Meet Our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2023 Winners: Caroline Manicam

Meet Our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2023 Winners: Caroline Manicam
2 months ago

Meet Our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2023 Winners: Caroline Manicam

We’re delighted to shine a well-deserved spotlight on our third Lab Heroes Awards™ 2023 winner!

Caroline Manicam is an early career PI at the University Medical Centre of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, who was nominated by her colleague Alfred Francis for her compassionate manner and her willingness to advocate for a change within traditional lab settings. Her warmth and generosity was described as ‘life-changing’, with an attitude that brings an ‘amazing aura’ to the lab, and these qualities really stood out for our judging panel as they selected Caroline as the winner of the ‘Lab Leader’ category.

Caroline is a PI and group leader at the Department of Ophthalmology of the University Medical Centre Mainz, Germany. She specializes in cell signalling, with a deep passion for unravelling the complex mechanistic perturbations underlying debilitating degenerative retinal diseases such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, which ultimately cause vision loss. 

Her research endeavours have been funded by various funding bodies in the last decade, including the prestigious German Research Foundation (DFG). Among her many achievements, the Best Poster Award in Glaucoma in recognition of high scientific quality at the European Association for Vision and Eye Research Congress for the past two consecutive years, as well as the Roland Britz Glaucoma award in 2021 are testament to her passionate contribution to this research field. To date, her work has been published in over 50 high-impact peer-reviewed publications and more than 40 congress proceedings. 

As part of the Lab Heroes prize winning package, Caroline will receive $1,000 of Hello Bio vouchers and $1,000 to spend on her own career development. We had a fantastic in-depth conversation about her career so far, her early interest in medicine, and her passion for promoting innovation and change within science.


Congratulations, Caroline! How did it feel when you found out that your colleague had nominated you as their Lab Hero?

Thank you! I was truly humbled that Alfred saw fit to nominate me for this distinguished award as it highlights how my students and mentees feel about working in my team.


How did it feel to find out you were a Lab Heroes winner?

It was so surreal! I was abroad presenting at a scientific meeting and hence, had limited access to my work email when the message bearing the news of my winning was sent. It was only after several days that I found out about the award and I had to read the email a few times before reality sunk in. To be honest, I did not expect to win this award as all the nominees this year are exceptional individuals with wonderful nominations and I knew that it was going to be a tough competition. Therefore, I had mixed feelings ranging from surprise to delight, to say the least! It was one of the defining moments in my career and is particularly special, as my efforts to change the traditional research lab culture throughout the years have been thus acknowledged. I am indeed very honoured.


Why do you think it’s important to celebrate life science researchers, and what more could be done to show life scientists recognition?

In my opinion, scientists are among the most under-appreciated category of professionals and life science is a thankless career path. Our presence in society outside our lab bubble goes largely unnoticed until there is an outbreak like the COVID-19 pandemic. The large majority of us did not choose this path for money or fame but are driven by intrinsic motivation for a noble cause in our respective fields. Therefore, the contribution of life science researchers to society should be held in the highest regard and celebrated. One way is to start by supporting scientists and their research with better funding schemes and resources, and provide a good prospect for job security. Another way to show appreciation is through gestures of gratitude such as the Hello Bio Lab Hero Awards! Such gestures are a powerful motivator, which boost morale and make researchers feel valued for their hard work.


What are you planning to use your Hello Bio vouchers and career development grant for?

The career development grant will help to fund some of the travel costs to attend two major congresses related to my research this year. The first congress will be held in Seattle, Washington, USA, where I will be presenting my research findings at the upcoming annual congress of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO 2024). The next congress (23rd Human Proteome Organization World Congress, HUPO 2024) will take place in Dresden, Germany. The generous gift voucher will be used for the purchase of antibodies and other chemicals for on-going cell signalling experiments in my team.


What do you enjoy most about working in STEM?

The joy of every new discovery is a constant reminder of why I started a career in science, which is driven purely by passion. Apart from that, I cherish the camaraderie with fellow scientists and colleagues in medicine from all around the world – a privilege of working in this field.


Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and if so, why?

I was always an inquisitive child growing up and my parents have always been very supportive in nurturing my curiosity, in addition to instilling a deep passion for reading and learning since a very young age. But to be honest, I did not know that there was a career option as a scientist available at that time because I am the first academician in my family. I have always had a strong affinity towards a career in the medical field as a doctor, mostly owing to my mother who was a nurse. I grew up listening to all the exciting stories about the surgeries that she had assisted with and the patients whose lives were saved or health restored. Her encouragement definitely fuelled the inherent passion for wanting to make a difference in a capacity as a healthcare expert. However, due to unforeseen circumstances that were beyond my control, I was not able to pursue my studies in medicine and hence, opted for a Bachelor (hons.) degree in microbiology. It was during my Bachelor studies that I experienced a strong inclination towards research and fell irrevocably in love with this field! Thereafter, I was granted a special graduate research fellowship due to outstanding academic and research achievements as an undergraduate to pursue a direct PhD and there has been no turning back since then! In a way, I did not choose this career path, but rather, it chose me.


Can you tell us a bit about what you're working on in the lab at the moment?

Currently, I am working on elucidating the aberrant cell signalling pathways and potential compensatory mechanisms in ocular blood vessels underpinning the pathogenesis of glaucoma, which is the second cause of blindness worldwide. I also endeavour to unravel the mechanistic changes that predisposes the ageing population to this pernicious disease, with an aim to be able to develop diagnosis for early detection and a targeted treatment in the future. This is a subject very close to my heart because the ultimate tragedy in glaucoma patients is irreversible loss of sight and blindness, particularly in the elderly population.


What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?

There is no fixed schedule to my work but typically, my day starts in the morning with replying to emails, followed by discussion with my students to go through the work plans for the day. My day is usually filled with grant and manuscript writing, data analyses, administrative and organizational tasks, and student supervision. In addition, I also attend seminars and meetings (both online and in-person) with collaborators, peers and occasionally with candidates applying for positions. When there are new students starting in my team, I make it a priority in the first few months to schedule several hours in the day to teach them certain techniques, especially the highly challenging microsurgical procedures and mass spectrometry-based proteomics analyses. I usually wrap up my day with personal meetings with my students to discuss their thesis and/or with colleagues who need my advice or just support. At least once a week, usually on a Friday night, I love spending time with my team just chatting about new ideas, reminiscing about the week’s highlights and celebrating any achievements or just sharing about life in general over dinner. It is tradition in my group to try out different cuisines each week, particularly on special festivals, as we are a diverse international team.


Your colleague praised your willingness to advocate for change and promote innovation within the lab - why is this important to you?

In my current position as a group leader, I consciously endeavour to promote change in the lab starting from my group, which is no small feat considering the archaic mindset of hierarchy that is still deeply ingrained in our system. I am a strong proponent for leading by example, building trust through transparency, inspiring in kindness and most importantly, valuing diversity in a team. Throughout my journey in academia, I have seen how indifference and apathy of a PI can affect the team’s productivity. Most group leaders focus only on getting the work done, but not many actually take a genuine interest and time to get to know their students on a more personal level, particularly junior faculty members of diverse backgrounds. Therefore, I made it a personal mission to be a voice of change that advocates for kindness and empathy in research. I strongly believe that a happy team makes great research! Of course, all changes require a long time to realise but I am glad to see the ripple effect of this effort in my team, which motivates me to keep advocating for change and to put the fun back in science in my microcosm!


How could other labs benefit from looking beyond a ‘traditional’ lab mindset?

We are living in an exciting age where the research field is evolving at an unprecedented pace with an explosion of knowledge and breakthroughs each year. The traditional mindset typically micromanages without giving room for creativity and keeps the group on a short leash. When we start looking beyond this kind of lab management and implement a fresh outlook on team growth, labs will begin to focus on the greater cause of discovery for helping humanity.


What do you think are the biggest challenges facing life scientists at the moment?

As clichéd as it may sound, the biggest challenge that we scientists still face is proper funding schemes and job security, especially for early career researchers. Despite the exponential increase in the number of researchers applying for grants within the last two decades, fund allocation in major funding bodies worldwide has remained almost the same, while the success rates for getting these grants are declining. With this scenario in play, we can hardly plan for a settled future, which is made more complicated if we are based in a different country far from home. Although scientists are among the forerunners when a global health crisis arises, our livelihood is not exactly secured. Left unresolved, the research community would face a massive brain drain that will likely have serious repercussions on the future of life science. 

The next challenge would be mental-health concern, which is silently pervasive in research and academia. Science is a hyper-competitive field and the 'publish or perish' culture often drives even the best of us to the brink of utter depression. This subject is a taboo and is often a silent thief of productivity. However, I am very glad to see many new initiatives being implemented to help researchers facing mental-health struggles. Importantly, I believe that with proper support and enlightenment, scientists will no longer need to hide behind a façade but will be able to come forward to seek the right help when necessary.


What key piece of advice would you give to a younger scientist just starting out in their career?

Science is a noble calling and if you have chosen this path, first of all, welcome to the family! Follow your curiosity. Embrace the good, bad and everything in between as a learning experience. Persevere in the face of adversity and build a support network to sustain you during the challenging phases of your life in the lab. Science is fun; so, keep an open-mind and keep exploring until you find an answer. Finally, be kind to yourself and all who cross paths with you on this journey.

How do you see your career developing in the future/where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A lot can change within the next 10 years and I choose to take one year at a time. Nevertheless, if I am still in academia, I would like to be spearheading the eye research unit, with a special focus on glaucoma. I hope that the findings emerging from my research will be instrumental for early detection of degenerative retinal pathologies and will revolutionize the treatment paradigm to halt neurodegeneration. It is my deepest desire to witness at least one patient recover his/her sight due to my research. Importantly, I want to be more involved in teaching the next generation of doctors and young researchers, spread awareness about eye diseases to the lay public and continue advocating for greater change in academia in a higher leadership capacity. At the end of the day, there is no greater satisfaction and joy than to witness your discovery being instrumental for helping humankind. This is my life’s mission.


Which scientists working today do you admire the most?

The recent 2023 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine, Katalin Karikó, is someone I greatly admire. The tenacity she exhibited throughout her arduous scientific journey is truly an inspiration to women in science. If I have to highlight just one of her umpteen incredible attributes, I would certainly say that her perseverance in the face of adversity is a quality I try to emulate. Another scientist who is an amazing role model is someone in my close circle of peers – Krishnaraj Rajalingam. Krishna, as he is fondly known, is the first South Asian to be selected for the prestigious Emmy Noether Programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG). His accomplishments further led to him being the first scientist to be conferred with the distinguished Heisenberg Professorship at our university. Apart from being an outstanding cancer researcher, he is a remarkable human being with a heart of gold. Both Katalin and Krishna are trailblazers of our age who continually inspire me to be an excellent scientist, but more importantly, to use this platform to come up with discoveries that would help humanity.


What’s your favourite science quote?

These two are among my favourite quotes, which resonate deeply with how I feel about being a scientist: 

  1. To me there has never been a higher source of earthly honour or distinction than that connected with advances in science - Isaac Newton 
  2. Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch, which illuminates the world. Science is the highest personification of the nation because that nation will remain the first, which carries the furthest the works of thought and intelligence - Louis Pasteur


Is there anything else you would like to tell us, e.g. specific issues or initiatives in science that you are involved with or are passionate about?

I cannot emphasize enough about the burden of eye diseases that affect a large percentage of the world population. Therefore, I consider my active involvement in ophthalmic research as an amazing opportunity to be at the forefront of scientific advancements to improve the quality of life of the visually challenged. The next initiative that is quite a personal mission to me is the empowerment of women in science. Although the large majority of PhD graduates in life sciences consists of women, the percentage of women in positions of influence and tenured faculty positions are far less than their male counterparts. Therefore, it is my wish to be a voice for the advancement and equal opportunities for women from diverse backgrounds, whose contributions to science and society often go unnoticed and unappreciated. Finally, as the first scientist in my family, I take great pride in sharing the nuances of science and the advancement of discoveries with my family. It is my vision to share my expertise and knowledge to the lay public. I believe that the layperson should be able to make educated decisions when it comes to personalized healthcare with assistance from professionals.


Thank you for such a thoughtful and insightful interview Caroline! We hope your congress trips are productive and enjoyable this year.

Connect with Caroline:

And you can meet our other Lab Heroes Awards™ 2023 prize-winners here.


If you enjoyed this article, why not check out the other resources available on our blog. We are passionate about supporting life scientists including early career life scientists and PhD students - with really low-priced reagents, antibodies and biochemicals, early career scientist grants, and resources to help with both personal and professional development. We know how tough it is - so we hope you find these helpful!

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