“Being part of a group enhances joy and reduces the negative effects of failure”

Prof. Valentina Greco from the Medical School of Yale University has recently held a lecture at the Cells-in-Motion Cluster of Excellence (CiM). She had been invited by the “Women in Science” network, a group of PhD students from CiM labs. The network members Zahra Labbaf and Michelina Kierzek have talked to the biologist about passion for science, the value of teamwork and balancing professional and personal life.

Prof. Valentina Greco (centre) with PhD students from the “Women in Science” network at CiM
© WiS

Prof. Greco, what is your ultimate aim as a scientist? What is your dream question to answer?

I don’t know that I can see that far, but my dream is to feel as excited as I feel today about pursuing scientific questions. Sometimes I cannot even predict what the next questions will be because they are derived from what we discover today.

Ultimately, however, I am fascinated by the idea of understanding regeneration at the level of the organ.  To tackle regeneration, we initially started by looking at the skin epithelium and became interested in understanding the interactions between stem cells and how a group of cells gets orchestrated to fulfill a specific tissue function. It has become very clear from our science and that of many colleagues that the environment is much more complex; the environment is not only neighboring stem cells, but also other cell types. With the new techniques we have built up, we have interrogated the interaction with mesenchymal cells and found there is a dependence on the environment, as defined by specific fibroblast populations. We are expanding our research to better understand epithelial interactions with both mesenchymal cells as well as immune cells.  I think these are frontiers that will really find the light in my lab in a couple of years. So, while organ regulation and regeneration is interesting, I cannot exclude that there will be surprises along the way.

Did you always see yourself pursuing science and becoming a principal investigator? Did you have a backup plan?

Growing up, I had not planned to become a PI or a biologist. I stumbled upon things. When I was a child, I loved music, playing piano, dance and math. But, my first year in math was a failure. I then stumbled upon biology. When I interviewed for my PhD at EMBL, I fell in love with science. During that interview, I realized there was place, in this case EMBL, where things could happen that I thought were only science fiction. At that moment, I felt such a strong passion that I knew it would carry me for many years. I don't feel as if I planned my life really. As I recognized passion, I just followed and invested in it. It was only very late in my post doc that I felt that I would try to become a PI.

Were there times when you struggled to find a motivation? If so, how did you overcome those situations?

I love people and people are my strength. What I think a group does to you, whether you are in a group or you run your own group, is that it enhances joy and reduces the negative effects of failure. For instance, I struggled during my postdoc because my project failed and I had to start over. I remember going to people around me. By interacting and discussing with them or even listening to their science, it would distract me and give me motivation to get back to my own project. Similarly, when I started as a junior PI in 2009, I was part of a cohort of junior PIs. As junior PIs, we created a network and safety net for each other. When we struggled with mentoring or grants, we could talk to each other and see that we were not alone. You feel like the dumbest person in the world when you are on your own, it’s only by anchoring yourself to a group that you realize it's a common problem. When we help each other we can move forward. Now this cohort of PIs is still around me and they have become incredible colleagues and dear friends with whom we keep experiencing the different facets of our scientific journey.

Clearly, you are very invested in mentorship. What is your mentorship approach?

First of all, I think we all agreed on the value of mentorship. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't think mentorship is important. The question is what it represents to you and how much time and value one finds in investing in it. To me, science is exciting not only because of the thrill I feel when discovering new biological insights, but also because of the experience of doing so in a group. The human part of science is exhilarating to me! 
Mentorship also has a big return. I believe it is impossible for me to be best at something no matter how talented I may be. I believe it is impossible for me, even if I were to be the best in the world, to do everything on my own. To me, mentorship means investing in my lab members to make them and myself the best scientist we can be today. My ability to make discoveries depends on my people being independent. One of the concepts that we as a group really landed on was that the mentoring and the business sides of science have to be married in order to reach the best growth for all parties involved. If one manages to create intellectual spaces in the lab where lab members are raised as independent scientists, when you put those individuals together to discuss, you can create ideas that neither of the single parts could ever have imagined. That process of creation for me is one of the fueling energies in my life.

Who were your biggest role models in both your professional and personal life?

Both my parents loved their work. I believe that watching that passion was defining for me. My mom, in particular, was an academic. She was a professor of financial math at the university in the economy degree. She has always shown her passion for work as well as an infinite love and presence with me and my sister. Her influence was a very important aspect in my life. My PhD mentor was extremely creative, warm and supportive. She was just happy with nature and always supported any results we would obtain, even negative ones. I found that type of teaching very reassuring and set strong foundations for me to be humble and courageous when interrogating nature. I also had an incredible chair when I started, who saw my talent before there was any sign of possible success, and that investment has been crucial for my lab science.

What was the best piece of advice you received? What piece of advice would you give to young scientists today?

This point of view is interesting, because we often like to think this way: we take a journey to reach a certain understanding and then think of it as a strike of light, when in reality, it took us a long time to recognize and put into practice a certain piece of advice. But, in general, I would say that my advice to the younger generation is to not stop dreaming and to avoid seeing challenges and risks as negative things. Personally, challenge is what keeps me going. You always need a component of risk if you want to turn the page, if you want to do something that has an impact for you and/or others, if you want to make your heart beat faster. I want to encourage people, especially women, to feel comfortable with challenges and risks and see them as ingredients that make life worth the while.

How do you balance your professional and personal life?

First, let’s define balance…I think it’s like putting an image into focus in the microscope, you always go to one side too much and then the other side too much, but eventually you put the object into focus. That is what my life is, a dynamic equilibrium oscilatting between two extremes! Sometimes you need to push a lot…you want to publish a paper, prepare a talk, or help a student apply for a fellowship. You have to be very present in your work and you know you will be taken away from the family. But afterwards, you go back and give more to the family. But, I also fuse everything. For instance, when we have a seminar speaker coming, I invite the speaker, along with my group to come to my place for dinner. But, I have kids and do not have much time to prepare dinner for everyone. So, we devised a protocol with my group, a few of them come earlier and we get organized into subteams: one cooks and the other plays with the kids. The speaker comes and the kids are running around, but this is understood as what managing the family and lab together requires. I would not say I have balance, I have a full life where both passions meet.

Do you have a memorable anecdote that demonstrates how professional and personal life co-exist?

There was this one moment I remember from early in my career, when we were working very hard towards a paper. And at that stage of my career having a paper accepted was a matter of lab survival. We had struggled a lot with a lengthy review process. I remember my husband being late for dinner, so I decided to check my emails to see if he had written about when he would come. Upon checking my inbox, I saw an email from the editor indicating that the paper had been accepted. I started to shout and jump up and down. My kids ran to where I was and started to jump and shout too! As they were jumping they shouted ‘Why are we jumping???!!!’. I will never forget this because they were so keen on sharing my happiness, but to them the cause of my happiness didn’t mean much. When I explained to them that my paper was accepted they said ‘meh, ok’. It was sharing that joy and happiness with them that was quite something.