With a child, a new chapter in your life as a researcher starts and you find ways to be more efficient, better organized and deliver more valuable results of your work.  


The month of July is dedicated to one of our biologists Marketa Schmidt-Cernohorska. Marketa started her fellowship in October 2020 at the Department of Microbiology, Immunobiology and Genetics. Find out below how Marketa's research project can be described with boats and piers and how she masters her daily academic routine as a researcher in a male dominated field.


Describe your research in one sentence.

Marketa: I investigate how much biology uses physics in the function of little cellular organelle whose main role is to ensure equal distribution of DNA during the cell division, the basis of all life.


Tell us about a normal day in the life of a postdoc. 

Marketa: Sleeping usually ends with my little son waking up and I start thinking about some of the many challenging tasks at my work. Currently, I am contemplating how to artificially create my little cellular organelle in a tube and whether this will answer at least some of the questions running through my mind. Then I watch birds flying around the balcony while I am eating breakfast and think about the transience of our lifetime and how little time I have for so many ideas I want to test before my brain will be too old and tired. I ride to work with my bike and start making my “to do list” for the day. When I drop my son off at day-care, I always encourage him to learn new games and interesting activities and have as much fun as I do at work. Then I come to the lab, check the cells and worms cultured in the incubators and fetch a box with ice and frozen samples to start the first experiment. At lunchtime I enjoy a break with a few others from our team. It is the only socializing event we have now in this COVID time. The afternoon is often coupled with a microscope session in one of the “dark holes” in our microscope facility when my mind is the most powerful and makes new hypotheses while seeing the results of my efforts.


How will society benefit from your research? 

Marketa: The causes of many diseases have so far not been revealed and cancer is one of the most complex ones because it does not have one cause. My work sheds new light on one of the fundamental processes in normal cells that when damaged can lead to cancer development. It is the ability to divide DNA equally into new cells during division which represents the most fundamental property of life sustainability on Earth. The whole machinery responsible for it is quite complex and can be divided into many subfields. I study one of them, a little organelle which plays a critical role in the whole process.

Let me explain the process of cell division using a simplified idea. DNA in the form of chromosomes is divided using special wires. On one end these wires anchor chromosomes, on the opposite end they are tied up by a little clump of proteins. We can imagine one chromosome as a big boat (oil tanker) that is tied up to a small pier (a bunch of intertwined proteins called centrosome) using tens of ropes. We know the dynamics and composition of the tanker and those ropes very well. But we have poor knowledge of the pier, such as what are the material properties allowing the pier to withstand forces coming from the boat movement without being pulled apart? Without this knowledge, we cannot understand properly what is wrong when the pier is not strong enough and the boat is damaged or even lost during the storm (cell division). Moreover, basic research of the pier could help to understand the origins of other diseases, such as neurodegenerative disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ciliopathies) in which the pier plays an important role too.


Share a funny/surprising or unexpected anecdote with us from your academic career so far:

Marketa: I have two funny stories in which my research was at risk. The first one is about how I had to finish my best publication with a broken hand following a mountain biking accent in French Jura with my husband. At that time, my project was in the mid-stage and required mainly cryo-electron microscopy, a method where precision is critical - similarly as it is for a dentist. But I was otherwise lucky; my bones broke in such a way that after surgery they were stabilized with metal plates and screws, and I was able to continue experiments three weeks after the accident.

My second anecdote is about how I was finishing a grant application whilst waiting to give birth in the maternity ward and welcome my son into this world. He came early without any warning, and I was lucky because I had my laptop in my backpack (instead of diapers and little clothes for the new-born). While waiting for the results of all the prenatal examinations, I worked on the grant application as long as I could. I made it just in time before I was transferred to the delivery room. It anyway helped to distract me from the labour pains!


What does REWIRE mean to you?

Marketa: Being successful in cell biology research requires a sharp mind, hard work, diligence, good organization of time, and owning your advantages in an otherwise highly competitive environment. REWIRE offers the opportunity to continue my research on a very high and competitive level, which is important because while the majority of students in life sciences are women, the majority of researchers in permanent university positions are men. REWIRE allows me to continue in the field in which I have worked for more than a decade. Moreover, it allows me to continue to independently puzzle over the most intriguing questions using my own approach.


Who is your personal heroine? 

Marketa: My personal heroine has been Barbara McClintock for many years, especially during my university studies. As a plant scientist, she studied chromosomes in corn and observed principles of gene combinations that drives evolution. Her major contribution to science was later when she observed jumping parasitic genes which affect the distribution of colours in corn seeds. Without classic Mendelian genetics applied to their weird behavior they can only sometimes be seen, and without regularity, which looks like they have a very strange relationship with each other and with other genes. But she managed to reveal the major principle of how they work. This observation on complex gene regulations was, however, so unexpected that nobody trusted her. Due to scepticism, she even stopped publishing results of her work for two decades. Only once new findings from two male researchers came to light, was she finally recognized and got an unshared Nobel prize. For me it is inconceivable how complex those studies must have been and how much patience for puzzling over them she must have had. She had an incredible ability to withstand the disrespect and lack of recognition with pure resilience and vitality.


The most important lesson learned so far that you want to share with other future (female) early post docs:

Marketa: One of the biggest questions in the minds of many female early-career stage researchers (regardless of their confidence about scientific qualifications) is whether to start a family and if so, how to not lose out on research career opportunities. As a young woman I always doubted the necessity to have a child because being a parent is not for everyone. As a biologist coming from a family focused on male success, I realized that I have an obligation to have a child who I should raise as a confident individual being able to do everything that he/sh wants. My best advice is to refine the path for yourself, for instance (besides having a supportive partner) by either getting your own funding, or a longer-term funded position or even a student for your project. This will give you some confidence for your future, and make you a calmer and happier parent. With a child, a new chapter in your life as a researcher starts and you find ways to be more efficient, better organized and deliver more valuable results of your work.


Quickfire Questions

Keyboard or Pen?

For writing down thoughts, I use a pen and my notebook. For new hypotheses I use my cell phone and iCloud because this seems to be the fastest way and the data is saved forever. Some hypotheses are indeed very fleeting.

Vanilla or chocolate ice cream?

Chocolate of course. The bitter the better. Italian one.

Early bird or night owl?

I feel I am the universal one. I work from the morning until night with more or less the same intensity. I learned how to use waves of brain activity without disturbing them with coffee or other intensive stimulators.


Interested in reading more about Marketa's research? Click here.