. So far, I have had a blast doing science; I have been very fortunate to have had great mentors and advisors during different career stages. To this day, I can ask any of them for advice or input, and they continue to inspire me to be the best possible scientist I can be.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Such a tricky question! I have very fond memories of most of my projects. One project came to my mind because it was quite different from most other projects. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, I collaborated with several academic and corporate organisations to improve the testing pipeline and throughput. Although I generally do basic research, it was great to experience the ‘can-do’ spirit in this collaboration and contribute directly to society!
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
One of my main projects during my Ph.D. focused on developing a live-cell single-molecule imaging assay to investigate early viral infection and virus-host dynamics. I vividly remember our first imaging session in this project, our first observation of an infection! My Ph.D. advisor, Prof. Marvin Tanenbaum, and I were excited to see the single viral molecules moving around in a cell. Although the experiment was just meant as a quick test, we ad-hoc designed some quick controls and convinced ourselves that the assay might indeed be working. For the next couple of weeks, I was walking on a science cloud; I was so happy and excited about this project’s future work. A couple of years later, when the paper on this project got accepted, we reflected on the first experiment, and I felt very proud of the start, middle, and end of that project.
What is a “day in the life” of you like?
I don’t really have a typical day; my days can be quite diverse depending on the experiment that I am doing. If I have a lot of wet-lab steps, I like to start early, being in the lab around 8 am when there aren’t too many people around yet. It is great if there are others, but it is easier to use all the equipment when nobody is around yet. My favorite time of the day or week is whenever I am doing imaging; getting to see a cell’s secrets through a microscope is a thrilling experience! In my current project, we generate large datasets per experiment, which requires some time to analyse. If I plan to do much analysis on a day, I like to start the day working from home. I make myself a pot of nice coffee, and I work on my laptop for a couple of hours. Around noon, I will walk to the lab to have some meetings and continue the analysis. If everything works out well, we get to pull some interesting findings from our data. Based on these findings, we can design the next set of experiments to start all over again.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I hope to contribute to solving some of the mysteries of our cells and our tissues.
Currently, I am very much fascinated by the complicated ‘tug-of-war’ between a virus and the infected tissue during infection. It would be so great if my work could help to understand when/where/how this fight started, when/where/how the winner of the competition is determined, and whether we can design antiviral therapies that specifically target the best place/moment/mechanism.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I like being active; to go cycling, running, or hiking. At the same time, I can also get tremendously happy from a lazy evening or BBQ with friends.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?
Go for it! Any career path is full of obstacles and challenges, but you will have a great time if you make sure that you are working on a topic that fascinates you and if you surround yourself with supportive people.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?
I wouldn’t dare to make such a prediction. Many groundbreaking discoveries were made serendipitously; the researchers did not foresee or intend for their discovery to be as groundbreaking as it turned out to be. We are probably all very much familiar with the ‘accidental’ discovery of penicillin or the unexpectedly wide applications of CRISPR/Cas9. If one goes chasing the one big breakthrough, one risks not appreciating all other fascinating discoveries that you may overlook.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?
Women are underrepresented in STEM, and the women/men ratio increases along the career trajectory. There are plentiful initiatives to try to increase diversity, including getting more women in science. For example, some granting agencies adjust their deadlines for women with children, some seminar series (or interview series 😊) are specifically broadcasting women in science, and many faculty calls nowadays specifically mention that the hiring institution would be very happy to interview women.
Making sure that girls know about a potential career in STEM may need to start at a young age. I am a volunteer at Science Club for Girls. It is so much fun to spend a couple of hours a week with ‘my’ girls as we learn about all kinds of STEM topics, ranging from crystallography to architecture. I sincerely hope that some of my students will remember all the fun they had exploring science with me and that it may help push them toward a career in STEM.
Unfortunately, an underrepresentation in science is not only the case for women but also for many minorities. Change has been slow, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We need to be careful that the burden of making a change does not solely fall upon those that already had to fight inequalities in their life/careers. I think everyone in science should contribute to trying to combat inequality and increase diversity. For some, it may involve being or becoming an (outspoken) role model, while for others, it may require acknowledging their privilege, providing a safe and supportive platform for role models, amplifying the voice of minorities, and supporting each other.