Prisca Liberali studied chemistry at Università degli Studi di Roma ‘La Sapienza’ in Rome, Italy. She then pursued her PhD in physical chemistry, studying membrane dynamics and trafficking with Daniela Corda and Alberto Luini at Fondazioni Mario Negri Sud. Afterwards, Prisca joined Lucas Pelkmans' research group at ETH in Zurich and at the University of Zurich, Switzerland in 2008 for her postdoctoral work on genetic interactions and regulatory networks in membrane trafficking, making use of quantitative biology approaches. In 2015, Prisca became an Assistant Professor at the University of Basel, Switzerland while also starting her own research group at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI) in Basel. She was awarded an ERC Starting Grant in 2016 and was selected as an EMBO Young Investigator in 2019. Her lab focuses on the collective characteristics of multicellular systems and how patterning can arise from single-cell properties and behaviour. Her research group uses experimental and theoretical analysis to address the cellular heterogeneity and other relevant questions on stem cell biology and organoid development.
I was born in Belgium, and I lived between Belgium and Luxembourg because my parents worked for the European Union. I always lived abroad and everybody would ask me ‘where do you come from?’ and I would say I was Italian but I'd never lived in Italy. So I decided to go to Italy for university and study chemistry. I then had an opportunity to do a PhD in chemistry, but I was always interested in something a bit more complex. Fortunately, I met Daniela Corda who showed me that biology had what I was looking for, so I decided to do a PhD with her [and Alberto Luini].
It was very hard. One part was related to science – I started my university studies in chemistry and I thought that everybody would be like me, really convinced they wanted to do chemistry since they were 13?years old. Then I arrived there and it was full of people who really didn't like chemistry. I thought that was weird, so that was my first cultural shock. The other issue was the day-to-day life and how different it was in Italy. It took me a bit of time to adapt. I was 2000?km from home and I'd just turned 18 at that time.
How do you feel you changed and evolved through the years during your scientific career?
In a way I've had that throughout my career. I've really changed from place to place and finishing in Lucas' [Pelkmans, University of Zurich] lab was very important for me because I could really embrace a lot of these different aspects and apply them to quantitative biology. The question you ask is interesting because what is the trait of each science discipline? I think physicists can reduce the problem to a model very well, biologists can embrace the complexities of a problem directly from their studies, and chemists are fundamentally quantitative. As chemists, we are trained to measure everything and to be data driven, rather than model or hypothesis driven, and this is an advantage in 2020 considering the amount of data we currently have. We have a lot of very different, very broad and very big datasets. I'm not biased – I look at the data and try to find out what they tell us.
We are studying fundamental questions of tissue organisation and, as we call it, the ‘design principle’ of how tissues are organised. We want to understand how thousands of millions of heterogeneous single cells can create very robust properties and functionalities at the tissue level, but also at the molecular scale. The objective is to really understand the molecular mechanism driving cellular behaviour and how this behaviour can drive the formation of the tissue. Some of the questions we are asking, for example, are: in a population of genetically identical cells that are in the same environment, how do you create patterns and break symmetry? How is the heterogeneity emerging in a population and what are the consequences? How can we use this to understand how tissue develops and regenerates?
One thing is to think about what you would do if you were not afraid. I sometimes think, ‘if I was not afraid, what is the most exciting thing I would do?’ And then I do it. Another piece of advice is to communicate. Having discussions when people first realise things are not going well helps you to tackle problems very early on. Everybody has problems, everybody makes mistakes, and if you communicate about them at an early stage it can stop things from escalating. Also, trusting your own feelings. In this type of management, it's important to realise that if something is not going as you want, it probably isn't going well for the other person. I would also recommend spending a lot of time teaching your people to become the best scientists they can be. Don't do their experiments for them, but instead help them with their time management and teach them how to write. I expect texts and presentations very far in advance, so that there is time to discuss, correct and learn from mistakes.
The first piece of advice in particular comes from Lucas [Pelkmans]. One thing he would always say was that in your career, you will probably be remembered for a handful of papers, not for every paper that you write. Sometimes good ideas need time, and the courage to just try them. The other advice I got at the FMI was to start presenting my own data fast. This matches my own ethos – I'm very open with my science. I like bioRxiv and I always present unpublished data because I think it will bring back more than it will take away.
I've always been very open. I think that came from Alberto Luini, but Lucas [Pelkmans] and Daniela [Corda] are the same. Everybody I've worked with has been very open, so I think it's really a part of me. People sometimes say ‘maybe you could keep this [data] for yourself’, but I prefer to share it. I think it's really paying back. Another thing that has always been important for me is going to meetings. I have applied for meetings that I thought were important for me to attend, even when I wasn't invited. I would go there even if I just had a poster, and I continue to do this. I would approach people directly, saying ‘I read your paper, I'm trying to do this in my lab, what do you think?’ If I gave a talk, I would go to a person I didn't know, but who could give me feedback, and I'd ask them what they thought, taking all critical advice. Via this, I met very supportive people who have been extremely important for me.
One thing that people might not know is that, since starting my lab, I commute 3.5?h every day because I live in Zurich. That means that most of my writing and thinking is done on a train – I can start a thought and finish it without being interrupted. I also think it helps to embrace life's craziness with a good layer of organisation. Everybody has complicated lives, and that makes it interesting. My husband is Dutch, so my kids speak five languages – borderline too many, I would say – but sometimes you just have to run with what life brings you.
Prisca Liberali的联系方式：瑞士巴塞尔4058 Maulbeerstrasse 66，Friedrich Miescher生物医学研究所。
- ? 2020. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd