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Interviews with Scientists: René Jeżewski

Interviews with Scientists: René Jeżewski
By Sam Roome 6 months ago 1331 Views No comments

René Jeżewski is a first year PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales. René’s research interests lie within the field of molecular and cell biology with applications in therapeutic development and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. Her doctoral research focuses on optimising and validating a gene therapy delivery system for restoration of protein homeostasis in MND/ALS motor neurons. René has been a recipient of both a UNSW Scientia PhD Scholarship and the Magnified Justin Yerbury Travel Scholarship, which we had the pleasure of sponsoring!

René earned her Bachelor of Medical Science degree, Honours degree and Master's degree, with distinction, at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Her Master’s degree focused on the role of cysteine amino acid residues on the bioactivity of a tick-derived antimicrobial peptide. René has worked as an intern with the National Research Foundation/Department of Science and Technology, as a laboratory demonstrator/tutor at the University of Pretoria and as a cord blood specialist/laboratory assistant at CryoSave, South Africa.

Great to meet you, René! Firstly, tell us a bit more about your PhD...

The aim of my PhD is to optimise and validate a gene therapy delivery system to increase gene expression and activity of a particular gene of interest for restoration of protein homeostasis in motor neurons.

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

When I was younger I wanted to be a lot of things: a marine biologist, an entomologist, a paediatrician – so it seems like overall, yes, I did want to be some sort of scientist. My ultimate decision to become a medical scientist was motivated by my father.

In 2009, my father was diagnosed with ALS. Knowing nothing about the disease at the time, I could not comprehend my father’s distress. Little did I know he had just been handed a death sentence, set to be carried out in the year to come. I watched as my father’s body rapidly began to decline, it wasn’t long until a walking aid turned into a wheelchair. Finally, he was reduced to nothing more than his thoughts – torture. My father succumbed to the disease a little more than a year later.

Bearing witness to a disease that stood no chance at losing, I found myself plagued by numerous unanswered questions, most obviously: “Why couldn’t we help him?”. Seeing how one man’s dignity and independence was so callously stolen by such a wretched disease, I then decided, this is it, I am going to find a cure. It would be, and remains to be, a long journey to that day but I’m happy to have been given the opportunity to start. Although it may not help my father, I don’t believe even the worst of people should fall victim to this cruel, merciless disease.

What are you enjoying most about your PhD?

It is still early days, but I am learning so much about research in general, experimental strategies and of course, MND/ALS. I find myself being positively astonished by the significant strides already made in understanding the mechanisms of MND/ALS as well as the numerous proposed therapeutic strategies that seem exceptionally promising. I am awe-inspired by the numerous researchers who stand united in the fight against the disease, each of which I believe will form a pivotal contribution to the ultimate goal of developing a cure.

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

I think funding is quite a significant challenge in research. Funding and grant applications are hyper-competitive, and the successful progression of research often rests on the outcome of these applications. Additionally, scientists are often booming with ideas that have significant potential for improving, for example, health and disease, but often the novelty of the idea(s) and absence of significant existing evidence limits the support that they receive from funding agencies (who probably want to play it safe and would prefer to have some sort of guarantee that their investments will yield positive results).

Public ignorance may also significantly impede research.

What are you going to use your Magnified Justin Yerbury Travel Scholarship for?

The scholarship is affording me the opportunity to attend the 29th International Symposium on MND in Glasgow, UK. It will help enhance my understanding of the mechanisms of MND and develop insights into the disease beyond the scope of my current research. I hope to be able to forge collaborations across institutions and facilities, inspiring creativity and innovation in the search for effective drug therapies, improved diagnostic screening tools and possible preventative strategies for MND/ALS.

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

I am preparing recombinant viral vectors with our gene of interest for later introduction into various in vitro models.

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

Being a newbie, I have yet to really experience a typical day in the lab but so far it starts out with me trying to orientate myself, questions running through my head, e.g. “What do I need?”, “Where is everything?”, “How do I do this?”, you know, the usual things, followed by some motivation: “You got this!”, and then I proceed to do what I need to do – annoying people with some seemingly obvious inquiries as I go along. In the event of success, I leave the lab, head held high, excited to conquer the next day.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

I enjoy playing tabletop board games (not generic games like Monopoly), arts and crafts, basketball, soccer, baking (not cooking) and PC/console games.

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

I think I’d be a baker.

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

As there is no effective treatment or cure, and there is still much left to understand about MND/ALS, there seems to be ample opportunity for exploring novel ideas that could hopefully see the end of the disease as we know it.

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

In my field, I admire Justin Yerbury for his persistent dedication to the fight against MND despite his personal afflictions with the disease. I am truly honoured to be one of his students.

In general, I am very impressed with Barry Marshall, the scientist who drank Helicobacter pylori to prove that it was responsible for peptic ulcers. That confidence and dedication is not easily matched.

I do, however, think that there are numerous researchers who deserve admiration for their work: the ones working for those who become famous, the ones making mistakes and designing the experiments, and the ones making the little discoveries that make big differences – although I don’t know who they are, I admire them for their dedication despite being hidden in the shadow of those scientists with bigger voices.

What’s your favorite science joke?

Heisenberg and Schrödinger get pulled over for speeding.

The cop asks Heisenberg "Do you know how fast you were going?"

Heisenberg replies, "No, but we know exactly where we are!"

The officer looks at him confused and says: "You were going 108 miles per hour!"

Heisenberg throws his arms up and cries: "Great! Now we're lost!"

The officer looks over the car and asks Schrödinger if the two men have anything in the trunk.

"A cat", Schrödinger replies.

The cop opens the trunk and yells: "Hey! This cat is dead."

Schrödinger angrily replies: "Well he is now."

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

There are a plenty. Relevant to my field and more recent discoveries would be the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) (Kary Mullis), RNA interference (Andrew Fire and Craig Mello) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) (Shinya Yamanaka).

In general, discoveries that I feel have changed the world are gravity (Isaac Newton), electricity (Michael Faraday), vaccination and pasteurisation (Louis Pasteur), X-ray (Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen), penicillin (Alexander Fleming), and DNA (James Watson and Francis Crick), to name a few.


Thank you so much for such a passionate interview, René! We wish you every success with your research, and PhD studies. (BTW - we especially loved your science joke!)

You can connect with René on LinkedIn here


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