Meet Sarah, Principal Investigator

Hi, my name is…

…Sarah and I am from the United States. I obtained my PhD degree in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics from the Baylor College of Medicine, in the lab of Professor Wah Chiu. In March 2013, after completing a fellowship with Rice University in the National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded Nanobiology Interdisciplinary Graduate Training Program, I joined Roche as a Postdoctoral Fellow based in the Center for Cellular Imaging and NanoAnalytics at the University of Basel, Switzerland. My research passion lies at the intersection of neurobiology and high-resolution imaging. My ambition is to develop and use new technologies and modalities for investigating pathological mechanisms underlying brain degenerative conditions to ultimately help develop better ways to monitor and treat disease.

Why did you decide to join the Roche Postdoc Fellowship programme?

I jumped at the opportunity to apply for this particular RPF position because I saw the perfect chance to apply my skills and background in both neurobiology and high-resolution microscopy. My intent was to understand the protein aggregates associated with a terribly debilitating disease – Parkinson’s. Given Roche’s long-standing, strong commitment to developing medicines, I felt confident that this fellowship programme would allow my research to be ideally positioned within an environment of pharmaceutical-oriented expertise with complementary academic-based resources.

What is your area of expertise and what are you working on right now?

My current position is Principal Investigator in the Department of Biology and Chemistry at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). After I had acquired funding for key infrastructure and personnel in collaboration with the Photon Science Division here at PSI and third-party funding through the Competence Centre for Materials Science and Technology (CCMX), I'm now working to establish a nanoscale cryobiological imaging-based pipeline. Such a pipeline enables cryogenic 3-D visualisation of cells and tissues using X-rays, without the need for treatments such as chemical staining that would otherwise alter the near-native state of the tissue. Within this pipeline, I am using a worldwide-unique instrument, OMNY (tOMography Nano crYo). It is important to keep cells and tissues as close to their physiological state as possible in order to understand their architecture and components at the nanoscale as directly relevant to disease. I am using this type of imaging in combination with complementary assays and new modalities for gaining new insights regarding the cellular landscape in brain cells and tissues in both diseased and normal conditions.

What makes the RPF programme unique/special for you?

The RPF programme was unique to me because it allowed me to fully access valuable resources in terms of high-tech infrastructure and expert knowledge, from both industry and academia. By having one foot on both sides, I found myself well supported to address my project’s challenges. Tackling such demanding biological questions often requires initiating and fostering important collaborations for cross-validation of new and potentially groundbreaking results; being in the RPF programme greatly facilitated this.

How has the RPF programme helped you to pursue a career in academia?

As an RPF programme participant, I learned about different collaborations that complemented my project’s scope and was given the option to pursue them. Through one such voluntary collaboration, I engaged in a valuable activity at the intersection of my main interests – neurobiology and high-resolution imaging – at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), where I currently conduct my research. I established a protocol for cryo-preserved biological tissue imaging using high energy X-rays at PSI, but I only considered this to be the beginning. Seeing great promise in the technology, I explored options to continue at PSI and start my own research group to develop complementary technologies and address my own research questions.

What were your biggest accomplishments as a Roche Postdoc Fellow?

My first major accomplishment as a Roche Postdoc Fellow was my research result using high-resolution 3D electron microscopy, which reveals key insights about the nature of the pathological aggregates in Parkinson’s disease human brain tissue. Such insights are important when considering the progression of the disease and the development of better tracers and therapeutics. Successful collaborations with teams both inside and outside Roche would be additional important and valuable accomplishments.

What advice do you have for those considering applying for the RPF programme?

Don’t fear initiating or asking for internal and external collaborations to complement your research and cross-validate your results. Try to keep flexible and open-minded when considering new tools and technologies. In the sometimes-frustrating moments that are inevitable in research, remember that all your efforts are ultimately going towards helping real people and patients. Don’t be afraid to question your results and be rigorous in cross-validating whatever you find.

Are you interested in the Roche Postdoc Fellowship Program? Find more information here

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