Meet Our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2023 Winners: Elisa Corti

Meet Our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2023 Winners: Elisa Corti
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3 months ago

Meet Our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2023 Winners: Elisa Corti

It’s time to meet the first of our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2023 winners!

PhD student Elisa Corti was chosen by our judges as the winner of our ‘Lab Scholar’ category for 2023. She was described in her nomination as the ‘reference point’ for everyone in the Neuronal Signaling Lab at CNC-UC, Portugal, and as someone who always has time for others, despite the demands of her own PhD work. The judging panel were particularly moved by the impact she had on colleague Emanuel Tahiri when he first arrived at the lab.

Elisa obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Milan, before moving to Trieste to enrol in the International Master’s Degree in Neuroscience. Currently she is a PhD student at the Centre for Neuroscience and Cell Biology in Coimbra under the supervision of Prof Carlos Duarte, Prof Paulo Pinheiro and Prof Ramiro Almeida. She is part of the European-founded consortium Syn2Psy, where together with 13 other researchers working in different laboratories around Europe, she investigates how non-functional neuronal communication results in disease. She is currently studying a specific protein called Fragile X messenger ribonucleoprotein that has an important role in neuron development and activity that when dysfunctional, causes a disease called Fragile X Syndrome. Elisa has presented her work through poster presentations at important conferences such as FENS Forum 2022, 8th European Synapse Meeting and ISN/ESN 2023 meeting, and through oral presentations to the members of Syn2Psy. In parallel, she has always been active in disseminating science by joining initiatives such as the European Researchers Night and Brain Awareness Week.

As part of her Lab Heroes prize winner's package, Elisa will receive $1,000 of Hello Bio vouchers and $1,000 to spend on her own career development. We spoke to her about her career so far, the challenges facing life scientists today, and how she plans to spend her prize money... 

 

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

Thank you very much! I remember that, during the first days of December, Emanuel (the colleague who nominated me) was acting weirdly, he was writing and writing and writing and I was not allowed to know what he was doing. Emanuel belongs to the category of guys with a brilliant mind at the service of fun and laughter, so I was expecting him to be working on something special for Christmas. And he was, in a way. I discovered what he was plotting only when he asked my consensus to take a picture of me and to send you the nomination. You can only imagine how surprised and honoured I was, just because I was going to be nominated. These feelings immediately changed to emotion and thankfulness once I read what he wrote about me, to the point that I have been re-reading, smiling and whining at those words for some days.

Read the full nomination here: https://hellobio.com/lab-heroes-awards/2023-elisa-corti.html

 

How did it feel when you found out you were one of our Lab Heroes winners?

I discovered that I was a winner on the 19th December. It was one of those particular days that I call “rush-y days”, in which you have a lot of things to do in a short amount of time: on the following day Emanuel was going back home for Christmas (we work in Portugal but we are both Italians), so we tried to finish all the chores during the morning, before bidding the last goodbye to the lab in 2023 (e.g. check the stocks of lab materials, check the cell cultures media, so on and so forth). This way, he had the whole afternoon to pack and prepare for travelling, while I stayed in the lab to finish some stuff for my project, and we would have met again in 2024. After lunch I was sipping my espresso, when I received the email from Hello Bio and it was addressed to “the winner of the Lab Scholar category”. Being fully honest, when Emanuel sent the nomination, he did not foresee the possibility of actually winning: we checked the other nominees and we found a variety of inspiring people, hard to compete with. So, the first reaction was shock: I had to read the email several times to realise it was actually addressed to me. The second reaction was overflowing joy, dressed with a truly happy smile on my face. I forwarded the email I received to Emanuel but I could not wait for him to see it, so I called him. Eight minutes later he arrived rushing to the lab to celebrate together what I believe is our victory, not just mine.

 

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

I think research and science are what allowed humankind to get where we are and to have a certain quality of life. Without the discoveries made by scientists throughout history we wouldn’t have for example medicines, the internet, and countless other things. Many researchers are purely driven by a genuine desire to discover something to help people, or patients, to improve technologies and avoid waste, to guarantee a better future for everyone. I do not think that we need to be celebrated above other categories because we are driven by passion, not by a desire for fame, despite the importance of our work. What I mean is that what we really need are better working conditions, that include less precariat, less nepotism, less competition and more collaboration, the possibility for women to have children without giving up their careers, more meritocracy. I understand that the system itself needs to change, but I think this is the best recognition a scientist can receive. 

In the meantime, initiatives that promote positivity should be encouraged. Yes, I am referring to the Lab Heroes Awards too: I really appreciated the fact that this award is given not based on the CV or the H-index, but on the personality of the nominees! It is an opportunity to acknowledge someone for being as they are, to let someone know that their work and qualities are appreciated. As I mentioned, just being nominated is a great burst of positivity for me, and I think this is what scientists need.

 

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

Regarding the voucher, I will purchase mainly antibodies and inhibitors of intracellular signalling pathways that I would like to use in my experiments. I was actually pleased to see how many different options I have, so before making the final decision I will study a bit, to make sure to use the voucher in the best way possible. Regarding the career development plan, I think that it is time for me to try to spread my work as much as I can, both to receive feedback from different scientists and to start integrating the results of my project in the state of the art. For this purpose, I intend to use the grant to cover the costs of two meetings that will take place this year: the European Synapse Meeting (2-4 May, Berlin) and the FENS Forum 2024 (25-29 June, Vienna). I am particularly thrilled because without this grant I would have probably have had to choose only one out of the two.

 

What do you enjoy most about working in STEM?

My favourite characteristic is that STEM is a field that is constantly evolving and improving. The tension to discover new things, experiment new technologies and implement them in real life, makes it a vibrant and enthusiastic environment. You cannot take anything for granted and everything can change following one single key discovery. You never really stop learning, thinking and interpreting what you see, somehow you evolve too, as a scientist and as a person.

 

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

This is a curious story because I had different phases with different dream jobs, but being a scientist was never a dream job for me. My mum works as a lab technician in the hospital of my hometown and when I was in elementary school she used to bring me plastic Pasteur pipettes to play with. I enjoyed moving water around and measuring volumes with my beloved pipettes. Science was a game to me, it was fun. At a certain point my dad gave me an old upright microscope he found at my grandparents’ home, so old that it did not have a light source but a mirror I had to adjust in order for light to reach the sample holder. I was as fascinated as only a curious little girl can be. My exponentially growing curiosity was soon accompanied by a childish disappointment because I wanted to see the molecules of water, the atoms found in tea or in coffee or in soapy water, but I was not able to see anything (of course).

My interest faded away over years, but I guess it was just hiding somewhere. When it was time for me to decide a path for my future I knew I wanted to study more, but I did not know precisely what I wanted to study, and I enrolled in the Biological science course at the University of Milan. Here I had two epiphanies: plant tissue is naturally coloured and neurons are freaking weird. Needless to say, I took my old microscope again and I was simply speechless: I had in front of me cells that compose the skin of a red onion or a thin fennel slice, I mean, I could see them! I decided to enrol in the masters degree in Neuroscience in Trieste, and I discovered that neurons are much weirder than I thought! From there, the enthusiasm, the curiosity and the desire to know more grew like an avalanche, and they keep growing. I guess that what I want to say is that I do not see science as a job, and I still do not see myself as a scientist (maybe this will change after my Ph.D. defence): I am just a curious person that is trying to satisfy her curiosity and that found in science the perfect mean to do so.

 

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

Sure! I am part of an Innovative Training Network called Syn2Psy, whose aim is to study synaptic alterations in neurodevelopmental disorders. In particular, I am focusing on the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, fragile X syndrome. This syndrome is caused by the lack of a protein called fragile x messenger ribonucleoprotein (FMRP), which is necessary for a correct development and functioning of the brain because it regulates the synthesis of many proteins that are found in synapses. In my project I am trying to understand the role of FMRP in the formation of the presynaptic terminal (which is a part of the synapse) and in a process called synaptic plasticity (which is the capability of neurons to adjust the strength of synapses depending on the stimulation they receive, and is the mechanism at the base of learning and memory). At the moment I am measuring the levels of synaptic proteins in normal neurons and in neurons with less FMRP, to try to link the lack of FMRP with the previously observed synaptic dysfunctions.

 

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

First of all, I try to get to the lab quite early to avoid the traffic jam, which is something that really affects my mood. Generally speaking, I do not have a well-defined routine because my ‘To Do’ list is heavily influenced by which kind of experiment I am performing, by the availability of instruments such as the microscope, and by eventual deadlines. I always try to maximize productivity and I plan my day accordingly. In any case, I try to concentrate on common chores like filling water bottles and computer work like reading emails or placing orders in the early morning, to start the day softly. Recently I have been tutoring a couple of students, so I also make sure that they know what to do for the day. By doing so I have the rest of the day available to perform experiments and/or data analysis, everything accompanied by a cup of coffee every now and then.

 

Your colleague praised you for always having time for others, despite your own busy PhD schedule! How difficult is it to juggle these responsibilities, and why is it important to be available for colleagues?

Indeed, this is the bit that actually got me when I first read what he wrote. Honestly, the only responsibilities I feel are the ones strictly related to my PhD project and to the tasks I have to do at work. Being available for others, helping colleagues and new students are not a responsibility to me: they rather are part of a system of values I was taught when I was a kid and I recognise as very important. I always try to be the best version of myself, meaning I try to treat people as I would like to be treated by others, and this includes being kind, available and not judging. It is not always easy because I am human too and some days are more difficult than others, but these values are so ingrained in what I am that I do not perceive any responsibility. On the other hand, it is very rewarding to see the consequences of me being available and helpful: a smile, an experiment that worked, a person that can go home earlier. I would like to briefly mention the concept of “Social catena” (translated to “social chain”) present in the lyric “La Ginestra” by Giacomo Leopardi: an invitation to unity and solidarity amongst human beings to face the hurdles of life. I perfectly agree with this vision and I try to follow this principle every day.

 

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

I think scientists face a lot of challenges, both from a personal and professional point of view. Without focusing on the “good old problems” such as excessive competition, pressure to publish and underrepresentation of certain groups (e.g. women, people with disabilities, people belonging to particular ethnic groups and so on), in my opinion two of the biggest challenges are the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) in our work and the prejudice non-scientific people have towards us. Life scientists belong to the group of people that push the borders of knowledge and pave the way for progress, but sometimes we can get a bit “diffident”. AI has probably been the innovation with the biggest impact of the last decade, it is a hot topic in public and private debates and it has split the general opinion. To be honest, I was part of the “diffident” group because I was scared of the consequences caused by a mis-use of this technology (e.g. cheating, excessive trust in AI without adequate fact-checking). Fortunately, recently I have listened to a talk by Rodrigo Santos, who stated that the question we should ask ourselves is “How can we use AI to improve what we are already doing?” and not “What can AI do that I cannot?”, and I changed my mind. We should implement AI and consider it a tool, not replace our critical thinking, our initiative and our creativity with AI. I think it will be really challenging for life scientists to make good use of AI, especially in a highly competitive environment as life science is.

Regarding the second point I raised, as I grow up I realize how hard it is for scientists to explain themselves to a non-scientific audience (even to their family during Christmas lunch). Scientists are seen as people doing unnecessary experiments that are far away from reality, scientists mistreat animals, scientists can modify our DNA through vaccines, scientists are cocky. We are people, we just chose a very particular job, but we are people. We are happy to share what we do, and we do our best to get closer to society to try to weaken prejudice. Communicating science is key in the world we live in: we face numerous possible threats like climate change and we defeated a global pandemic also thanks to scientists, but still we are considered bad people. We need to raise awareness of what science is and how it works, being transparent on its strengths and weaknesses. We would appreciate it if media such as newspapers or TV programs could do the same, sharing correct and complete information with an easy language and clearly distinguishing between facts and opinions.

 

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

I feel comfortable in only giving advice to students that are thinking about their future. Do not choose this career if you are not 350% sure about it or if you think “I will try to do a PhD because I do not know what else to do”. My PhD has been the most difficult experience of my life and I am close to the end because I am incredibly stubborn, not because I am curious. Passion and curiosity themselves are unfortunately not enough for a PhD. You need stamina, you need emotional tenacity and you need awareness: probably you will have to compromise and give up on part of your personal life, as there are no defined working hours and the ‘To Do’ list becomes longer day after day. On the other hand, a PhD is highly rewarding, you see your project growing and branching, you see brilliant students learning, you see yourself developing as a person and your mind becoming capable of thinking and making connections in a surprisingly different way than before. But this reward does not come regularly, so if you are not able to face constant failure this career is not for you. 

My warmest wishes to the brave minds and strong hearts that are sure about pursuing a PhD. In these years I have learnt that teamwork makes everything funnier (if you are lucky, easier too) and lighter to face, and that true personal connections are vital to survive a PhD. Still, the most important advice is to take care of your mental health, be kind with yourself, listen to yourself and do what you need to feel good. Your mental and physical health are more important than anything else, more than experiments, more than reading papers, more than productivity.

 

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

Short answer: I have no idea.

Elaborate answer: I have a precise idea about what I want to do, I have a blurred idea about how and where. I know that I want to keep studying the synapse and synaptic proteins because thinking that synapses are so small yet so vital for a proper brain functioning is mind blowing. I also know that I want to learn and perform super-resolution microscopy because I want to see such tiny structures with the best resolution possible and this group of techniques can open the door to further discoveries on how the shape of the synapse changes and how this influences connectivity between neurons. At the moment I do not see myself becoming a PI or a professor because I really enjoy bench work, for now I am more oriented towards a job such as technician in a good microscopy facility. I do not see myself working for a company because I like the freedom of academia, and I would like to be closer to my hometown in Italy, to my family and friends. Probably I will change my mind several times, but this is part of the growing process of a person. I try not to stick too much to plans and I would like to be flexible and able to recognize a good opportunity if I see one.

 

Which scientists working today do you admire the most?

Generally speaking, I know how hard academic life is nowadays, so I admire all the people whose passion and stubbornness are strong enough for them to work in academia, just because they have not quit (yet). And since I am aware of how hard it is, I would like to mention a person who is actively trying to remove inequalities: Carmen Sandi (Professor, Director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Genetics, Brain Mind Institute, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland). I have the pleasure to know her personally because she was part of the EU-funded consortium Syn2Psy that supported my first three years of PhD. She is also a founder of the ALBA network, whose goals are to promote the best lab practices possible, to encourage diversity and to give equal opportunities to everyone, especially to people belonging to underrepresented minorities. Beside this, she is an incredibly professional scientist and a truly warm human being at the same time.

I would also like to mention Joana Ferreira, a researcher in the Centre for Neuroscience and Cell Biology here in Coimbra. I admire her deep knowledge of the topic she is investigating and of the techniques she is applying, her confidence and capability to deliver a message in a precise, clear and concise way during presentations, and her kindness.

 

What’s your favourite science joke?

There are 10 types of people: those who understand binary numbers, and those who don't.

 

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

I would like to invite the readers to check the Syn2Psy ITN webpage and social media:

Apart from learning what I, together with my companions and friends, have been working on, you will find many initiatives to communicate our science to a non-scientific audience: SimpleSci videos in which we explain our work in five minutes with the help of animations (on YouTube), a stage reading of a theatre play written by us in which we give our perspective about how life in a lab is, papers published on the journal for kids Frontiers for Young Minds (doi: 10.3389/frym.2023.979294).

Finally I would like to mention an initiative created by my colleague Rui Costa, with the participation of Emanuel: RunForRareDisorders. Rui will run his first marathon and his training will be dedicated to raising awareness and funds for scientific research on rare disorders (https://www.instagram.com/runforraredisorders/).

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Thank you for such a fascinating interview Elisa! We’re so pleased to hear how this award will help your research, and we look forward to following your career as it progresses!

Connect with Elisa and the team at the Neuronal Signaling Lab:

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

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