Interview: Staying focused

Support from a multidisciplinary initiative allows Ilaria Testa’s lab to develop new optical microscopy techniques.

Researchers can view the molecules inside cells in very high detail by using lasers to switch fluorescent proteins ‘on’ and ‘off’, and at the end of 2012 a paper appeared in eLife that introduced a new fluorescent protein that enabled cells to be imaged far more rapidly than before. Joint first author Ilaria Testa, then a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, continues to develop new imaging techniques in her lab at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, where she is now an Assistant Professor and SciLife fellow.

Ilaria Testa.

Photographer: Irene Böttcher

What first attracted you to working with light microscopy?

When I was an undergraduate I took a course on methods in biophysics: we spent a lot of time in a microscopy lab and there the magic happened. I was impressed when I saw an image of single fluorescent molecules for the first time in my life. Studying physics, I was used to discussing the nature of particles, atoms and molecules, but always in terms of schemes and numbers. When I saw an image of shining tiny spots carrying all this information, I was totally stunned.

What’s the history behind the work that you eventually published in eLife?

The work rose from a powerful combination of microscopy and protein engineering expertise. I built a novel nanoscopy platform to interrogate new smart reversible switchable markers, which were developed by a colleague in the lab. We first used the set-up to study and understand how these markers work and how we could possibly use that for nanoscale imaging. After trouble-shooting multiple variants we finally identified a few candidate markers.

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

The project faced many challenges, from the development of a new microscopy technology from scratch to the identification of the key protein mutation. I think that the main challenge though was to properly understand the behaviour of these markers and to pinpoint the important parameters that make the nanoscale imaging possible.

Do you remember what you were doing on the day that your eLife paper was published?

It was published on December 31, 2012, so I was probably busy in New Year celebrations. I remember well the day the paper was accepted, which was a rainy November day in Germany. Receiving the news made my day. We had great reason to celebrate!

At that point, did you have a plan for the next five years of your career?

During that time, I started to think in more concrete terms about pursuing an independent career in science. And I’m glad that this is what happened in the following years.

Had you applied for many other permanent jobs before getting your current position?

I sent few applications around. In Europe, job calls are still not coordinated – a call can pop up at any time of the year. Also if you apply for a position you might receive an answer in a month, or you might wait for half a year. So I sent a bunch of applications to institutions that I found promising. Each interview I had was actually a great opportunity to talk with smart people and to learn how to best communicate my data and future goals.

How did you obtain your current Assistant Professor position?

The Swedish government had launched a strategic initiative to recruit young scientists from all over the world to work in the Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab), which is a collaboration between a number of Swedish universities. It was well advertised on the internet and colleagues at conferences were talking about it too. Each candidate was evaluated in two steps: first, I had to submit information about my future research plan and CV; second, there was a day of interviews and talks for three selected candidates.

What appealed to you most about it?

I liked the idea of being part of a new multidisciplinary initiative mainly composed of young scientists. Also, for my research it is really important to be part of both KTH and SciLifeLab. The development of new technology is well supported by KTH, and at SciLifeLab I’m exposed to exciting new questions across fields.

What did you find most challenging about the transition from postdoc research to being an Assistant Professor?

I certainly now have more responsibility for people and I need to dedicate more time to administrative duties, which leaves less time to do science. This was not the case during the postdoc where I was able to focus 100% on research projects in the lab. The most challenging parts of being an Assistant Professor are to assign the right priority to a given task, and to learn how to delegate. I had the tendency to do everything myself, which does not work in the long term.

And what was the most exciting change to your working life?

To work with smart people and enable them to reach their scientific goals. I enjoy observing students growing as scientists and further developing their scientific interests and skills. I enjoy seeing them acquiring skills and growing as independent and creative thinkers.

Does your current work build on the work that you presented in your 2012 eLife paper?

It’s very important to my current work. The switchable fluorescent protein we first described in the paper is still frequently used in my new lab. Also, my lab’s main focus is the development of new optical nanoscopes for live imaging based on the use of reversible switchable fluorescent proteins, which builds on the first pioneering results we described in eLife.

Have you had any difficult times in your career?

Absolutely, working in basic research is fantastic but it also implies dedication and sacrifices. Every project I worked on had ups and down, but at the end if you love what you do, you always find a way to get through.

In your opinion, what single change would most improve the way that science is done today?

Sometimes the pressure to frequently publish to obtain funding hampers the quality of research. Personally, I like to dig deep into problems so I favour working on more time-intense projects. If a postdoctoral fellowship lasted for 3–4 years and a young PI received funding for 6–8 years, projects of higher quality could be realised.

What would you like to be working on five years’ time?

I believe that live imaging and optical nanoscopy will still be with me, but I’m getting more and more interested in neuroimaging, which comes with its own challenges.

What do you do in your free time outside of the lab?

I have lots of fun playing with lenses and light in the lab as well as in free time. I love photography and enjoy being behind the camera as well as visiting exhibitions. I also like to go running around the numerous islands of Stockholm.

What career advice would you give to postdocs who are in a similar position to the one you were in five years ago?

Self-reflect and find out what you like the most, which is probably also what you do best. Keep doing exactly that without haste and without rest.

Ilaria Testa CV

  1. 2015 – present: Assistant Professor and SciLife fellow, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
  2. 2009 – 2014: Postdoc researcher (two consecutive positions), Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Germany
  3. 2006 – 2009: PhD in Biotechnology, University of Genoa, Italy
  4. 2001 – 2005: Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Physics, University of Genoa