Elvan Böke studied molecular biology and genetics at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. She then moved to the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute (CRUK-MI) for a PhD with Iain Hagan, where she discovered that a PP1–PP2A phosphatase relay promotes mitotic exit in fission yeast. For her postdoc, she moved to the lab of Tim Mitchison at Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA, where she unraveled how the enigmatic Balbiani body is formed by an amyloid-like assembly mechanism in oocytes. Elvan established her group at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) Barcelona, Spain, in 2017, where her lab investigates oocyte biology and cellular dormancy. She was awarded an ERC Starting Grant in 2017 and an ERC Consolidator Grant in 2022. In 2021, Elvan became a member of the EMBO Young Investigator Network.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
As a kid, I was really into the cartoon series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and completely taken by the fact that a radioactive substance transformed baby turtles into humanoids. I also loved Spider-Man, who similarly gets super-human powers when bitten by a radioactive spider. Then, I was around 10 years old when Dolly the sheep was cloned, which was in the news everywhere. All of this really made me want to become a geneticist!
Since you left Turkey, you have done research in the UK, the US and now in Spain. What are some challenges associated with working in so many different countries?
I really enjoy travelling and exploring new cultures, so I want to emphasize that I benefited a lot from living in different countries. However, of course, moving so often can be personally tough. You leave your family, but then you also have to leave your friends multiple times – and when I started moving around, FaceTime or Zoom were not so commonly used. It's difficult to build a new community, and it becomes harder the older you get. Also, professionally, every country is different, and by the time you get familiar with the new system, you might have already missed out on some opportunities. That said, I believe the positives outweigh the negative aspects professionally too; you learn a lot from different work cultures. For example, in the US they put a lot of effort into community building in my department. Even simple things, such as organizing a get-together with pizza, helped people better bond in the department and made them feel more appreciated – so I'm trying to bring some of that over here to the CRG.
In your lab at the CRG, what are the main questions you are trying to answer?
We work on oocytes, the female germ cells that become eggs. Oocytes form before birth in humans and most mammals, and remain in the body until menopause. The main question our lab is trying to answer is how a chronologically old cell can give rise to a new organism – even if you think of a young mother who gave birth at the age of 20, the cell that gave rise to the embryo was 20 years old! We are addressing this question using different approaches; a part of my team is studying the metabolic adaptations in oocytes, and another part of the lab is looking at protein quality control machineries and protein degradation. We are also developing tools to be able to do more quantitative work using ovaries.
Prior to your current research, you studied cell cycle regulation in fission yeast, and then for your postdoc you worked on the Balbiani body in Xenopus. How did changing fields and model systems shape you as a scientist, and what do you think are the benefits and risks associated with changing fields?
The positives are that you can bring approaches from one field to another. For example, the yeast genome is fully sequenced and annotated, and I never had to think twice about cloning a gene. When I switched to Xenopus laevis for my postdoc, I did not really think much before cloning many Xenopus genes to produce their mRNAs for injecting into oocytes. Retrospectively, I realized this wasn't something commonly done in Xenopus as the annotation of its genome was still poor compared to that in yeast, but having worked with yeast before I was very comfortable with the method. The challenge of changing fields of course is that there's always a steep learning curve – it took me about 6 months to define my research question and learn the new methods. Later on, I knew that I wanted to use mouse as a model in my lab too, so to get a head start I started practicing working with this system in the last months of my postdoc. Nevertheless, my postdoc was fairly short – 3.5 years – and the benefits of changing fields were vast, so I highly recommend students to seriously consider changing fields when they start looking for postdoc positions.
“…the benefits of changing fields were vast, so I highly recommend students to seriously consider changing fields when they start looking for postdoc positions.”
How have your mentors influenced the type of researcher you became?
Tim [Mitchison]'s lab works on multiple different topics that might not look related at a first sight, yet all touch on his overarching research question. I think this approach to running a lab has had a big impact on me and in part explains why my lab works on three different systems – frog, mouse and human – across a range of different topics, such as metabolism and protein homeostasis. This diversity is not so common for a junior lab, and I'm often asked whether it's too exhausting for me. Still, because of my postdoc experience, it's actually quite natural.
How do you choose a good question to work on?
To me, a good question has to be on a topic that is fundamentally important, but which we know little about. We ask basic questions about the cell biology of dormant oocytes in my lab, an understudied topic that is related to female infertility. I think a good question also needs to be fairly answerable with the available methods, but I'm not a person who needs to figure out every single detail before moving on. During my PhD, I actually got demotivated studying a specific phosphorylation site on a well-studied cell cycle protein, so I carved out a new project in my third year and ended up discovering a new pathway for mitotic exit.
Have high-throughput ‘omics’ technologies been important for discovering fundamentally new biology in your work?
Yes, I think nearly every project in my lab includes some type of ‘omics’ approach, and so far, proteomics in particular has played a really big role in our discoveries. When we don't really know where to start looking for answers to a question, having a list of components that proteomics provides can really help give us the direction. During my postdoc, while collaborating with the lab of Steve Gygi, I learned how proteomics can be done on small amounts of material. This has been crucial for us since we have little material working with oocytes, a cell type in which there is very little correlation between mRNA and protein levels. Now, I'm looking forward to similar improvements in metabolomics, so that we can apply it more widely to our projects.
Your work has obvious implications for infertility and its treatment – do you see your research going in a more applied direction in the future?
As I said, I'm interested in basic questions, but as I get more senior and hopefully receive more funding, I can certainly see our lab working on more applied projects. In my mind, translational research is always coupled to basic research; when the two get separated, we end up with ‘lost in translation’ problems – for example when interpreting results without having a deep knowledge about the underlying biology.
Going back to the time when you started your lab, what was the biggest challenge you faced?
My biggest challenges were all related to hiring people. Back then, the CRG only allowed PhD students to start in September, and this turned out to be a problem for several young PIs. My first PhD student started eight months after I joined the institute, and my first postdoc one and a half years after, which I felt was quite a long time to be on my own.
And is there any advice you would give to early-career researchers who aspire to become PIs?
I think it's important to not compare yourself to other people. My first-author PhD paper got published nearly two years after I graduated, because it was in review at a journal for one and a half years. This meant that I couldn't apply for postdoctoral fellowships, and I remember feeling very anxious about this, as I was comparing myself to all the other postdocs from Europe who had received fancy fellowships. What helped me overcome this feeling was Tony [Hyman]'s advice that if you're doing good science, nobody really cares about a fellowship or lack thereof. Also, I would like to highlight that I was hired for a postdoc position without having my PhD paper out, and then also hired as a PI at CRG before my postdoc paper was published. So, as long as the science and the ideas are there, one should not obsess about having a fancy publication or fellowship when applying for a position.
“I think it's important to not compare yourself to other people […], as long as the science and the ideas are there, one should not obsess about having a fancy publication.”
Finally, could you tell us an interesting fact about yourself that people wouldn't know by looking at your CV?
I love sailing and have a skipper license. I've done lots of memorable trips, for example, in 2019 I sailed around French Polynesia and the Society Islands. Then in 2020, the lockdown in Spain was very claustrophobic, so once we were allowed to head out, I got on the boat right away and sailed from Barcelona to the French border along the Catalan Coast.
Elvan Böke's contact details: Centre for Genomic Regulation, C/ del Dr. Aiguader, 88, PRBB Building, 08003 Barcelona, Spain.
Elvan Böke was interviewed by Máté Pálfy, Features & Reviews Editor at Journal of Cell Science. This piece has been edited and condensed with approval from the interviewee.