Ewa Paluch is professor of anatomy at the University of Cambridge and professor of cell biophysics at UCL. She won the life sciences prize at the 2018 UK Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists for her work exploring how cells move and change shape, including the physiological roles of cellular protrusions called “blebs”.
When and where were you born?
1977 in Krakow, Poland.
How has this shaped who you are?
We moved to Paris as political refugees when I was nine years old, so culturally I feel very French because I lived there for 20 years, but, on some level, I am also a Polish refugee.
My mother was a political journalist during the Cold War. When I was 4, there was a military coup and things became really bad in Poland. We were in the middle of all this because my mother worked for the illegal press and so was really involved in the opposition. Our house was regularly turned upside by the secret police and my mother was arrested all the time. Friends of my parents were tortured and even killed. But as a child, that was just life and my parents made me feel safe. It has also shaped me in that I feel very strongly about some issues like racism, xenophobia and intolerance.
What kind of undergraduate were you?
The overcommitted kind. In my fourth year I tried to do a maths degree and a physics degree at the same time, while acting in two theatre plays and playing piano with a chamber music group, while at the same time giving a ton of private lessons to help support my mother who was ill. With all of this, I hit a wall and was quite sick for a while. I dropped the maths degree and one of the plays, realised that sleeping less was not the solution to everything and that maybe I had to become more considered in my choices.
You started out as a physicist – what made you switch to biology?
Four or five years after I started studying I realised what I really wanted to understand was how life works. It was a bit difficult because it’s a huge change of mindset to switch from physics to biology – they approach science from different perspectives. But there is actually a lot of support for people transitioning subjects because interdisciplinarity is growing and subject boundaries are really blurring everywhere on every level. I think that’s good. Cells and organisms don’t really care if it’s physics or biology – they use physical, biological and chemical processes to live.
Have you had a eureka moment?
I have had a lot of small eureka moments about smaller questions. But it was the people I was doing my PhD with who made me feel, “OK, this is right, these are the people I want to work with and these are the questions I want to be asking.”
How does it feel to win the Blavatnik award?
It feels great because work as a scientist is intrinsically full of doubts. Critical assessment by our peers, which is sometimes difficult, is an intrinsic part of our work, but a prize like this is really a fantastic validation that you are doing something potentially important.
What is it about blebs that is so important?
What I’m interested in is cell shape control. Blebs are really a direct consequence of the fact that cells are under pressure – if they were not, they would not be able to keep any shape. Wherever there is a weakness in the cell surface you will get a protrusion which is called a bleb. It’s just mechanics. So what we learn from them, I think, is a set of basic principles about how cells deal with physics, and how these basic principles are used for good things – like white blood cells moving around to find pathogens in your body, or for bad things like cancer cells moving around in a way that’s not controlled any more. So blebs are a great entry point to understanding cell mechanics in general.
Tell us about someone you admire.
Marie Curie, mostly for her integrity, determination and idealism. She didn’t care about the system very much, she just cared about the science. On a closer level, my PhD adviser Cécile Sykes. I was always struck by the fact that she managed to be a great scientist and a great group leader and at the same time be a great mother and a great human being in general. We are still in touch.
What keeps you awake at night?
Sometimes my toddler, and currently Brexit anxiety. We are a very international family and we would love to settle in the UK as we love it in many ways, but we are very worried about what’s going to happen.
Do you have any regrets?
Both my parents passed away and I wish I had talked more with them about their lives, especially given my mother’s background – I would love to find out why she made the decisions she made.
If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
I also wanted to be a writer – so maybe one day I will write my parents’ story.
What would you like to be remembered for?
For having contributed to breaking discipline barriers in biology, also helping younger people grow. I feel particularly strongly about supporting women in science – it is difficult to carry a career and a young family so I am really doing everything I can to support people in my lab who have children, for example.
The nomination period for the 2020 Blavatnik Awards UK opens on 1 May. More information can be found at http://blavatnikawards.org/awards/united-kingdom-awards/.
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