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Interviews with Scientists: Jennifer Romanos

Interviews with Scientists: Jennifer Romanos
By Sam Roome 4 months ago 1385 Views No comments

Next in our Interviews with Scientists, we speak to Jennifer Romanos. Jennifer was one of the lucky recipients of our travel award to attend The 2019 Gordon Research Conference on Dendrites: Molecules, Structure and Function in Ventura, CA – and kindly agreed to tell us more about her work!

Jennifer grew up in Edde, a small coastal town in Lebanon and did her Bachelor studies in Life and Earth Sciences at the Lebanese University in Beirut. She moved to France in 2013 to do her Masters at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Lyon. During that time, she had the opportunity to join several research teams at Harvard Medical School and at the Neuroscience Center in Lyon.

These research stays increased Jennifer’s interest and passion for understanding neurological disorders and she decided to pursue a PhD with Dr. Mirko Santello at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Zurich. She joined Mirko’s team in 2016 and started working on cortical mechanisms underlying migraine pathology (the third most common disease in the world). Jennifer’s work specifically focuses on the role of astrocytes in cranial pain development.

Thank you so much for speaking to us, Jennifer! Firstly tell us a bit more about your PhD...

My main PhD project focuses on understanding how astrocytic dysfunction affects neuronal activity and leads to cranial pain in familial migraine. Migraine is a highly disabling and common disorder (affecting up to 15% of the population). Yet, because of its polygenic and multifactorial nature, preclinical research in migraine is very limited and our understanding of the underlying pathophysiology is still primitive. In my study, I use a combination of techniques such as electrophysiology, two-photon microscopy, cell-specific genetic manipulations and behavior to study migraine-associated cortical alterations in a genetic mouse model featuring malfunctional astrocytes (familial hemiplegic migraine type 2, FHM2).

Astrocytes – that were once thought of as mere ‘brain glue’ – are now considered necessary active contributors to neuronal functions. In pathological conditions, astrocyte–neuron interactions can go awry, with strong impact on brain circuits and behavior. In migraine patients, imaging studies have shown that the cingulate cortex displays heightened aberrant activity. However, the underlying mechanisms of such hyperactivity is unknown. We therefore focus on that region and hope to understand: 1) How an astrocyte-specific mutation alters neuronal function, leading to a hyperactive cingulate cortex, and 2) How a dysfunctional cingulate cortex is implicated in cranial pain onset.

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

Until high school, I didn’t know that one could actually be a scientist. Growing up in Lebanon, I never met any research scientists. If you were interested in Biology, you would become a science teacher, medical doctor or medical lab technician. It wasn’t until my older brother left for the US to pursue a PhD in Physics that I found out this could be a career path.


What are you enjoying most about your PhD?

The people. I mostly enjoy discussing science and brainstorming with my mentor and colleagues. When nothing seems to be working, it always helps discussing with fellow students, postdocs and senior scientists. Also attending conferences and summer schools, meeting amazing people and having fruitful discussions always keep my motivation and enthusiasm going!

What advice would you give to someone just starting out with their PhD?

My main advice would be to find a supportive mentor and good working environment. It is important to join a team where you can grow as a scientist and where you have opportunities to do more than just perform experiments. With the ups and downs of a PhD, one can love or hate the same research project from one day to another. Being surrounded by a supportive and engaging environment and having a mentor who is enthusiastic and active in science makes my work way more fun!

What's the most important lesson you have learned so far during your PhD?

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is to have confidence in my work, and that it is OK not to know everything. Many PhD students and junior scientists have a imposter syndrome where we persistently doubt our own accomplishments and think that we are not good enough, or that we don’t have as much knowledge as we should in the field. We are PhD students, still at the beginning of our career, we have plenty of time to learn and develop as scientists.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

I am proud of being able to master challenging techniques, be productive and efficient whilst maintaining a good work-life balance. I am also glad that I’ve managed to hold onto my passion and enthusiasm for science (although with difficulty sometimes) through the ups and downs of the PhD.


What do you think are the biggest issues currently facing life scientists and their work at the moment?

I don’t even know where to begin!

The uncertainty of an academic career: Many young scientists are discouraged by this. If you want a stable life, the academic path is scary: one might have to spend most of their career relocating from one place to another, uncertain of the next step, and always relying on limited grants. It’s a risky business and that’s why many people abandon this path.

Lack of communication with the public: In Switzerland, where I am currently doing my PhD, there will be a nationwide vote to completely ban animal experiments. I think this is the result of several factors. Firstly, scientists generally make little effort to communicate their work to the general public – and in turn the public has lost its trust in scientists. I also think the public is badly informed about the treatment of lab animals and how strict the laws are when it comes to handling them. If you Google the term “animal experimentation” you will see the most unreal, harsh images there are. Therefore, I think it is our duty to make our work more reachable and transparent to the public, so everyone is well-informed.

High impact factor = successful scientists: Almost exclusively, scientists are judged as successful according to the number of articles and in which journals they publish. Undoubtedly, this is important. However, mentoring skills, outreach to the public, and other factors should be equally taken into consideration to judge a good scientist.

Lobbying: Whether we like to admit it or not, lobbying is big in science. The publishing system, grants, and positions depend more heavily on the people you know than on the science you do.

Doing research in developing countries: This is a more personal barrier. My aim is to become a research scientist in my home country, Lebanon. However, research grants in basic science going to developing countries are very limited and almost non-existent. Therefore, if you want to be a researcher, you either have to leave or stay and choose another career.

I’ll stop there, but there are many other challenges that scientists face in different stages of their careers, such as the state of the scientific publishing system, gender bias/inequality, data reproducibility, communication of negative results, support for young scientists, life-work balance, mental health of PhDs and postdocs.

Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! I am almost at the end of my PhD, so I am finalizing the manuscript of my project and will start writing my thesis soon.

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

I usually spend my mornings reading, answering emails, going to meetings and conducting analysis. I try to fully dedicate the afternoon to performing experiments.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?

Outside the lab, I enjoy going to concerts, hanging out with friends and traveling.

If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?

I would love to work in civil rights or environmental policy making. To be able to directly make a difference through my work and ameliorate the living conditions and well-being of humans, animals, and the environment.

What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?

Neuroscience is a very young and exciting field. In fact, the nervous system is probably still as mysterious as the outer space and there are continuously new emerging and astonishing ideas, discoveries and techniques that blow my mind. More related to my work, in the last decade, the glia field has been expanding. The long-forgotten astrocytes have become the center of attention of several research groups. Unraveling that astrocytes are heterogenous and that they are active contributors to the nervous system’s function in health and disease is super exciting.

Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?

In general, I admire scientists who greatly contribute to the field, but still care about communicating science to the public and engage in shaping governmental policies through science and education (such as Prof. Susan Greenfield). I also admire passionate mentors, who care about building the careers of young scientists, transmit their enthusiasm to others and care about gender equality in academia (such as my mentor Dr. Mirko Santello and the late Prof. Ben Barres).


What’s your favourite science quote?

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” – Carl Sagan

What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?

It is so difficult to choose one! I can think of two great scientific discoveries related to Biology: Evolution and DNA.

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Thank you so much for speaking with us, Jennifer! We wish you luck with your PhD thesis!

Here’s how you can connect with Jennifer online:

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If you enjoyed reading this interview, why not check out the other resources available on our blog. One of the things we’re most passionate about is supporting early career life scientists and PhD students. We know how tough it is - so we hope you find these helpful!

Advice & guidance for life scientists

Click below to view our of essential guides and articles includes to support life scientists, PhD students & early career life scientists:

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Travel grants

Every month we give away $500 to PhD students and Postdocs so that they can attend a scientific conference - click below to find out more:

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