In Oslo, Researchitaly interviews Marina Vietri, winner of the Norwegian H.M. the King's Gold medal for best 2016 PhD thesis
From San Raffaele in Milan to the Institute for Cancer Research of the University Hospital of Oslo where her research deserved publication in Nature and she won the Norwegian H.M. the King’s Gold medal for best PhD thesis in Medicine in the year 2016, being the first Italian researcher who has ever received it. She is young biologist Marina Vietri, from Piedmont, who has been living in Oslo for the last few years with her Swedish husband and a daughter who, this year, will start school. We met her in Oslo, at the laboratory coordinated by Professor Harald Stenmark where her dream of becoming an internationally appreciated researcher thanks to her merits has become true.
Marina, why did you choose Oslo?
The initial idea was to gain experience abroad for a few months to add to my CV and then go back to San Raffaele in Milan, where I was happy with my research team led by Professor Stefano Biffo. My husband is Swedish so it was instinctive to look for opportunities in Northern European countries. I was interested in the research centre on cell membrane led by Professor Harald Stenmark, I contacted him and asked to visit his lab, we met and the following day he asked me to join his team.
So, everything started with a contact…
That’s right. It worked in the same way for all “foreign” colleagues working in my team, and there are quite a few, from 11 different countries worldwide. This is a very international research team and I like it. Many of them come from Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, but also from far away countries such as India, China, Singapore. With regard to Italians, there are currently three of them at this department.
What is your research about?
During my experience at San Raffaele, I worked on ribosomes. Here in Oslo, I am currently studying the role of the protein complex known as ESCRT in the proliferation of cancer cells. These proteins were discovered in 2001, but they are still little known. Our study, published in Nature, shows the role of ESCRT in repairing cell nuclear membranes for the first time. Cells with impaired ESCRT function can acquire DNA damage typical of cancer cells. Now, the emerging hypothesis is that ESCRT proteins can be recruited in the same way, with a repairing function, also by cancer cells and can thus contribute to their proliferation and genetic instability. Our research attracts a great deal of attention since new discoveries in this field could provide cancer medicine with new potential therapeutic targets.
Besides cancer, the study of ESCRT proteins can help treat other diseases in the future?
Besides cancer, research on the ESCRT protein complex can be also useful in the so-called laminopathies, including the disease known as progeria, a rare disease which causes early aging without affecting mental functions, which remain the actual indicator of the real age of the patient. From a biological point of view, progeria is due to changes in proteins which are important for the structure of cell membranes and it would be really interesting to discover the role played by ESCRT proteins also in these terrible diseases for affected people.
You have published your study in Nature as “first author”: are you excited about it?
I am really very excited. On the very day our paper was accepted, our team received a communication about another paper, to be published by Nature Publishing Group too, a very rare event … That day the whole lab celebrated since most of the team researchers have contributed to the two papers. We all worked hard to achieve this objective and we shared this great moment of satisfaction.
Moreover, just after Nature, the H.M. the King's Gold medal for best 2016 PhD thesis in medicine…
I still can’t believe it… In Norway, this Award is one of the most desired and hard to receive. The King awards one award every year to each research field. In the history of our team, I am the third winner. Just think that I will be received personally by the King at the Royal Palace.
And you are the first Italian researcher who obtained this important recognition.
What are the differences between doing research in Italy and in Norway?
I must say that in Italy I had a first-class experience at San Raffaele in Milan, in an enviable setting. It is at San Raffaele that I built my solid scientific bases. Many of my former colleagues are working abroad, just like me, some of them in France, some in the United Kingdom, some in Canada, some in the United States. In general, I think that living abroad, even for a short period of time, is very positive in terms of personal growth of researcher and contribution to scientific community. Here in Oslo, a greater amount of money is allocated to research and the life of a researcher is easier. Here it is very advantageous to carry out a PhD programme, since it is considered as a real job. Researchers have the same rights of workers, including maternity leave, paternity leave, unemployment benefits. The package includes everything we need and researchers are less stressed. The PhD programme lasts three years, then you can access a “post-doc” grant for additional three years and then a researcher grant for four years. Basically, there are no permanent contracts for researchers.
How is research funded in Norway?
In general, as far as I know, mainly from the Government, then there are budgets of the regional healthcare systems, along with fund-raising associations. Moreover, we try to access ERC funds, which are substantial but very hard to obtain, since competition is very high; finally, we participate in EMBO and Marie Curie calls. But, as I said, most funds allocated to research are national.
Would you come back to Italy?
Not at this moment.
What proposal would you accept to come back to Italy?
First of all, the proposal should be in a very international environment. I think this is one thing that we lack most in Italy. Italy is not very attractive for foreign researchers. I would miss this a lot. Just like I wouldn’t like to work in a place with exclusively Norwegian researchers, I wouldn’t like to work in a place with exclusively Italian researchers. It is difficult to go back to the monotony of a single system. Working in an international environment helps to develop. In the field of research, you must always be on the move: changing work team is not enough, you must change work place. One day or another I will leave Oslo too, not to get lazy, but this year my daughter, who was born in Norway, will start school… We will see …