“IRB Barcelona will always be special because I took my first steps as a scientist here”

IRB Barcelona alumna Ana Janic is now a postdoc in Australia

Ana Janic (Serbia, 1978) finished a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology and Physiology at the University of Belgrade in 2005, after which she moved to Barcelona for a summer internship in Cayetano González’s Cell Division Laboratory. This experience led her to undertake a PhD at IRB Barcelona, during which she developed a research project in the field of Drosophila tumour biology. Her thesis was graded cum laude by the University of Barcelona and was awarded  the “Premis Extraordinaris de Doctorat 2011” as the best doctoral thesis that year. She then moved to Andreas Strasser’s Lab at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, Australia, to carry out postdoctoral research in molecular genetics of haematopoietic malignancies. Ana and her husband have been living in Australia since 2011, and they had a daughter, Emma, in 2014. She visited IRB Barcelona in October to give a talk on her current research.


What attracted you most about doing your PhD at IRB Barcelona after your summer internship in 2005?

When I came to IRB Barcelona as a summer student, I was excited to find that Cayetano González was studying tumours in Drosophila. At that point, I wasn’t even aware that fruit flies could develop tumours! The environment at IRB Barcelona was very motivating. I felt like I was at home from the very beginning. Even though I had just arrived from Serbia and didn’t speak a word of Spanish! Being welcomed into such an international and also competitive environment was what definitely made me stay.

What is the focus of your current research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute?

With Cayetano, I studied tumour suppression biology in Drosophila. The work turned into a successful PhD project that resulted in a first-author paper in Science. At the same time, it opened so many questions regarding how tumour suppressors work. I moved on to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne as a junior postdoc to keep studying tumour suppression─but this time in pre-clinical models.

I am now studying the mechanisms that work downstream of p53, one of the most common suppressors of human tumours. This gene is mutated in almost 50% of human tumours, so it is very important to know how p53 protects us from developing cancer.

What did you take away with you from IRB Barcelona?

The feeling that I could be independent and that I had been well guided throughout my PhD. As you know, IRB Barcelona has amazing resources and facilities, and, on top of that, I was privileged to work in an international and highly competitive environment. This spirit pushed us to go for new projects, and it is mainly this spirit that I keep with me.

What is it like being a female scientist, and a mother, in Australia?

Motherhood is particularly challenging, especially when you are working as a postdoc in a very competitive institute. But with the help of your family, everything is possible. In my case, my husband, who moved to Australia with me, gave me lots of support, so much so that I was able to go back to work full-time while he took care of our small baby. Also, I received great support from my current supervisor Andreas Strasser and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. I was given the Craven and Shearer Award that recognizes outstanding female postdoctoral fellows at the Institute and helps them with the cost of childcare for pre-school-aged children, which is really expensive in Australia. Furthermore, to make sure that my project progressed while I was on maternity leave, the Institute paid for a technician position to support me.

Why should a scientist choose to pursue a career in Australia?

I think Australia is really attractive in terms of science. In the late 1980s, researchers at the Institute where I work discovered that the protein Bcl-2 helps cancer cells to survive indefinitely. The Bcl-2 inhibitor was co-developed and trialed in Australia, and this year has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat patients with leukaemia. In my opinion, Australia has a huge strength because basic science is supported and also great efforts are made to find industrial partners for discoveries made in basic research. For me, as a young scientist, being in an institute where I can see how basic discoveries actually reach clinical practice is really motivating. I would highly recommend Australia as a place to pursue a research career.

How does keeping in contact with former IRB Barcelona colleagues benefit your work? How do you think the IRB Barcelona Alumni Network can contribute to the science carried out by current and former IRB members?

First of all, my mentors are here at IRB Barcelona, where I did my PhD. They will always be a reference for me, and I know I can talk to them. IRB Barcelona will always be special because I took my first steps as a scientist here.

The recent activities promoted by the Alumni Network look amazing and, in terms of collaboration, I think we should all get involved. As a member of the Alumni Network, you have the opportunity to interact with other former IRB Barcelona scientists, to give seminars, and get involved in other activities. I think that interaction between scientific communities is essential, and the Alumni initiative will open up further opportunities for collaboration. (Interview: Sara Martorell)