First Person is a series of interviews with the first authors of a selection of papers published in Journal of Cell Science, helping early-career researchers promote themselves alongside their papers. Nadine Pollak is first author on ‘ Cell cycle progression and transmitotic apoptosis resistance promote escape from extrinsic apoptosis’, published in JCS. Nadine conducted the research described in this article while a postdoc at the Institute of Cell Biology and Immunology, University of Stuttgart, Germany, initially under the supervision of Prof. Peter Scheurich and subsequently in the lab of Prof. Markus Rehm, where she is now investigating the mechanisms underlying cell fate decisions in response to death stimuli throughout the cell cycle at the single-cell level.
How would you explain the main findings of your paper in lay terms?
Successful therapeutic approaches used against cancer cells are based on destroying them or preventing or slowing their growth. Here, we used a death trigger to study the influence of the cell cycle on the cell death decision. To observe this in more detail, we used a marker that tells us the approximate position of the cell in the cell cycle. We microscopically monitored the proliferation and division of cancer cells and the timing of death. We found that cells that go through cell division are temporarily protected against death. Cell death can then occur in the subsequent newborn cells. Interestingly, there are quite a few cells that escape cell death and survive but show DNA damage. The regrowth of such cells can therefore contribute to disease progression. We show a way to prevent survival of such damaged cells.
Were there any specific challenges associated with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?
I am a mother of two children and therefore work part-time. When important experiments are on the agenda, I sometimes find it hard to turn off my brain and not think about work in the afternoon and evening. And, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. During the lockdown period I was intensely involved with home schooling. We managed these challenges concerning the project very well with the participation of bachelor's and master's students. They integrated into our group really quickly and were inspired by my enthusiasm for the project.
When doing the research, did you have a particular result or ‘eureka’ moment that has stuck with you?
During my PhD project, I worked on a regulatory mechanism that was described in the 1980s. However, I have not been able to prove this for the human enzyme. After identifying and cloning the corresponding enzyme from sea urchins, we were able to confirm the mechanism. That was a very special moment. I remember that it was a Friday evening, and we toasted the discovery. Otherwise, every successful cloning or western blot has an ‘aha’ effect.
Why did you choose Journal of Cell Science for your paper?
Journal of Cell Science is renowned for publishing solid scientific studies for a wide audience of scientists. The journal publication system is user friendly, and the review process is very fast. We are very happy that our study was accepted.
Have you had any significant mentors who have helped you beyond supervision in the lab? How was their guidance special?
I joined the lab of Prof. Mathias Ziegler in Berlin as a PhD student. After one and a half years, the group moved from Berlin to Bergen, Norway, where I obtained my PhD degree. The whole group, but especially my PhD supervisor (Prof. Mathias Ziegler) and a postdoc (Dr Marc Niere), were incredibly supportive. They taught me how to think as a scientist, how to set up experiments and how to deal with limitations. Beyond that, we did a lot of activities outside the lab to settle in the new country. I fondly remember our fishing trips and cooking sessions. This experience abroad allowed me to grow as a scientist and as a person. Here in Stuttgart, I am very lucky to have Prof. Markus Rehm as a supportive supervisor who has sparked my interest in cell imaging, and to have great colleagues. Together, we not only do research, but also spend quite a lot of our free time.
“This experience abroad allowed me to grow as a scientist and as a person.”
What motivated you to pursue a career in science?
During my PhD, I realized how much I enjoy science. To tackle scientific questions, apply the correct techniques and answer successfully bit by bit is a joy. To work on cooperative projects is also quite enlightening. You get to know other views on scientific questions, which can give further insights.
Who are your role models in science? Why?
I do not have a particular role model in science; however, I admire the founders of BioNTech, Drs Türeci and Sahin, for their foresight in embarking on the development of a vaccine immediately after the first reports about COVID-19.
What's next for you?
I will continue to work as a senior postdoc in the group of Prof. Rehm at the University of Stuttgart. There are still many open questions on the process of cellular decision making in response to death stimuli.
Tell us something interesting about yourself that wouldn't be on your CV
I have started paragliding training and hope to complete it next year – paragliding means freedom to me.
Nadine Pollak's contact details: Institute of Cell Biology and Immunology, University of Stuttgart, Allmandring 31, 70569 Stuttgart, Germany.