Science Chat with Stephanie Diezmann

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Stephanie Diezmann, Lecturer in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry at the University of Bath

Dr Stephanie Diezmann and her lab are studying one of the top three fungal pathogens, Candida albicans. Stephanie explains “Fungal pathogens kill as many patients worldwide each year as malaria or tuberculosis. It is a big but completely underappreciated problem which is in part why we are studying it. Candida albicans normally lives in the mouth and guts of healthy people, but if their immune system becomes compromised, it can cause life threatening infections of the blood stream and organs, killing up to 50% of the people it infects. We are trying to understand how C. albicans operates the switch between living asymptomatically in the body and becoming a life threatening fungal pathogen. We think that a chaperone protein, which assists other proteins in folding, is responsible for that switch. The protein is called Hsp90 and we think this is one of the main regulators. We hope that one day our research will lead to a better understanding of how fungal virulence works and by studying Hsp90 targets, find possible drug targets for later development.”

What was it that got you interested in a career in science; where did it start?

I have always been interested in how things work, and that includes me as a 5 or 6 year old unscrewing every clock in the house and every pen, just to see how it looks on the inside. Unfortunately I wasn’t so good at putting them back together! So I have always been a curious mind and one thing led to another.

What is the most interesting or successful thing you have worked on in your career?

Probably the two papers that my PhD is based on. They are not the most high impact papers but they got me a PhD in genetics from Duke University, US so it meant a lot to me personally. During my PhD, I studied the genetic and evolutionary basis of the eukaryotic stress response using Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as the brewer’s or baker’s yeast. I was trying to find out why clinical isolates of this usually benign yeast were more resistant than isolates from rotten fruits and the brewery. I found a single nucleotide that made a difference. Seeing the image showing presence of this particular locus in the vast majority of my resistant isolates was definitely the highlight of my PhD career, as close as I ever got to a Eureka moment. Essentially, I had found the needle in the hay stack, one nucleotide in 12 million.

What are your favourite and least favourite parts of your job in research?

My favourite part is definitely working with students. This can be in the lab, on student projects or in the classroom. I find working with them inspiring because they always provide you with a fresh perspective on things. They shock you with the things they say. Sometimes good but often surprising things!

I also like when my team comes back with results. It is hugely satisfying when you write a grant proposal, and then a year or so later, the post doc walks into your lab and says I’ve done this western blott and not only did it work but it shows what you were expecting. Very satisfying. The other thing I really like is going on conferences. I like hanging out with my science friends!

Least favourite things… there aren’t really any things I outright despise which is probably a good thing! The least favourite thing is, whilst being at a University is an intellectually stimulating environment, it also means you are torn in many directions. Our workload is divided into research, teaching and administration. Very often I find my research falls a bit shorter than I would like it to.

Finally, what recent science news (not directly related to your own work) do you think has been the biggest breakthrough in the last year or so?

Gravitational waves, a bit older than a year now, but another is CRISPR obviously. Gravitational waves because their discovery validated one of the predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity a hundred years after Einstein formulated it. They provide an unprecedented glimpse into the origin of our universe and importantly, detecting gravitational waves was a massive collaborative effort funded by different countries, emphasizing that we can tackle big problems if we work together.

Interview by Catherine Teenan.

 

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