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Interviews with Scientists: Rebecca San Gil

Interviews with Scientists: Rebecca San Gil
By Sam Roome 12 days ago 4447 Views No comments

Rebecca San Gil is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland. Her research focuses on understanding motor neuron disease (MND) pathologies at the molecular and cellular level and developing new strategies to treat people living with MND.

Rebecca has a passion for combining travel with research opportunities to improve the quality of science through international collaboration. Rebecca is also a strong advocate for enriching early career researchers (ECR) experiences with opportunities for professional development and currently serves on the Australasian Neuroscience Society and Queensland Brain Institute ECR Committees.

Rebecca was a recipient of the Magnified Justin Yerbury Travel Scholarship which Hello Bio had the pleasure of sponsoring as part of our support for Magnified, a science art exhibition organised by the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI), in association with the School of Arts, English and Media at the University of Wollongong, Australia. In December 2018, Rebecca used the Magnified scholarship to travel to Glasgow to present at the 29th International MND/ALS Symposium.


Great to speak to you Rebecca! Firstly tell us more about your PhD research...

Neurodegenerative diseases, such as motor neuron disease, are complex diseases that can be characterised by protein inclusion formation and chronic neuroinflammation in the central nervous system. Investigating whether pro-survival mechanisms are induced in cells in response to protein aggregation and inflammatory stimuli is an important area of research.

The heat shock response is one such pro-survival pathway that results in the upregulation of heat shock proteins, which have demonstrated anti-aggregation, anti-inflammatory and anti-apoptotic activities in the cell. Therefore, my PhD research asked two questions:

1) Can neurons and glia induce an endogenous heat shock response in response to protein aggregation or inflammatory stimuli associated with neurodegenerative diseases?

2) Is the up-regulation of heat shock proteins sufficient to prevent pathogenic protein aggregation and consequently enhance cell viability?

Having very recently graduated from the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI), University of Wollongong (UOW) with this PhD thesis, I am now in a position where I can, at least in part, answer these questions!

Overall, my PhD research highlighted that neuronal vulnerability in neurodegenerative diseases may be the consequence of a failure (or impairment) of neurons and glia to induce a heat shock response in the context of protein aggregates (intra- or extracellular) and inflammatory stimuli. Therefore, interestingly two major stress-inducing, pathological hallmarks associated with neurodegenerative diseases do not induce a protective heat shock response in neuron-like cells or primary murine glia. I also showed in a cell model of protein aggregation, that the over-expression of Hsp40 and Hsp70 effectively reduced the proportion of cells with inclusions in a concentration-dependent manner.


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

I have always enjoyed maths, biology and chemistry. I looked into a career in engineering but this didn’t spark any curiosity. I knew I was more science-oriented when I looked horrifed at my friend when they said learning about plate tectonics was boring. Plate tectonics are AMAZING! They are responsible for all of the stunning landscapes on earth: tropical island chains, mountains, and volcanoes. I also remember in early high school I would write lists of all of the organelles and subcellular structures of a cell and memorise their functions on the bus to school. When it was time to look at university degrees I was looking at biology and chemistry focused degrees and this, in combination with a scholarship, lead me to study a Bachelor of Medical Biotechnology at the University of Wollongong.

My Medical Biotechnology degree gave me my first opportunity to study in the lab at IHMRI as an undergraduate student and this is where the curiosity started. I was exposed to the world of research where we can study molecular biology in incredible detail and ask any question we want. At IHMRI, my supervisor Heath Ecroyd was interested in developing solutions to one of the biggest challenges the Australian population faces today: the increasing incidence of neurodegenerative diseases. His solution: to investigate the therapeutic potential heat shock proteins, the so-called “paramedics” of the cell, in inhibiting the protein aggregation and degeneration of neurons that occurs in neurodegenerative diseases. This research subject I conducted during my undergrad led me to conduct an honours year and then a PhD in the same lab.

What did you enjoy most about your PhD?

Reflecting on the time I spent studying for my PhD, my favourite memories involve the people I have met and travelling abroad for a research exchange and conferences. During my PhD at IHMRI, I was surrounded by a fantastic community of students who were very generous in sharing their expertise and skills in the lab. These friends are also hilarious and lovely people who I am hoping to catch up with soon when I head home for the Christmas holidays!

I was very lucky to have received several travel grants, which enabled me to travel to international conferences and conduct a research exchange at the Institute of Neurology, University College London. My supervisor was very encouraging of these travels and as a result I learnt important skills required for this career such as networking, building new collaborations, communicating my research effectively, and very importantly developing confidence in my ideas. I would 100% recommend to PhD students to search for opportunities that fund overseas travel during your research.

What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?

A lot of postdoctoral researchers would agree that the biggest barrier to us continuing our research is a severe lack of funding from the government. In light of recent news threatening a $328.5 million cut to Australian research funding I can only conclude that the government has forgotten that researchers work to solve thousands of problems facing the world in the past, present, and future.

There are serious consequences to a lack of research funding to the scientific community including limited jobs, no job security (which sadly often involve 6 month to 1-year contracts!), and the great Australian brain drain that sees a loss of highly skilled and exhaustively trained research staff to overseas labs or who leave the career all together.


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

1. Choose the right supervisors who will mentor you to make your science great and throw you opportunities to grow as a scientist by building on your confidence and developing your professional skills.

2. Take opportunities and search for opportunities – think about student outreach, sitting on student body committees, presenting your work in competitions, applying for travel awards to attend conferences, meeting students and researchers from other labs in the world, joining professional societies, looking for prizes and awards to be won. It looks like a long list but really you only need to do one or two of these things a year during your PhD. It’s not just about working the lab and I think that these are all of the things that will distinguish you from the pack and enrich your PhD experience.


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

I am currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland. I am working in the Neurodegeneration and Pathobiology Laboratory led by Dr Adam Walker (walkerneurolab.org; @WalkerNeuroLab). The aim of our lab is to find and develop new treatments or a cure for motor neuron disease so that people living with this disease can live better and longer lives. My research builds upon my PhD work and I am now enjoying investigating the therapeutic potential of inhibiting the aggregation of TAR DNA-binding protein 43 (TDP-43) as a strategy to prevent the onset and progression of motor neuron disease.

What did you use your Magnified Justin Yerbury Travel Scholarship for??

I have used the Magnified Justin Yerbury Travel Scholarship to travel to the International ALS/MND Symposium which was held in Glasgow, Scotland this year. This was my first time attending this symposium and it was excellent to meet some of the key researchers in the field. I gave a poster presentation and it was one of the most productive poster sessions I have ever attended. I received some excellent feedback on our preliminary findings and shared some of the techniques we have been using in the lab to identify “anti-aggregation” activities of our different target proteins.


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

To be honest, there is no typical day in the lab… one of things I love about the job! I like to do big chunks of lab work where I might run numbers of westerns and immunocytochemistry experiments, I might be on the microscope for hours one day and then on the computer analysing the images the next day. The following week will focus on analysis, interpretation, and preparation for more follow-up experiments.


Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

I love cooking, baking, eating and travelling. Since I am new to Brisbane, I have been having a great time exploring the city and finding new beaches along the coast to go swimming on the weekends.

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

A bit random, but I think it would be really fun to design eco-friendly sustainable houses.

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

Being able to ask any question to discover molecular and cellular mechanisms that have never previously been explored. We are constantly learning new frontiers in cell and neurobiology and the potential for these findings to have an impact on the lives of people living with motor neuron disease is extremely motivating.


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

I admire all women working at all levels of academia. In particular females working at the highest levels have shown dedication, motivation, and perseverance that are inspiring to me and the younger generations of female scientists moving through the ranks.


What’s your favorite science joke?

I am a big fan of this meme, it touches on the imposter syndrome that many of us have in the field of research!


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

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). I think it is the versatility of CRISPR that makes it the greatest discovery of all time, CRISPR can be used to edit, knock-out, inhibit and activate genes. I am very excited to be starting a new project in the new year involving CRISPR and I can’t wait to see what we will learn using this technique.---

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Thank you so much for speaking to us, Rebecca! We wish you every success in your research.

You can follow Rebecca on Twitter @Rebecca_SanGlia

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