by: Aditi Risbud

Falciatore_croppedAngela Falciatore, Ph.D., is research director of the French National Centre for Scientific Research and leads the Diatom Functional Genomics team at the University Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris.

Her research team explores light sensing and acclimation mechanisms of diatoms — algae found in marine environments that are among the most common forms of phytoplankton.

As a grantee through the Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology initiative, Angela studies how diatoms serve as model organisms for marine biology and photobiology. With her research team and colleagues, she develops genome-enabled resources and tools for gene manipulation in diatoms. Her work is part of a broader foundation-funded effort to accelerate development of experimental model systems in marine microbial ecology.

In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Angela discusses her fascination with the marine world, and how the only limitation in science is the limit of your imagination.

What inspired you to become a scientist/researcher?
My mother certainly had a big influence on my current role as researcher. She first earned a master’s degree in biology and then become a science teacher, because in the 1960s, in the South of Italy, it was impossible for a woman to reconcile research and family life. She has been a happy mother of four kids and a great teacher of biology, and I am sure she would have been a great scientist. She is one of the most curious people that I’ve ever met, and I feel strongly that curiosity makes scientists.

As an Italian, born and raised on the Mediterranean in Naples, the marine environment in all its facets has always fascinated me. Oceans influence economic and political relationships as they physically link continents and serve as a major source of food and energy. My interest in marine biology derives from my research as an undergraduate student at the Stazione Zoologica of Naples, among the oldest active marine research centers in the world. During this time, I discovered marine phytoplankton, wondrously shaped and highly diverse microorganisms that drive most of the major biogeochemical processes on Earth.

What topics/areas/problems in science are you most interested in solving? 
I am especially interested in understanding the dynamic processes through which photosynthetic organisms respond to light, a key environmental signal for all organisms. Working on diatoms, whose role in carbon fixation is comparable to that of all terrestrial rainforests combined, I understood these organisms have a sophisticated system for detecting and responding to environmental light variations and had evolved unique adaptive solutions never described before in terrestrial organisms.

I also realized mechanisms underlying life in the ocean were poorly known, and that our insights into the relationship between biocomplexity and ecology in marine habitats lagged behind those of terrestrial ones. Understanding the molecular mechanisms controlling the success of marine microorganisms was of great importance, and so I decided to direct my research in this direction.

More recently, by integrating computational and genome-wide molecular approaches with in vivo analyses of light-dependent physiological processes, we uncovered novel photoreceptors and the existence of a functional circadian clock in diatoms. We unveiled a gene regulatory network in diatoms that generates biological rhythms with original components not found in molecular clocks from plants or animals. This research is opening novel perspectives for reconstructing the molecular bases of timing mechanisms, their evolution and functional diversity in marine environments.

To achieve these results, my team has also put considerable efforts in developing novel molecular and genetic resources in diatoms and to establish Phaeodactylum tricornutum as a model species for molecular and cellular studies. The manipulation of endogenous gene expression in diatoms is one of our major recent achievements.

Although much remains to be done, the advances made during the last decade have demonstrated the power of functional genomic approaches to understand diatom biology. These positive outcomes have convinced me that the community of diatom molecular research needs to keep investing energy and efforts to develop additional genetic resources and eventually to identify novel model systems. In my opinion, these approaches are essential to generate knowledge on the functionality of the largely unknown diatom regulatory processes.

How do your colleagues, mentors, students/postdocs help you achieve your goals?
My goals could not be achieved without students, post-docs and colleagues working in our team. Our research is the result of a collective work: the evolution of different thoughts, ideas and efforts to answer to our questions, by generating new results. Results take time — sometimes decades — to complete a coherent picture, like in a puzzle, but when it happens, it’s great.

My current research activities are certainly the result of the great training I received in different laboratories; I have been extremely lucky with my research supervisors. Chris Bowler and Maurizio Ribera d’Alcalà, guided me through the beautiful world of phytoplankton during my Ph.D. training. Chris passed on his passion for photobiology, Maurizio, that for marine environments. From both, I learned that the only limitation in science is the limit of your imagination. Jean David Rochaix, during my post-doc, was the guide in the mysterious world of photosynthesis.

More recently, the mathematician Alessandra Carbone, the head of the laboratory of Computation and Quantitative Biology where I’m currently working, has allowed to add a completely novel dimension to my research. Now, I am learning the power of computational biology to understand the complexity of biological processes. Computer science allows us to address questions that experimentalists, using conventional approaches, cannot.

My dream would be to merge these new competences to address outstanding questions regarding the growth, development and behaviors of organisms living in the oceans.

What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
People on my team could confirm that coffee strongly supports my research! I think the strongest motivation derives from the work itself. It is always difficult to explain to people outside science why we never stop working. For me, science is first and foremost an intellectual engine. It gives you the freedom to make new hypotheses, to imagine how things could work in a microscopic cell, or in an environment that is still largely inaccessible to us, like the marine world.

Science is unpredictable. The thing I love the most about my work is that I am not able to anticipate where my research will be in ten years. We are often asked to define our long-term goals, but then the research takes its own direction, and this is great. This depends on a series of coincidences: the people that join a research team with their different experiences and motivations, the discussions with scientists working in different fields, the path of your own life. This journey sometimes brings you in a different country, and brings you into a completely new scientific environment. The great thing is you can do science everywhere, with everybody, and that it evolves and allow us to evolve with it.

What are your greatest limitations/challenges as a scientist/researcher?
There are two main limitations. The first is the time: days are always too short, and require constant organization (and re-organization) of my agenda. Unlike my mother, I can make time for a family and do my work, but I think for a woman it is still not easy to have a successful career in science and dedicate time to the family. I always feel that I do not dedicate enough time to my family, or to the lab.

Funding is another limiting factor for most scientists and researchers. In Europe, we spend a considerable amount of time to apply for grants that often are not funded. Moreover, there is less and less space for fundamental research, and this is strongly limits the generation of knowledge about fundamental processes. It is indeed great that the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation supports research at the frontier of marine organisms and marine environments. In my experience, this support promotes important international collaborations, helps grow the diatom molecular community, and opens new challenges in marine biology research.

Learn more about the Laboratory of Computational and Quantitative Biology here.


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