Interviews with Scientists: Emanuela Bottani
Emanuela Bottani received her PhD in Molecular and Translational Medicine from the University of Milan-Bicocca, carrying out her research activities at the Molecular Neurogenetics Unit of the Neurological Institute "Carlo Besta" in Milan, Italy and at the Mitochondrial Biology Unit of the University of Cambridge, UK where she stayed for over four years. During this period, she worked on genetic mitochondrial disorders, identifying the function of genes associated with human diseases, describing new pathological mutations, and developing therapeutic protocols based on pharmacological and gene therapy approaches in preclinical models.
In 2017, Emanuela moved back to Italy and – thanks to the financial support of the Umberto Veronesi Foundation – she expanded her research interests studying the role of mitochondrial metabolism in Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). Emanuela is now enrolled as Temporary Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Verona, Italy, where she is currently focusing her studies on mitochondrial function in physiological and pathological conditions, including Neural Stem Cells development and spinal cord injury.
We loved speaking to Emanuela about her work, her career so far, her excellent advice for early-career scientists, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on her research.
Thanks for speaking with us, Emanuela! Firstly, please do tell us a bit more about your current research...
I have been working on mitochondrial disorders since 2008 when I had the fortunate chance to join the lab of Dr Massimo Zeviani, a top-level scientist in the field. Mitochondrial diseases are rare, heterogeneous groups of genetic disorders characterised by an impairment of oxidative phosphorylation, the final pathway of aerobic metabolism.
During those years, I focused my research projects on the development of genetic, preclinical murine models of mitochondrial diseases with a double aim: understating the function of newly discovered disease-associated genes, and developing therapeutic protocols, either based on pharmacological or gene-therapy approaches. My PhD project was centred on the development of an AAV-based gene therapy approach to treat a liver-specific mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) depletion syndrome. My project also focused on understanding the role of the mitochondrial protein, mutations of which were identified in 2011 in a few patients with severe neurological features, cerebellar atrophy, and premature death. That project was really exciting because it gave me the chance to learn a lot of new techniques that I applied in in vitro and in vivo models.
I broadened the horizons of my research interests during my postdoc, also exploring the role of mitochondrial function in ageing and chronic metabolic disorders, thanks to the financial support of the Italian Umberto Veronesi Foundation. Currently, I hold the position of Temporary Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Verona, where I have met talented collaborators with whom I am mixing my knowledge on mitochondrial metabolism with their expertise in Neural Stem Cells biology, with a view to developing new projects in the near future.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your research?
Luckily enough, research activities were not impacted so much. I was able to go to the lab when needed and I could do many jobs from home. I was able to submit two papers and apply for two grant funding opportunities, so I’m quite satisfied with what I did in this period. More generally, my feeling is that the majority of grant opportunities are now focused on supporting COVID-related research, so in my field, it will be interesting to investigate the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on rare diseases.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger?
When I chose to study Biotechnologies, I didn’t know much about scientific research. I only knew that I was attracted by the beauty of DNA and biochemistry. Although I decided to focus on Industrial Biotechnologies, I soon realised that I was fascinated by the biomedical field.
Immediately after my Master’s degree, I got a permanent position as a lab technician in a clinical biochemistry lab. I loved that job and I learned a lot about medical diagnostic tools, but I left it 18 months later to be enrolled on a one-year junior fellowship in a research project focused on the use of mesenchymal stem cells as therapeutic tools in traumatic tendon injuries. When I made that choice, I realised that I wanted to be a scientist.
What advice would you give those at the beginning of their science career?
Be curious, be daring, but also be modest: you are just at the beginning. Work hard. Study and learn as much as you can. Attend free webinars weekly. On the bench, never say: “I have always done it this way”. Go to international conferences. Move abroad for long experiences. Don’t stay in the same lab for more than three years. Apply for funding opportunities, from little prizes to international fellowships. Be open-minded.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
I had the privileged opportunity of a long research experience at Cambridge University. I met so many scientists and had the pleasure of collaborating with many of them. I shared experiences and thoughts, and I learned the importance of working on myself and my limits to improve my skills and my scientific knowledge to become a better scientist. What I am still learning is the importance of not giving up when I receive negative feedback on my projects or grant applications.
What are you most proud of in your science career to date?
When I was a PhD student, the PI of my lab said to me one day: “We have discovered a new mito-disease gene, TTC19, the function of which is completely unknown. Do you want to investigate it?”
It was 2011, and he had just described the first three patients with severe neurological impairment and premature death. In 2017 our Molecular Cell paper came out, unravelling the role of TTC19 as a post-assembly quality controller of the turnover of the catalytic subunit of mitochondrial respiratory chain complex III. I am so proud of it!
What do you think are the biggest difficulties currently facing life scientists and their work?
Italy does not invest in research. We only have a few pharmaceutical industries and biotech companies. Academy and research institutes are based on temporary employment, in which the job of “Scientist” or “Researcher” did not even exist until a few years ago.
Sadly, many scientists quit research or move abroad if they cannot afford to live with a job that is not even considered a job by Italian society. Additionally, national funding opportunities are extremely limited. I hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will make the government understand the importance of investing in scientific research.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
Since I have a 1.5-hour commute, my work starts on the train, where I check emails and read some papers. In the lab, the day starts with a good cup of coffee with colleagues. As I was enrolled as Assistant Professor last November, now my job has shifted more to office duties and I sadly must limit my time on the bench. I check for grant applications, I write papers/reviews, and I have a lot of meetings and seminars. I plan experiments very carefully as I do not have much time for them, but luckily I have the support of talented PhD students and postdocs. I often have a quick lunch in front of my laptop. I leave the lab at 5 pm to be at home around 7 pm. My job is still changing, and in September I will be holding my first Pharmacology course.
What does your typical day look like at the moment, during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a nightmare in Lombardy where I live. Schools closed on 24th February and never reopened. What I cannot understand is that whereas all workplaces have been open since May, little has been done to support families with children. Although I am still allowed to do flexible working I must look after my daughters, especially the little one as she is only three years old. I work half-days, sharing the child care with my husband, and during the night. Right now I am focusing on grant applications and writing papers. I really hope to go back to normal life very soon.
Outside of your research and any related work, what do you enjoy doing most?
I am a mom-of-two, so time for hobbies is limited! I love volleyball and I have played for many years, but unfortunately, I underwent elbow surgery in 2019 and this prevented me from playing anymore. I love cooking, experiencing new food tastes, doing aperitif with friends, and travelling. I love relaxing at the Garda lake, an amazing piece of Italy quite close to my hometown.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing now?
I think I would be a Medical Doctor, like my father and my sister. I would have loved to do it, but I thought I wasn’t good enough for such responsibility.
What is it about your field of research that motivates you the most?
Mitochondrial disorders are devastating syndromes that mainly affect children with severe clinical and neurological manifestations. Scientific research is the only hope for their families. This thought keeps me up when I am unmotivated. I believe that every scientist should keep in mind that whatever type of research they do, together we have the final goal of improving quality of life and giving hope to curing currently untreatable diseases.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
I admire Professor Luigi Naldini, Scientific Director of the San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy, Milan, Italy. He has pioneered the development of lentiviral vectors for gene transfer, which have become one of the most widely used tools in biomedical research and are providing a long-sought hope of cure for several currently untreatable genetic diseases.
I attended a lecture he gave last year, in which he showed how patients can be cured by injection of ex-vivo engineered hematopoietic stem cells. It was exciting to see movies of children affected by neurodegenerative diseases that could walk and run thanks to the cure they received. He is translating his research projects from bench to bedside, and he is giving hope and a concrete cure to patients and their families. His successes are, in my opinion, the most beautiful example of the power of scientific research.
What’s your favorite science quote?
“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions”. – Claude Levi-Strauss
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
Induced pluripotent stem cells for sure. I am fascinated by the possibility of manipulating one cell type and reprogram its fate to become a completely different cell.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Emanuela! We wish you all the best with your continued research.
You can connect with Emanuela on social media below:
- LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/emanuela-bottani-4aa4262a
- ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Emanuela_Bottani2
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