Maria Colomé-Tatché has had to make some tough choices: should she study physics or mathematics, or become a flautist instead? ‘I’m a very inquisitive person and physics seemed to provide the most answers. But studying physics wasn’t a totally rational decision.’ And three years ago, she switched to genetics.
Colomé-Tatché (1981) is speaking on the phone from her native Barcelona, where she is currently on maternity leave. Just before she left, the Dutch funding agency for science NWO awarded her a EUR 220,000 grant for a genetics project. And when she returns to work, she will move from the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Science and Engineering (formerly known as the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences) to ERIBA, the new institute for ageing research at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), where she has been appointed to a tenure-track position as a Rosalind Franklin Fellow.
‘Why did I study physics? It’s difficult to know why you make certain decisions. At school I did a research project looking at the science in science fiction novels spanning a century. The physics problems that emerged from these novels interested me the most.’ The maths teacher who supervised the project advised Colomé-Tatché to study either physics or philosophy. ‘Because I always wanted to know why things work the way they do.’
But there was another option, ‘I started studying music at the age of five. I play the flute and trained at the academy of music. I was even a music teacher for a while. I always played in groups, even toured with some of them. For years I tried to combine physics with music. It was only when I was doing my Master’s that I decided to stop playing at an advanced level, just for a year, so I could finish my studies. But after that year, I couldn’t muster up my old level of commitment and decided that music would be my hobby.’
Colomé-Tatché gained her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in physics, with a year of mathematics on the side. She then left Spain for Paris, where she did a number of physics internships and obtained another Master’s degree and eventually her PhD. ‘I became a theoretical physicist; experiments didn’t suit me.’ She thoroughly enjoyed her research work. ‘Initially, you just learn the answers to set questions from a book. But then you move on to ask questions that have not yet been answered. That’s really addictive; you always get to learn new things.’
Her PhD was on quantum optics, studying models of cold atoms in one-dimensional systems. ‘Such cold atoms could possibly be used to build a quantum computer: that’s a computer which is in theory vastly superior to our current computers.’ She went to Germany as a postdoc to continue this work. ‘Quantum mechanics, the whole quantum world, is so very counterintuitive. And in my opinion really beautiful.’
However, the questions she was answering do not have any real use in the foreseeable future. ‘I felt that I wanted problems that needed a more immediate solution, more down-to-earth ones.’ At the time, she was doing a postdoc in Hannover. She then met University of Groningen Professor of Bioinformatics Ritsert Jansen. ‘He’s a mathematician, but has been working in biological research for a long time. He knows the importance of having different kinds of people in a research team.’ Colomé-Tatché and Jansen started to collaborate, and he ended up offering her a one-year postdoc position in his group. ‘Just to see how things worked out.’
Instead of modelling cold atoms, she now had to analyze large, complex databases full of genetic information. ‘We were looking at the transgenerational inheritance of epigenetic modifications of DNA.’ Environmental influences can switch certain genes on or off, and this setting (caused by epigenetic modification of the DNA) can be passed on to the next generation.
‘I discovered that as a physicist I looked at problems differently from the other group members. It was great to see this. I used to work only with other physicists, and we all had roughly the same knowledge. Now, I was working in a real interdisciplinary team, where we all had different skills. By working together, we could solve the problems much better than alone.’ It was a different way of doing science, but one she really took to.
‘When I move to ERIBA, I’ll start assembling my own group. And I’ll certainly hire people with different backgrounds.’ She will study the impact of epigenetic changes on ageing. ‘We’ll do it with data analysis and theoretical modelling. The aim is to create a group that will become a world leader in epigenetic research on ageing.’
Having moved from quantum physics to medical research, how does she look back at her journey so far? ‘If I had to start all over again, I would certainly make the same choices. I don’t regret having started out in physics. I’ve moved around a lot, seen a lot and experienced different ways of doing science. I’ve really enjoyed it so far!’
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