Postdoctoral Research Scientist and Chair of DPAG's Postdoctoral Society
Meet Stefania Monterisi, who joined DPAG in March 2012 as a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Zaccolo Group before joining the Swietach Group in July 2017. Her knowledge and skills span three diverse research areas and she successfully juggles her lab work with chairing the largest departmental networking group, The Postdoctoral Society.
On why I got into research: I remember I always loved Biology at school and enjoyed explaining things to my classmates. I originally chose Biology over Medicine for University, and found I enjoyed doing my thesis in the lab. I then applied for a PhD, which was very competitive, but I managed to secure a Fellowship. After getting my PhD I've basically never stopped!
On how I got here: I am from the South of Italy and started my PhD there, before getting the chance to do half of my PhD in a prestigious institute in the North of Italy, the University of Padua. I was far from home for the first time, so it was a good personal experience as well as an opportunity to learn new techniques. Here I started working for Professor Manuela Zaccolo as part of a collaborative project. After my PhD, she moved to Scotland and I joined her as a Visiting Scientist for just under a year before returning to Italy. Then she moved to Oxford and contacted me to see if I wanted to join her again for a year-long project. Although I was already on another contract, I was excited to have the unique opportunity to come to Oxford. The 1 year immediately became 5 years as she secured a big project grant and I decided to stay. Those 5 years then became 8!
On my research background: I've moved through many different research fields over the years. My PhD involved studying Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the airways, at the molecular level. Then I moved to cardiac diseases through my work with Manuela. My first postdoctoral project with her focussed on heart failure and cardiac hypertrophy, in particular looking at second messengers. The first messenger is a signal coming from outside a cell that binds to a small protein on the cell membranes called a receptor and initiates a cascade that leads to the final response from the cell. Second messengers are small molecules within the cells that mediate the intracellular response to the first signal. They mediate a lot of different intracellular processes, for instance they are involved in cell proliferation and cell death, synthesis of proteins and metabolism. Now, I work in Cancer Biology in the Swietach Group for my second postdoc. There is a common ground allowing me to transition between these three research areas: the molecular mechanisms and the intracellular signalling.
On my current project: We primarily study colorectal cancer with a focus on pH, because the acidity of the cells' microenvironment is a hallmark of all cancers. We are investigating how pH affects cell proliferation and gene expression. My project also looks at how cancer cells talk to each other through connexins; a means by which cells communicate by connecting and exchanging small molecules. We're trying to understand if this process is actually an advantage for cancer cells in terms of survival, and therefore proliferation and metastatisation, and if so, how we can counteract it.
A typical day at work for me: It's really variable and can change every day. Typically, I reply to emails in the morning or in any spare moments, before planning experiments, setting up protocols and then doing the actual experiments and analysing the results. In my particular case, microscopy imaging takes up a lot of time. There are also lab meetings and occasionally seminars or small conferences and meetings outside the lab. I'm also very active in the department as Chair of the Postdoc Society, so there's a lot of organisation of talks, events and networking. It's never boring!
On my role in The DPAG Postdoctoral Society: The Society primarily aims to promote interactions between postdocs to create a friendly network of skills and expertise and to welcome new postdocs to the Department. I have been a member since the beginning and took advantage as an opportunity to meet people. I've made a lot of friends and we have a lot of fun together. I have always been very shy and once would never have imagined me chairing anything like this! The Committee shares different tasks and we have now expanded to organise events with other departments. We also just started to run social and outreach events that everyone in the department can join in with.
On the highlights for me so far: Moving through different fields of research has allowed me to be flexible and given me a wider scientific knowledge, which will be useful for future career options. Having the chance to come to and stay in Oxford is a highlight in itself; I have learned a lot of technical and non-technical skills here. I have developed new techniques and managed to set up certain experiments in a relatively quick time with good results so we could publish these data. One paper I'm particularly proud of is the last one I published with Manuela on mitochondria physiology, "PDE2A2 regulates mitochondria morphology and apoptotic cell death via local modulation of cAMP/PKA signalling". I didn't know anything about mitochondria until two years beforehand, so it was a lot of effort to learn all about it and set up the experiments, but we managed it in a relatively short time.
What I find most challenging: You always start a project with clear exciting aims and try your best to achieve these aims. But, most of the time things don't work out as expected or planned, so the frustrating moments come more often than the satisfactory moments. This is difficult and requires a lot of patience and resilience that you develop over time. Another challenge is asking the right research questions and trying to answer them in the best possible way. Sometimes when you think you've got the right question, after doing the experiments you realise there's something else even more important. You might find yourself changing direction or going into a side project, lose the big question and sometimes go back to it later. This can be hard to manage!
What I most enjoy about my job: When you achieve a good result and get very excited because potentially this can lead to a big impact for a clinical outcome. At DPAG, we do basic research, which is just the first step, but you want to have the big picture in mind because ultimately it's all about the patient who has the disease. I also like the social aspect of the job. You do a lot of teamwork and collaboration with colleagues in the lab and also networking with other scientists within your field, which can be really inspirational.