RNA + Us

#NCCRWOMEN PORTRAIT - Emanuela Felley-Bosco

(Photo: E. Felley-Bosco)

Emanuela Felley-Bosco, an Italian native, obtained her degree in Toxicology from the University of Lausanne in 1986. She embarked on her academic career with three postdoctoral positions, the first at the University of Lausanne, the second at the Swiss Institute on Experimental Cancer Research in Epalinges, and the third at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. After returning to the University of Lausanne in 1993, she served as a senior researcher and later as a substitute assistant professor. In 2007, she joined the Laboratory of Molecular Oncology at the University Hospital in Zurich, where she worked as a group leader until her retirement in January 2023. Throughout her career, she has conducted translational research in oncology and made seminal contributions to the understanding of tumorigenesis.

What inspired you to become a scientist?
When 11 years old, I won a book as a prize for the best student in my school year in Terni, Umbria, Italy (photo 1). It was about the life of a doctor and it gave me the idea to work in the medical field. Later, my father, who had to re-invent his working life in Milano, Lombardy, Italy, was working in the late 60’ in ecology related business, and the idea of “saving the planet” encouraged me to look for a possible later education in water-recycling. Although it doesn’t seem very logical, I nevertheless prepared myself for this by doing classical studies, which in Italy include ancient Greek, Latin, Philosophy and art history. I still don’t regret this choice, although my first university years were quite difficult. During those studies I have been lucky to be encouraged by one of my grandmothers. Because of my good grades in pharmacology and toxicology and the excellence of lectures of one of my professors, I did a PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology. My mentor allowed me to grow up as independent scientist, and this helped me in the following steps of my career.

What inspired you to pursue a scientific career?
While I was doing my PhD, the person that later became my husband was studying medicine. At the end of my PhD, we needed to accommodate his internships, our familial duties as parents of two children and my wish to continue in research. I was lucky enough to get two postdocs that were compatible with my husband’s heavy clinical duties (photo 2).

My commitment allowed me to receive a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation for a third postdoc at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, USA (photo 3). These experiences allowed me to be integrated in the University of Lausanne, then University of Zurich.

What were the most rewarding aspects of your research?
The most rewarding aspects were on different levels. First, I could do fantastic work where we are allowed to be creative and curious. Second, it allowed me to meet interesting people who share the same passion. Third, the transmission of know-how to younger generations has been a joy (photo 4). And fourth, this career allows meeting people from different cultures, which is always an enriching experience (photo 5).

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I would be an artist: same freedom, same problems.

What did a typical day look like for you? What did you like most and least?
During a typical day there is the need to equilibrate the time between supervision of the team, keeping up with knowledge in the field, and administrative tasks. My preferred time is team supervision, since this is the direct product of the creative work. The worst is time spent in administrative tasks, especially when there is no support by the infrastructure.

What is the main question that your research tried to answer?
My research has aimed at elucidating various aspects of the relationship between chronic inflammation and cancer with a later focus on mesothelioma, which is a rare cancer, mostly occurring in individuals who have been exposed to asbestos. Not every person exposed develops this terrible cancer and we addressed several mechanisms including genetic predisposition, transcriptome alterations and implication of the immune system.

What fascinates you most about your research topic?
Our most recent work, in which we addressed the mechanism of mesothelioma development, revealed that we should pay more attention to RNA, especially to what has been defined as “the dark matter” - the genome, which has been known to be transcribed for several years, but which is not well characterized. Dr. Mattick, together with Paulo Amaral, describes well in his book “RNA: the epicenter of genetic information”, published in 2023, how we should change our dogmatic view, which is centered mostly on proteins, based on the knowledge we have acquired from the bacterial world.

What are some of the most exciting scientific discoveries that you have been a part of?
I had the privilege to work on different exciting projects, including the development of a method to detect low frequency mutations in tumor suppressor TP53, which are induced, for example, by endogenous production of reactive oxygen species; the functional characterization of an important polymorphism of TP53; and, more recently, RNA editing during the development of mesothelioma.

How did you collaborate with other scientists and research teams to achieve common goals?
Since I started as an independent scientist in 1994, I cherished collaborations, in which common goals are achieved through commitment and good communication.

What have been some of the benefits and challenges of working in a collaborative environment?
Working in a collaborative environment has mostly benefits: constructive exchange about methods and approaches, discussion about results and analysis strategies. The challenge, especially when working in multiple teams, is keeping everyone posted. I addressed this issue by compiling extensive minutes of exchange.

How did you balance your work as a scientist with your personal life?
When I started, not much existed to balance family and work life. Our strategy was simple: Reduce social life to what was compatible with family life.

Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration for ideas, I found at night, when I could not sleep, or during outdoor activities. I found inspiration to fight to continue my work, through people in my surroundings.

What do you like to do outside the lab?
I like doing Yoga, swimming, hiking in the mountains (photo 6), painting and drawing, taking care of my three grandchildren, or taking care of our vineyard (photo 7).

Can you describe some of the challenges you have faced as a female scientist, and how did you overcome them?
During my PhD, we had our first child. I heard people defining me in ways that are forbidden today. Later, I experienced a similar kind of discrimination twice. It was only because of one of my defects, stubbornness, which can be a quality in some occasions, I pursued my scientific career.

What advice would you give to young girls who are interested in pursuing a scientific career?
It is the same advice I gave my students: “Life is not a straight line, there are ups and downs and it is the same in science. As a woman, one is “formatted” for anticipation and this helps.”.  So, if you have the passion, go for it.

In your opinion, what would help to make a scientific career more attractive to women?
Young people today have concerns that we did not have when I started. We lived more in the present and believed that our passion and commitment would take care of the future. To re-boot that feeling, nurturing female dedicated PhD students and postdoc may help.

What role do you see mentorship playing in the scientific community?
Mentorship is crucial. I have benefitted from it and tried my best to do the same for younger people.

Who has been the biggest role model or mentor in your scientific career, and how have they influenced your work?
I have already mentioned my PhD advisor and how he influenced my work. Later, my boss at the National Cancer Institute USA allowed me to gain enough confidence in my work so that I became ready to be independent. Complete freedom in research was granted to me later when I started working in Zurich. These three persons share strong ethics and, in their own manner, are committed to common wealth.

What advice would you give to young women who are seeking mentorship or looking for role models in their field of interest?
Mentorship as well as role models can be found in men and women scientists who seek to really improve the scientific career of women.

Have you been able to provide mentorship or support to other young women pursuing careers in life sciences?
Mentoring other scientists pursuing careers in life sciences was a manner to express my gratitude and contribute to common wealth. I wish common wealth would be more considered as scope in life by world citizens.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the scientific community today, and how can we address these challenges?
The pace at which new knowledge is acquired is too fast and more time should be dedicated to thinking. It is not clear how this can be achieved.

What would you like to say to your younger self about a scientific career?
A scientific career is a dedication, includes joys and sacrifices, but it is fun to learn.



We are sharing profiles of women researchers of the NCCR RNA & Disease as part of the #NCCRWomen campaign. You can find out more about the campaign on YouTubeTwitter or Instagram

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