Postdoctoral Research Associate
Hilary Term 2021 Postdoc Profile: Meet Susann Bruche, who joined DPAG in June 2016 as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Smart Group, before working a project in the Mommersteeg Group, and starting a new role in the De Val Group last year uncovering the workings of the vascular system. Alongside this, she is an active member of the Postdoctoral Society Committee and holds a Junior Research Fellowship at Wolfson College.
On why I became a research scientist: I knew really early on what I wanted to do. I must've been in my early teens when I decided I wanted to be a scientist. I've always been interested in the nitty gritty details of how life works. It's so intricate and almost inconceivable how it all comes together. The science subjects were always my favourites at school and I had really supportive teachers. In fact, my teacher knew I needed Chemistry as well as Biology at A Level to study Biochemistry at university, but Chemistry wasn't very popular, so they almost forced some others to take it so there would be enough students to run the course!
On my postdoc journey so far: I took my undergraduate degree in my hometown, Leipzig, and did a year abroad in Manchester in my third year. Because the term times were quite different in the UK, I had a long summer gap to fill, so I decided to do a summer placement. I ended up at Imperial College and got on very well with my group leader, who invited me back for my PhD. My PhD at Imperial involved working on cell-cell contacts, which are commonly considered in the context of cancer as the loss of cell-cell contacts is the point at which cells become metastatic and able to break away from their original tissue, but as I was funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), I was looking at cell-cell contacts in different cardiac diseases. I stayed on as a postdoc after that for a year and 9 months to finish off some projects. Since I had managed to secure a scholarship from the BHF for my PhD, I ended up going to several BHF-organised symposia and met Nicola Smart after she gave a presentation at one in Oxford. I enjoyed her science and the way she talked about her own journey, so I approached her afterwards and we stayed in touch. After my PhD, I applied for a postdoc position in Oxford with Roger Patient and Paul Riley, and while I was unsuccessful, I knew Nicola was associated with those groups, so I contacted her and she offered to apply for a BHF project grant naming me as a postdoc. That's when I joined Oxford and did a 3-year postdoc in the Smart group investigating the role of splicing in the context of heart regeneration following heart attack. We were applying for funding to complete the project, which didn't come through, and in the interim I joined Mathilda Mommersteeg as she had bridging funds to finish a project on Slit-Robo signalling, valves and innervation in heart development. Unfortunately, it was then the start of the pandemic and I was about to be without a job! Luckily, I ended up joining Sarah De Val and so am now studying flow-responsive gene expression, a subject I've been excited about since my PhD, so it's like closing the circle!
On my current project: We're looking at a transcription factor called KLF2, which controls the expression of quite a lot of different genes in response to flow in the vasculature system. We're trying to understand what is being regulated, how the regulation works and what differences there are between upregulated and downregulated genes. Flow signalling in the vessels is linked to vascular disease, such as arteriosclerosis. Atherosclerotic plaques mainly form in vessels that experience disturbed flow, and there is a distinct difference between the mechanical forces experienced by these cells to those parts of the vessels that are less prone to developing these plaques. If we can understand how transcription in these cells is regulated, the hope is that we can eventually identify clinical targets to avoid the response of these cells that leads to plaque formations. That's very much a future goal. Sarah is also very interested in enhancers, which are regulatory regions in our DNA. We're keen to identify flow regulated enhancers as we go along, as this might lead to the development of new tools and model systems.
On my typical day at work: Before the pandemic and my recent job change, I tended to arrive at work and stay in the lab at the bench doing experiments for most of my day. I'm now doing quite a lot more computer work as there's a lot more data analysis in this project. I analyse datasets to identify the genes and regions that are regulated by flow. I still do a lot of lab work, such as cell culture and setting up the flow chamber for experiments. The design of our flow chamber comes from our collaborators in the US, but as soon as my colleague was due to fly over to learn from them how to set it up, the pandemic hit, so we were left on our own to make it happen! That's a new part to my research and I've been working closely with the workshop manager at the Old Road Campus Research Building to produce customised equipment to optimise the chamber. Our group is currently juggling shifts to keep to the Ludwig's rota system, and while we mostly spread these evenly among us, if ever anyone needs say an extra morning in the lab, it's relatively easy for me to work remotely doing data analysis and give them my shift.
On my career highlight: My first author paper from my undergraduate was on lions in Ethiopia, which is totally unrelated to anything I've done since, but is still a real highlight. My specialisation subject was evolutionary genetics and involved a research project at the Max Planck Institute – there was a population of lions in a zoo in Addis Ababa that looked different to other lions, and we were trying to find a scientific reason to create conservation efforts around them and find money to continue breeding them. My paper showed that they were genetically distinct from other lion populations in the wild, and although unfortunately the money didn't arrive on time to successfully breed them, it did improve their living conditions, which were very poor at the time. It was a project that felt like it had an immediate effect and the topic was close to people's hearts. We had a lot of interest from the public and interview requests from the media. We also had articles in the National Geographic and Scientific American. It was the kind of coverage and excitement you don't often get in science unless you have an absolute breakthrough! A few years later, there was a repeat of the study that included more lion populations that we didn't have access to at the time, and in the end it found a lion population in the wild that was the same as those lions, so it was gratifying to see that we didn't lose the lion population after all!
On what I find most challenging: The insecurity of the short-term contract situation can be difficult. I have so far had 3 contracts at Imperial and I'm currently on my 4th contract in Oxford. Even on 5 years-long projects, like the one I am currently hired on, there is a halfway review point and Oxford gives you a contract until that point to see if the review is successful and the remaining funding gets released. And it can sometimes be last minute - I've had a bridging fund come through just 20 minutes before I became redundant on the system! It's the little things that are impacted. For instance, it's difficult to renew rental contracts if you're not sure what will happen beyond the next few months. You can even end up paying too much for things like your internet contract as you don't know whether you can renew it for another year!
On what I enjoy most about my job: I love the variety – every day brings a new challenge and new ideas, and there's so many different projects and techniques. That's why I always wanted to do science. I can't imagine working in a job that's pretty much the same every day. I also love having flexibility – I can choose whether to write, go to the lab, or do data analysis – I can work around my own capabilities of the day!