Name: Dr Michèle Erat
Research institution: Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
Research career length: 8 years
Research Council: Soon to be funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
Location: Oxford, England
Brief summary of research: Structural biology - investigating important cell structures called centrioles
Swiss Matura (required before applying to university in Switzerland)
Undergraduate degree as a primary school teacher (Switzerland) [Diplom als Primarlehrerin, Lehrerseminar Mariaberg, Rorschach]
Diploma in Natural Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Dip. Natw. ETH)
PhD in metal ion interactions with self-catalyzing RNAs
Personal Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded by the Swiss National Science Foundation
Marie Curie Fellowship
Postdoctoral Fellowship, Dept. of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
Postdoctoral researcher in the Infection Biology Group, Biozentrum, Basel
Further Postdoctoral Fellowship, Dept. of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
Our cells divide to allow us to grow, replace and repair damaged tissue from the wear and tear of being alive. By using the latest techniques for seeing the smallest structures in cells, Michèle Erat is working to find out what happens when microscopic centrioles, fail to work properly during cell division, and hopes that her research may one day help us to treat many health conditions.
Tiny structures called centrioles are important for human cells, as they are responsible for organising many other small structures when cells divide. If they are faulty, it may be harmful to our health, and can lead to genetic disease, affecting many organs at the same time. In adults, faulty centrioles can cause male sterility, ectopic pregnancy (when the baby develops outside of the womb) or chromosomal disorders such as Down syndrome. Current understanding of the origins of many of these conditions is limited, and our research aims to tell us more about how centrioles are put together and why they sometimes fail to work properly.
I guess, I’ve taken an unusual career route. Although at school in Switzerland, where I was born, my performance was best in subjects such as languages and history, I ended up studying biochemistry. My first degree was in teaching, but after teacher training college, I chose to go to university, where I combined my interest in biology, maths and the physical sciences by studying biochemistry. After two years of undergraduate studies, I did a number of internships, including one at the pharmaceutical company, Roche in Basel. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience there, and it had a big influence on my further career decisions.
I am fascinated by the tiniest detail that techniques like nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and X-ray crystallography, make possible for us to see in our cells. Recently, a colleague and I have been awarded a BBSRC New Investigator Grant to research the assembly of centrioles, during cell division.
Because I would also like to spend some time with my 6-month old son, I will only be working part-time on this new project. The double responsibility of being a mother as well as an academic researcher is probably the biggest challenge I have faced so far in my scientific career. Nonetheless I enjoy my research, finding new results, the camaraderie of working together as a team, discussions with collaborators and seeing your own article published in print.