“All you can do is work to your best ability and fight for what you want.”

Sara Montagner knows how to balance her two passions: research and family. On 29 November 2018 she will receive the Marie Heim-Vögtlin Prize in recognition of her work on the influence of epigenetics on mast cells.

The award ceremony will take place that at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Bellinzona, where Sara Montagner worked during her doctorate and a short SNSF-funded postdoc. Since May 2018, she has been working as a postdoc at Novartis in Basel.

Most people will not know about mast cells and epigenetics…

Mast cells are a type of immune cell. They are, for example, responsible for allergy and asthma symptoms. Epigenetics is the study of DNA modifications that do not involve altering the gene sequence. These modifications affect how the human body reads genetic information.

What usually triggers epigenetic modifications?

The environment. Genetically identical twins are different because they are exposed to different environmental stimuli. Epigenetics are in part responsible for this.

What have you discovered?

Together with my colleagues, we wanted to understand how particular epigenetic modifications influence the function of mast cells of mice. We found that if we modulate the expression of specific enzymes (TET2 and DNMT3A) responsible for the epigenetic changes, mast cells either proliferate more or they show increased activation.

Which aspect of this work has the greatest potential to be translated into medicine?

The concept in itself: disease is not always caused by genetic defects, but it can also be explained by epigenetic alterations.

Could this explain why some individuals experience their first allergic symptoms later in life?

Yes, epigenetic modifications can contribute to the regulation of allergic responses in adulthood.

Do epigenetics offer a new approach for treating allergies?

It is not so easy to translate these findings. If you induce epigenetic modifications of a subset of genes, you need to understand how this affects the expression of other genes.

Did you experience a “eureka” moment during your research?

No. It was a typically slow process: you formulate a hypothesis, you test it and if it is correct, you can go on, if not you have to change direction.

Did you experience failures?

I would not call them failures. The way to reach your goals is not always linear.

Is this a problem?

This is the reality for every researcher but it is the way to discover new things and it is the most fascinating part of our job.

Did you ever think “research is not for me”?

No. I really like my job. Of course, you have to find the right balance between your work and your personal life.

Could you have done it without support?

Absolutely not. I was able to follow my passion and find the right balance thanks to the support of my lab mates, my mentors and my family.

Following your passion meant moving with your family from Bellinzona to Basel. Was this selfish?

Sometimes I think that I am selfish. But if I want to be a researcher, moving was the right decision. And I think we are all benefiting from the experience: my daughter is learning German and my partner is moving ahead with a new job here in Basel.

Competition in academic research is tough. How do you keep up?

I take one step at a time. All you can do is work to your best ability and fight for what you want.

How do you “fight”?

At the moment by extending my knowledge. At the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Bellinzona, I focused on the innate immune system and epigenetics. At Novartis, I apply my molecular biology skills to the adaptive immune system, i.e. the acquired defense system of our body.

Where do you see yourself in five years from now?

Once I complete my work at Novartis, I would like to combine my fields and investigate epigenetic regulations in the adaptive immune system. I could imagine leading a research group. Of course, it is a bit scary to say this out loud, but I hope I will get there step by step.

Marie Heim-Vögtlin Prize