(May 20th, 2014) The list of past winners of the EMBO Gold Medal reads like a who-is-who in molecular biology. Recently, a new name has been added: Sophie Martin from the University of Lausanne.
In the current research climate, funding is becoming harder and harder to obtain. Research councils and charities are under increasing pressure from the public and governing bodies to promote translational research, and basic research is becoming something of a taboo subject. However, some scientists conducting basic research continue to thrive under the adverse funding conditions. One of them is Sophie Martin, Associate Professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
Her work on the principles of cellular organisation has been highly appreciated throughout the scientific community over the past few years. In 2009, she was awarded a Young Researcher Award from the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), followed in 2010 by a Starting Grant from the European Research Council. Then, in 2012, she was awarded the Women in Cell Biology Junior Award for excellence in research by the American Society of Cell Biology. Now, Sophie Martin has been crowned the 2014 winner of the EMBO Gold Medal; an annual award given to European researchers under the age of 40, who have made an outstanding contribution to the field of molecular biology. "I am very honoured and happy that my work is recognised by my peers," says Martin. "We are asking very basic questions in cell biology, and our research does not directly lead to applications. I think these awards also recognise the importance of basic research."
Martin's research group, consisting of 14 members, investigates cell polarisation, cell division and the organisation of the cytoskeleton. "Our focus is the spatial organisation of the cell. How a cell self-organises in space and time is fascinating," she explains. "More specifically, we are trying to understand how the cell polarises to achieve its shape, and how it uses its shape to control its division. For this, we are using the fission yeast cell as a model, because it is a very simple eukaryote."
Sophie Martin has had an exciting career so far, publishing her research in a number of high-calibre journals. Her most important work to date focuses around the role of an interesting protein in cell growth and division. "We have shown that one enzyme, a protein kinase named Pom1, forms concentration gradients from the extremities of the rod-shaped cell, which provide a negative control of where and when the cell divides." Martin has demonstrated that Pom1 is capable of serving to measure cell length and controlling when the cell enters the mitotic phase of the cell cycle. This is achieved through a concentration gradient of Pom1, originating at the tips of the cell, which overlaps with important cell cycle proteins towards the centre. Pom1-mediated phosphorylation (and thus inhibition) of these proteins causes the cell to remain in the G2 phase of the cell cycle - a phase of cell growth and protein synthesis - instead of progressing into mitosis. However, this only occurs in so-called “short cells”, where the overlapping region is more prominent. As the cell grows, the overlapping region becomes smaller and the inhibition of these proteins is released, resulting in cell division.
Martin's interest in biology first began at school, when she spent some time in a local lab during her vacations. Since then, she has obtained two degrees in Biology from the University of Lausanne, a PhD from the University of Cambridge, UK, and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, USA. She has now returned to Lausanne to set up her own lab. "I have always been interested in spatial organisation," she explains. "The specific research questions that I try to answer are guided by this wide topic, but also by previous discoveries, either by us or by others." Martin explains that her tremendous success is due to "being curious and creating opportunities," throughout her career. She also appreciates the importance of the support that she has received from her mentors and others she has met along the way.
Photo: University of Lausanne