November 24, 2016

Meet Cornelia Habacher

Cornelia Habacher is a PhD student in Rafal Ciosk’s group. Most recently she identified a novel regulator of fat accumulation in the nematode C. elegans . For this study, Cornelia Habacher and Richard Venz (an MSc student), were awarded the FMI’s Chiquet-Ehrismann Prize, which honors particularly creative projects.

Q: During your PhD thesis you have identified a totally novel mechanism that controls fat accumulation in C. elegans . What is your take home message after this challenging project?
The initial finding that led to our exciting results came from a very basic question of how animals overcome the challenge of an ever changing environment. As an ectotherm, C. elegans constantly has to adapt its energy metabolism to varying ambient temperatures. We simply asked which genes were involved in this adaptations. By doing so, we ultimately identified an auto-regulatory module consisting of an RNase and a transcription factor, which regulates lipid metabolism and innate immunity. Deletion of the RNase, REGE-1, leads to strong decrease of overall body fat in the worms. This is rescued by knock down of the transcription factor ETS-4, which in turn stimulates rege-1 transcription. By now, we have no clue about the variety of environmental stimuli that are able to regulate the rege-1/ets-4 module. In addition, identification of the pathways and signaling cascades involved in this regulatory axis is a challenging task for the future. Thus, by asking a very simple question, we discovered a complex regulatory module that opened up a whole new direction of research in the lab.

Q: The daily routine of research has its ups and downs. What keeps you motivated?
Apart from the very positive atmosphere in our lab, I think what motivates me the most about science and basic research, is the possibility of new discoveries. The excitement of sitting in front of the microscope knowing that you are (hopefully) the first person to observe a certain phenotype or finally getting an answer to a burning question. I was lucky enough that I had several of this moments during my PhD. So whenever I lose motivation, I try to remember these moments.

Q: For your project you have received FMI’s Chiquet-Ehrismann Originality Prize what does this prize mean for you?
I feel very blessed to be among the first ones to receive this prize. The Chiquet-Ehrismann Originality Prize honors creative and original research. Now more than ever, scientists experience high publishing pressure in addition to the long hours in the lab. Consequently, we can feel pressured to take the safe road and forget to look left and right. I think, this prize is an important reminder of the reason most of us decided to pursue a scientific career in the first place.

Q: What does originality mean for you?
It means to take on new challenges and not to be afraid of contradicting existing believes. This can be both, risky and very rewarding. An original idea alone is often not enough, but being convinced you are on the right path and convincing others is key to original research. In addition, it is essential to integrate also ideas form other disciplines and talk to many scientists, but also non-scientist to get every possible input.

Q: Has anybody inspired you to pursue biomedical research and to strive to think out of the box?
The decision to pursue a career in biomedical research was never really a decision as such, but rather a logical consequence of my curiosity for biological systems. In addition, I was lucky to have great mentors during my undergraduate studies, who challenged and inspired me. Apart from this personal experiences one of the scientist who always fascinated me was Jane Goodall. Set aside her groundbreaking research on chimpanzees’ behavior, she never got tired of standing up for her believes that these animals have individual personalities. This was seen as rather grotesque at the time and is an excellent example of “thinking out of the box”. It can sometimes mean to go against norms or current believes. Other times it is a spark of creativity that can lead to a new assembling of already existing ideas.

Q: With the publication of your results, your PhD at the FMI slowly comes to an end. What are your plans for the future?
I really enjoyed my time here at the FMI. I was lucky to work with smart, inspiring and wonderful colleagues. In addition, we are blessed with an exceptional network of supporting facilities. I think it would be very hard to top this experience. After my PhD here I would like to take on a new challenge outside of academia. I, however, want to stay close to the scientific community and maybe pursue a career in scientific writing or project management.

» More about Cornelia’s work
» More about the interests of Rafal Ciosk’s laboratory

Habacher C, Guo Y, Venz R, Kumari P, Neagu A, Gaidatzis D, Harvald EB, Færgeman NJ, Gut H, Ciosk R. (2016) Ribonuclease-mediated control of body fat. Dev. Cell. Advance online publication

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