RNA + Us


(Photo: E-M. Manz)

Eva-Maria, born in Tübingen, Germany, pursued her Bachelor’s and Master’s studies in Molecular Health Sciences at the ETH Zurich. As part of her academic journey, she also completed a laboratory internship at Stanford University and an exchange semester at the University of Toronto in Canada. In 2020, she began her doctoral studies in the research group of Jonathan Hall at ETH, where she is investigating oligonucleotide-based treatments for rare diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy and erythropoietic protoporphyria.

Eva-Maria, if you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I would have to find a job where I am challenged in a similar way to research. I love solving challenging riddles and I am definitely a bit stubborn, so I will not give up easily. Ideally, the job should not be monotonous and include different tasks that can be adapted to best meet the needs.
I also really like baking and I have considered becoming a baker or pastry chef. But maybe some activities should better remain hobbies and not become work.

What inspired you to become a life scientist?
I have always been fascinated by living organisms and the more I learnt about their biology, the more curious I grew. It was a straightforward choice for me to attend a high school specialised in natural sciences and to study Biology at ETH Zurich. An event that really confirmed my passion for research in Biology was the International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) at the Weizmann Institute of science in Israel. Together with 80 international students, I got to spend a month at the institute exploring a project in the lab and the world of research (see photo). To this day, I draw inspiration and passion from this time.

What inspired you to pursue a graduate degree in life sciences and what are some of the most rewarding aspects?
During Biology studies, you are first taught the basic concepts, but as you go on, you are shown the limitations of these concepts and how much we still do not understand. For me, that is where things get interesting. I enjoy analysing a problem and trying to answer a question by designing experiments and discussing the results. The bigger aim is to contribute to humanity’s ever-growing body of knowledge.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to make a living by simply following my curiosity. Doing research is not easy and experiments do not always succeed. Sometimes they raise more questions than they answer. Yet, it is incredibly rewarding to me when hard work finally pays off and I can draw a conclusion from one of my experiments. An example of this is developing a cellular assay and optimising it to be able to test a set of pharmaceutical compounds. It requires thought, consistent and clean work, and patience.

What does a typical day look like for you? What do you like most and least about it?
A typical day involves some experimentation, including conducting and analysing an experiment, as well as some reflection and planning. Once an experiment is concluded, the results are analysed. Usually, the results inform the next step of the project I am working on. If I am planning a new experiment, I might need to look into existing literature to learn a technique or a colleague may know how to help me. Above all, I need to make sure that I have the materials and tools to perform the next experiment. A considerable amount of time goes into procuring materials and looking after machines in the laboratory. These “house-keeping” tasks are not my favourite, but they need to be done to ensure smooth work on a daily basis.

What is the main question that your research tries to answer?
Broadly speaking, the Hall laboratory studies RNA as a drug and as a drug target. Specifically, we do this by studying RNA in the context of (rare) diseases, such as erythropoietic protoporphyria and spinal muscular atrophy. Here, I try to gain a better understanding of the molecular mechanism of these diseases. This knowledge is the basis of developing treatments or improving already existing ones. My work requires an understanding of biological and pharmacological concepts, as well as mastering techniques in molecular and cellular biology and the chemical synthesis of oligonucleotides.

What fascinates you most about your research topic?
While proteins and DNA have been studied extensively, much less attention was given to RNA. For a long time, it was thought that RNA was only the messenger between DNA and protein. By now we know that there are so many more species of RNA, each with their own characteristics and function(s). I believe that as long as our own genome is not fully functionally annotated, there is more to discover in the world of RNA. And with understanding the human genome comes the possibility to understand, to treat or even cure human diseases. That is what fascinates me, I think that we live in exciting times!

What are some of the most promising areas of research in your field today, and how do you see this field evolving in the future?
While RNA-based therapeutics hold great promise, delivery of these kind of drugs into cells is the biggest issue to solve. Many approaches are being investigated and some are partially successful. But reaching most cells or organs reliably is still a challenge. Only once this delivery problem is solved, will we be able to realise the full potential of RNA as a drug.

How do you collaborate with other scientists and research teams to achieve common goals?
The atmosphere in the lab where I work is collaborative in nature. We do not all work on the same project, but the techniques used and the problems encountered are similar and we help each other.
I have recently started working with another research group as they have a lot of expertise in a technique that I also want to use. Instead of loosing time learning the technique by myself, it makes sense to get advice from experts. In return, my lab group helps the other group with our knowledge and expertise. This way, both groups progress faster, use state-of-the-art procedures and avoid mistakes.

How do you stay motivated and overcome obstacles when conducting scientific research?
It is almost inevitable to encounter obstacles and experience frustrations in scientific research. You have to learn how to deal with these situations. First of all, it is usually helpful to understand the obstacle and discuss it with colleagues. Often, I am not alone with the obstacle, and many fellow researchers have found solutions that may also work for me. And as already mentioned, I like to solve problems, and an obstacle might even hide a new finding.

How do you balance your work as a scientist with your personal life?
It is essential to have projects and hobbies in your free time, especially because I believe that this helps to avoid mental health issues. It is “easy” to dedicate all your time and resources to a scientific project, but it is not necessarily more productive than spending your free time unwinding and doing something else. Latter may even allow you to reflect about your work in a different way and solve a problem or make greater progress by getting a fresh mind. After all, you can always change jobs or projects, but you cannot change your body or mind in the same way, you have to take care of it.

What do you like to do outside the lab?
I have a sweet tooth and I love to bake for others and for myself. Recently, I have also started baking savoury products as bread, bagels etc. Besides baking, I also like to challenge myself physically. About a year ago, a colleague inspired me to train for a triathlon – an endurance sport that involves swimming, biking and running. I am happy to say that with triathlon I have found a sport that I enjoy a lot. I look forward to training every other day!

Where do you find inspiration?
Every day, I find inspiration in other scientists, for example my colleagues or collaborators.
I have recently joined a project called “Wall of Scientists” (https://www.wallofscientists.com/), founded by Enriqueta Vallejo-Yagüe at ETH Zurich. The aim of the project is to showcase scientists who have not received the recognition they truly deserve for their contributions to science. The wall exists physically at ETH Hönggerberg and online. Anyone can contribute to the collection of scientists by suggesting a name or writing a small paragraph about the scientist themselves. It is great to see this project growing and the stories are inspiring.
I also get inspiration from reading books. I am currently reading “RNA – the epicenter of genetic information” by John Mattick, a comprehensive book about the history of RNA biology up to the present day. The book not only highlights the milestones of RNA biology, but is also full of stories of scientists and their contributions that continuously build on each other and advance science. On the side, I am listening to “the code breaker”, a book about Jennifer Doudna and her major scientific contribution – CRISPR-Cas9. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in life sciences today.

In your opinion, what would help to make a scientific career more attractive to women?
In general, a scientific career is not easy, and the higher up the career ladder you are, the more competition there is for the few positions available. This is only logical and a challenge that both men and women face. It is a challenge that can be overcome if the right and supportive environment is in place. This begins with the application process, where unconscious gender biases need to be addressed. This continues in the personal and scientific development, where role models and mentors are an important support system. And finally, childcare support, if needed.

What would you like to say to your younger self about a scientific career?
It is possible and it is fun! Go one step at the time and enjoy the learning process.
I consider myself very lucky to have a supportive family who encouraged me follow my passion. I do not take it for granted, although I hope for a future where everyone can develop their career as they wish.

What advice would you give to young girls who are interested in pursuing a career in life sciences?
Try to find out what you like to do and what problems fascinate you. Enjoying your studies and work is worth a lot and helps to motivate you in difficult times. Find a mentor in people you admire, be inspired and learn from others.

What is your wish for girls studying science in school today?
That they can fully explore their interests in school and follow their hearts when choosing a career. I hope that they will not encounter any discrimination on their way, but that they will find role models or become a role model themselves. Be courageous and try to change the world for the better.



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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