Researchers without borders: France

Valentina Polini

Looking back to smile even in the difficult times we experience. With determination

Bon courage! This does not translate as well in Italian, not even in English: “Coraggio!” (Good luck!). I really love this expression in my language and it’s made even more significant by the fact that it isn’t accurately translatable. It’s one of those phrases that I often use for my friends, for my family, for myself but also for my acquaintances in general. It provides positive encouragement, to give and to wish good luck to someone with a positive feeling. But also to put faith in someone almost with affection, the belief of being able to achieve a great deal and that everything will be alright (or perhaps this is the definition as I see it!).

Amanda was born in France. She studied engineering at the INSA – Institut National des Sciences Appliquées in Lyon and obtained a Master’s degree at the Claude Bernard Lyon 1. She then turned to a double programme developed between the INSA of Lyon and the Tohoku University School of Medicine in order to obtain the two PhDs in Biochemistry and Medical Sciences.

She is currently a post-doc in the Neurobiology of miRNA laboratory coordinated by David De Pietri Tonelli and (since 2018) her project focuses on the study of microRNA in the molecular control of adult neurogenesis and relevance for neuro-protection. MicroRNA are small “non-coding” RNA proteins, but they regulate the production of almost all proteins by repressing the expression of RNA messengers, which encode them. She works with neural stem cell cultures and with animal models. In particular, she is trying to identify the “miR-135” mechanism which her laboratory has determined as being a powerful “switch” allowing physical activity (such as running) in order to increase adult neurogenesis and therefore the regeneration of the hippocampus (a region of the brain).

The purpose of her research is to apply miR-135 as a new type of drug in “RNA-therapy” (or the proteins regulated by it, as a therapeutic target), in order to prevent the loss of cognition due to the aging of the brain and neuro-degeneration (e.g. Alzheimer’s).

What do you like most about your work?

This project requires different skills and this makes it highly multidisciplinary. We use techniques of Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Genomics, Proteomics, Bioinformatics Analysis, Cell Cultures and Animal Models. I face daily challenges in order to be able to understand the cascades of genes and signals regulated by the miRNA which I study. However, these challenges are a stimulus to better exploit my skills as an experimenter and also to develop my critical thinking and the planning of the experiments. The ultimate purpose of my work is to find a useful therapy to counter brain diseases that are currently incurable and keeping this goal firmly in my mind makes me feel useful for the progress of biomedical research.

How do you find IIT and which aspect do you like most about IIT?

IIT is a multidisciplinary institute, with access to various structures and facilities which makes research much more accessible and versatile. It’s quite an international environment, which almost makes it seem like an “English” workplace I would say! My colleagues are Italian, Portuguese and Spanish and a colleague from Macedonia will arrive soon. We’re a very close group, and this makes me feel grateful every day for the opportunity here.

Before we talk about your life in Italy, could you tell me what your aspirations are?

My dream is to find a stable position, and why not, even enjoyable, in the academic world which makes me feel secure and motivated when I wake up in the morning. I’d like to work in an academic environment because I’d like to be able to share some of my knowledge with students and thus to transfer knowledge, watching them decide on their future career paths and learning from them.

Passionate about photography, climbing and bouldering, Amanda seems to be very decisive and determined, also thrilled about possible new discoveries from travelling. But she also really knows what she wants from life.

She makes me laugh, I ask her to tell me about a special event in her past and she tells me about the time when she moved to Italy and her family also came from France to help her move. They were without hot water and electricity for four days because of the delays in connecting electricity and gas supplies. It was March, so it was still rather cold. And they managed to steer through despite everything, remaining upbeat and positive. Now she looks back on that time smiling and laughing, realising that perhaps certain moments are often dictated by how we behave in the face of a snag as opposed to the event itself and nothing more.

Can you tell me about your favourite foods and about a corner of Genoa that makes you feel good?

I would say lasagne! Definitely pesto lasagne! It’s delicious! But I also love starters with shell-fish! This is in Italy, because in France I adore the typical winter dishes such as “Raclette”, a hot plate (the so-called “appareil à raclette”) where the hot cheese is heated and eaten together with salami and potatoes. And then, of course, sweet and savoury crêpes!

Food is definitely one of the aspects that I love about italy. For example I always liked pasta and I also ate it often in Lyon, but I’m always amazed at the variety of pasta you have here. And then the language, I already loved Italian lessons when I was at school!  I was lucky to have experienced cordiality here, so many people are so kind.

I’m fascinated with the Belvedere Castelletto and the Old Port. Two places where you can really appreciate the configuration of the city of Genoa, and both views are breathtaking

If there’s anything I surely need to complain about it’s the very slow bureaucracy and also the horns! And transport! I would prefer it if the various areas of Genoa were better connected between them.

Maybe this is also why I miss the green parks of Lyon.

Thank you, Amanda. One last question: do you think of returning to France one day?

It’s always been one of my medium-long term plans. Most of my family is there and I have tons of great memories, especially in Lyon. I love Lyon and I would really like to be able to work in that city. There was a time when I thought that were I to find another town in which I would have felt comfortable, I would have considered working there, but I changed my mind. I lived in Japan for almost a year for my thesis and although I really liked the culture, the food and the people, I missed my family and friends, the French language and maybe even the French culture. I feel that the work culture (and even the way of life) in France is truly in resonance with the career path and the work/life balance that I’d like to achieve.

And so Bon courage! Amanda!