Interviews with Scientists: Simona Carbone
For our latest Interviews with Scientists, we spoke to Simona Carbone. Simona is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, Victoria. She is a co-director of the Integrated Neurogenic Mechanisms Laboratory, in Drug Discovery Biology at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS). She is aiming to develop a scientific program to aid in the design of novel therapeutics for the treatment of various GI-diseases by targeting physiologically relevant targets. She is a leader of a gastrointestinal motility project involving Takeda Pharmaceuticals and coordinates interactions between academics, clinicians and industry professionals for this project.
Simona’s research has utilised many techniques from various tissue pharmacology assays, intra and extracellular electrophysiology, immunohistochemistry and in vivo assays to study colonic motility. She is also an MIPS teaching fellow, Treasure of the Australasian Neurogastroenterology and Motility Association, and is on the Editorial board of American Journal of Physiology: Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology
We asked Simona about her research, where her passion for science started, her biggest career achievements to date, her advice for early career scientists, and more.
Hi Simona! Firstly, tell us a bit more about your work...
The gut has its own nervous system called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). While the functions of all other organs in the body are controlled by the brain and spinal cord, the ENS is the main controller of gut functions. This includes breaking down ingested food and moving content, absorbing water and important nutrients, and expelling anything that isn’t needed or may be potentially harmful. My work aims to identify novel ways that the functions of the ENS can be modulated, with the idea that they may be useful to target when generating new therapies for various gastrointestinal (GI) diseases. There are two types of targets we are interested in: either specific receptors on the enteric neurons themselves, and also separate groups of non-neural cells that communicate with the ENS.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger?
No, I was one of those kids that wanted to be something different every week. I always loved science, especially biology and physics, but probably saw myself heading down the allied health field. I LOVED learning about how neurons communicate with each other during my Bachelor of Medical Science degree, and was fascinated by experiments using a technique used to record the electrical activity of neurons (electrophysiology). I was very fortunate to complete a laboratory placement with a group that studied the ENS. They were experts in electrophysiology and were some of the founders of key ideas in the ENS field. I never looked back once I set foot in that lab. I loved that through my experiments I was seeing things that very few people could ever appreciate or know exist. I loved discussing results and ideas with some of the smartest people I had ever come across. I would become so passionate and excited explaining to my family and friends this world that had opened up to me.
My main driver for wanting to pursue a career in this field is that I never want to stop learning and I will be very happy if I am able to do that for the rest of my days.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out with their science PhD?
Ask for help early on, this will save you more time than you know! If you are struggling with experiments, ask for help. There may be something obvious you have missed. If you are writing a paper / abstract, submit it for revisions early on and don’t wait for what you think is perfect. It won’t be. The blow of receiving a heavily corrected manuscript, when you thought it was a perfect piece of prose is hard to cop, so save yourself the pain! Get help with writing during the development phase of the piece.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
More people than you realise suffer from imposter syndrome, especially those you consider to be really successful. It’s not just you.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
Science-wise, I am most proud of my papers where I used electrophysiology to record from enteric neurons in specimens of colon from humans. There is a lot of literature using rodent models, but only four papers using human tissue. I am first author of two of these. It was a lot of hard and lonely work to put that together, but I achieved it and I think the recordings are beautiful.
Career-wise, I am really proud of being awarded my recent fellowship from the Australian Research Council. I’m definitely proud of the work I put in to get the application together, and the way I have been building my career to be competitive for such an award. Most importantly it signifies to me that I have surrounded myself with the right people, both mentors and supporters, who will help me achieve my utmost and back me 100%. That’s a pretty great feeling.
What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing life scientists?
Career stability is a huge problem in academia. In Australia, permanent research / academic positions are near impossible to come by. I know very few people with tenured positions. In addition, research funding is becoming an ever-increasing problem with not enough funds to support the projects or the researchers that deserve the funding. It means there are many hours wasted by our top researchers writing grant applications that have such low chances of being funded. It would be really nice to have a period of time each year where we didn’t have to worry about these things, so we can put our heads down and do good science. It seems applying for grants all year round now is the new norm.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
No day is typical anymore. When I was a PhD student and early postdoc, my days were very centred around experiments. Now that I co-direct a laboratory, and I am responsible for the supervision of multiple students I have a lot of other tasks to fit in.
Over the course of a week this will include meeting with our team to discuss all sorts of ideas, meeting with local and international collaborators to keep our projects progressing, meeting with students and revising their work, writing or editing something; be it a grant application, a paper or an ethics application, reviewing a paper for a journal, analysing data from our experiments and of course a bit of lab time. When I’m in the lab I’m usually dissecting a piece of colon, collecting samples of human tissue from my clinical collaborators, on a microscope imaging the enteric nervous system, or recording peristaltic contractions moving along a segment of intestine.
Outside of your scientific work what do you enjoy doing most?
Cooking! I love cooking! Nothing particularly fancy, but I really enjoy putting together a meal and having people over for dinner. I get a lot of satisfaction making pasta from scratch. Otherwise, exercise is really important for my sanity too. A good walk or run and a bit of weight training in the morning is a great way for me to start my day.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I honestly don’t know, but I really enjoy helping people make informed decisions so maybe something that involves this skill.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
I am very passionate about studying the human enteric nervous system. In many fields of physiology, I believe a major limitation for the successful translation of scientific ideas from the lab to usable therapeutics at the hospital is that many of the basic principles haven’t been confirmed in human tissues. In the gastrointestinal field, samples of tissue from patients are very obtainable. Although performing routine scientific experiments aren’t always easy using these samples, I strongly believe that we have to try. It is why I am most proud of my work recording from human enteric neurons.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
I like to draw inspiration from those that are more adjacent to my working environment, as I feel I can learn so much from them to improve my own skills as a basic science researcher. I collaborate with a lot of clinicians, some who are actively involved in research. Watching them perform their roles in a clinical setting is awe-inspiring and provides me with a solid grounding that I am fortunate enough to work with them.
I really admire the dedication of GI surgeons David Wattchow from Flinders Medical Centre (Adelaide) and Sebastian King from the Royal Children’s Hospital (Melbourne) in regard to both their clinical roles in their hospitals but also to the basic science research that I have helped them carry out. I am a big advocate for science communication, and the need for well informed and relatable science journalism. Wendy Zuckerman is the creator of a brilliant podcast called Science Vs, and I really admire her ability to articulate science in such a clear and fun way for her audience to really enjoy. As academics, we are needing to be more entrepreneurial and innovative, not only in our scientific ideas but in the way we seek funding. Innovators like Elon Musk boldly challenge EVERYTHING! His ability to see the world or a problem differently is amazing, and is a skill I want to improve on.
What’s your favorite science quote?
Rita Levi Montalcini: “Above all, don't fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.”
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
The discovery of the nervous system by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and Camillo Golgi. They jointly discovered that this system is made up of individual nerve cells, which communicate by transmitting electrical signals and synapsing with each other. This body of work created the field of neuroscience!
Thank you so much for speaking to us, Simona!
Simona is a member of the Australasian Neurogastroenterology and Motility Assocation (ANGMA). Her research funding comes from the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (ARC, DECRA), Takeda Pharmaceuticals, Brian Smith Endowment Fund, and Monash University
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