On December 5, WiSE had the honor of hosting Austrian-American cell biologist and expert in aneuploidy Angelika Amon as a McClintock lecturer. WiSE established this invited speaker series, named in honor of Barbara McClintock who discovered transposable elements (the so-called “jumping genes”) in order to recognize female scientists who are pioneers in their field as well as advocates for gender equality in science. _Last year, Amon received a 2019 Breakthrough Award in Life Sciences (the so-called “Oscars” of the science world with the added bonus of $3 million) for her work on chromosomal segregation. DNA in our cells is coiled up into compact structures called chromosomes and before a cell splits into two new cells, it has to copy all its DNA and split up the chromosomes equally between the two cells so each gets one of copy of each unique chromosome. This is a carefully orchestrated, but complex, process and if something goes wrong you can end up with some cells having more or less chromosomes than they should have. We call this aneuploidy and its commonly found in cancer cells.
Amon studied how having an irregular number of chromosomes stresses the cells out and how some cancers are able to thrive despite that stress. She discovered that in these cancer cells, aneuploidy can disrupt the cells’ “quality-control” mechanisms so that additional genetic mutations can accumulate. She found a way by which the immune system normally removes aneuploid cells and hopes that this mechanism can also be directed at cancer cells as a treatment option.
At a labwide seminar, people from all around CSHL came to listen to her talk about her latest work on how specific genes that get amplified by chromosomal duplication can allow cancer cells to survive. As one of my labmates put it well – “it was very inspiring.” The inspiration-giving wasn’t restricted to the auditorium; WiSE members got to have breakfast with Dr. Amon where, in a casual and comfortable environment, they were able to ask questions and get advice.
Amon talked about perseverance and grit on the heels of a failed experiment or in the face of those who might challenge or disagree with your ideas. Science can involve a lot of “failure,” which can be disheartening, so Amon encouraged attendees to celebrate moments of success and discovery. Though they may be rare, the thought of being the first person to witness a biological truth brought goosebumps to Amon’s arms. She also encouraged trainees to focus and think critically – you always have to do the experiment that you don’t want to do, the one that could unravel or disprove your hypothesis. Ultimately, the results will either lend strength to your scientific argument or reorient you in the right direction.
Amon was born in Vienna, Austria and received a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna before coming to the United States, where she worked at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts before joining the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1999. She was promoted to full professor in 2007 and is currently the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator. We are incredibly grateful to Dr. Amon for talking the time to come and speak with us and we wish her all the best in her future research (and we’re eagerly waiting to see what she finds next!)