“Multidisciplinary training is the best asset I took away with me from IRB Barcelona”

Eva Novoa's mother receives the Young Researchers Award in her name
Eva Novoa's mother receives the Young Researchers Award in her name
  • <p>Eva Novoa's mother receives the Young Researchers Award in her name</p>

Eva Novoa was one of the first students to complete a PhD in as part of the ”la Caixa”/IRB Barcelona International PhD Programme in Biomedicine. She was a PhD student at IRB Barcelona between 2008 and 2012. Six months ago, she moved to Sydney, Australia to join the Garvan Institute of Medical Research as a Senior Research Officer. She just received the Young Research Award from the Catalan Society for Biology.

On 7 July, Eva Maria Novoa (Barcelona,1983) received yet another prize in her promising career. It was the Young Researchers Award by the Catalan Society of Biology for her PhD thesis Evolution of the gene translation machinery and its applications to drug discovery, which she defended in December 2012, receiving a cum laude distinction. Eva joined IRB Barcelona in 2008 and was one of the first two students to complete her PhD as part of the ”la Caixa” - IRB Barcelona International PhD Programme in Biomedicine. She did her PhD in Lluís Ribas’ Gene Translation Laboratory. After graduating, she was awarded the Fisher Scientific Prize to Young Researchers by the Spanish Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for the Best paper published by a young Spanish researcher (Novoa et al., Cell 2012).

In this key paper, which stemmed from a side project she started while working on her thesis, Eva and her colleagues demonstrated “how organisms have evolved in a different manner to achieve better adaptations and optimum protein translation efficiency” through a biological mechanism based on the selection of two enzymes favouring the divergent evolution for the genomes for archaeobacteria, bacteria, and eukaryotes. As they put it, this “indicated that evolution in different organisms has been clearly driven by the appearance of tRNA modifications,” she told in vivo at the time.

Six months ago, she moved to Sydney, Australia to join the Garvan Institute of Medical Research as a Senior Research Officer with Prof. John Mattick, after previously holding a postdoctoral researcher position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, USA, where she worked in Manolis Kellis' Computational Biology group.


Why did your thesis attract the attention of the jury of the Catalan Society of Biology?

I think it is because of its multidisciplinary nature. It combined bioinformatics, evolutionary biology, and biochemistry. During my PhD, I was lucky to be trained in two different research groups. I spent my first year and half in Modesto Orozco’s lab, where I acquired expertise in the use of computational tools for biological data analysis. I was then able to apply this to evolutionary biology and drug design in Lluís Ribas’ lab. IRB Barcelona’s multidisciplinary nature and the strong collaborations within its groups are among its major strengths. And I believe that my thesis is an outcome of this productive environment.

What research projects are you currently working on?

I am interested in unraveling the role of RNA modifications both in coding and non-coding RNAs. In contrast to DNA, which has only a dozen epigenetic modifications, RNA has more than 100—these mostly affecting non-coding RNA. The recent discovery of the FTO enzyme challenged a long-standing view that these modifications were mere decorations, with no specific function.  FTO can reverse one of these modifications, called m6A-RNA modification. This implies that RNA modifications can be actively regulated, and therefore, that their functions might be far beyond decoration and/or fine-tuning of structure. We still do not know much about the abundance, location, and role of the majority of these RNA modifications, mostly because we don’t have sensitive genome-wide technologies that allow us to identify and map them. At Garvan, we are currently developing new protocols to selectively label RNA modifications, and these techniques can then be coupled with next-generation sequencing. In collaboration with my former lab at MIT, we expect to apply these protocols to Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) samples, and thus decipher the variance of RNA modifications across tissues and individuals. 

Share some good memories about your days as a PhD student at IRB Barcelona.

I remember once we had a mishap with some dye and ended up turning the lab blue - the floor, lab coats, furniture... It was quite a sight to see us in our protective gear cleaning it all up. I also very much enjoyed the Cool-off sessions. These generated a nice feeling of community and gave me the opportunity to meet people of all ages and from all over the world working in other labs at the institute, as well as to get to know what they were working on. Also, I have good memories of the meetings with Lluís Ribas, which were supposed to last only 30 minutes and always ended up being much longer and which can only be described as inspiring scientific brainstorming sessions.

Tell us a bit about your postdoc at the MIT.

Overall, it was a highly stimulating experience. There were so many interesting talks to attend, not only on biomedicine-related topics. You could find out about the latest updates on Google cars and the moral issues involved, or listen to Noam Chomsky’s view on evolutionary biology from a language theory perspective, or learn how easy it is to turn good scientific ideas into start-up companies.

There were also drawbacks, such as waking up to temperatures of -10º C in January and thinking it was good weather. Or encountering slightly awkward situations, like people who—wanting to save time—slept on a couch in the common areas of the department instead of going home.

What did you take away with you from your experience at IRB Barcelona?

Multidisciplinarity is one of the main assets I took with me from my training at IRB Barcelona. In my lab at MIT, most of the students and postdocs had pure computer science backgrounds and were usually much quicker in coding algorithms than me. But my multidisciplinary background allowed me to ask more interesting questions on the data we had.

What do you think of IRB Barcelona’s Alumni Network?

I joined the Alumni Network and I find it is a great idea. I had a look at everyone’s profile and I am impressed: postdoctoral positions in great places world-wide, jobs in scientific communication, CEOs… Both the diversity and quality is immense, which I think is a reflection of the high-level training that students receive at IRB Barcelona. I hope to be able to tap into the network to reinforce my science. Maybe opportunities to collaborate will come up soon!

What advice would you give to a scientist planning to continue his or her career outside Europe or the US?

Australia is perhaps not as popular a choice as the US or Europe, but it is also a great country to do science in. One of the reasons I chose Australia is that senior postdocs have a lot of independence here; they can apply for their own funding and research grants, and even have their own PhD students and research assistants, while being under the umbrella of a senior lab head.  There is a good work-life balance, job opportunities, excellent weather, and a welcoming environment for foreigners. I have been here for only 5 months but, based on my experience, I would definitely recommend Australia as a potential destination to do science. One thing I found really interesting is that in the Australian research grant applications you can include maternity leave and having children, and this gives a wider margin to obtain funds. It is important to acknowledge that a woman’s scientific career tends to have more interruptions than a man's. This is definitely a good measure to help women stay in science and be competitive.  (Sara Martorell)