Dr Elisa Barbieri on the regulation of gene expression in stem cells

She tells us that she is currently trying to unravel the molecular mechanisms that determine whether stem cells become somatic or part of the germline, that it is a challenge to adapt genomic and biochemical techniques to small numbers or single cells, and that a passion for science is essential for success and must be cultivated every day.

Elisa studied Molecular Biology at the University of Padua - Italy - and Genetics at the University of Paris VII – France. She did her PhD at the European Institute of Oncology (IEO) in Milan studying the role of NPM1, a leukaemia-associated protein in the differentiation of murine hematopoietic stem cells.

She then moved to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia - USA where she worked to uncover the role of RNA Polymerase II-associated Integrator complex in the human hematopoietic system.

Since the end of October 2019, she is part of the Chambers lab at the Institute of Stem Cell Research, first as a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow and now as a Postdoctoral Research Associate, working on the transcriptional mechanisms governing the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into primordial germ cells.


Could you briefly summarise your work?

My main interest is understanding the regulation of gene expression in stem cells and how this controls their differentiation abilities. Using a variety of genomic and biochemical techniques, I am currently trying to unravel the molecular mechanisms that govern the choice of stem cells to become somatic or part of the germline.

Why is your research important? How is it relevant to people's lives?

Understanding the basic mechanism of how stem cells differentiate or how they are able to become progenitors of the germline is essential to understanding genetic diseases and infertility.

What are the major challenges in your field?

One of the major challenges is adapting genomics and biochemical techniques to a small number or to single cells. While RNA-seq and ATAC-seq have been adapted, there is still a lot to do to be able to see proteins at single cells or – even more difficult – single locus in the genome.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

I have always been curious since I was a child, and I loved to watch a French series TV about the human body, which was very popular in Italy. In high school, my science teacher organised a course on molecular biology. I liked it so much that I decided to study it at university, and I then chose this profession.


What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least?

I like the independence you get, the possibility of researching every detail of a problem and being the first person in the world to learn something new.

On the other hand, it is a stressful job that requires a lot of time and effort, as I often think about it even when I am not in the lab.

If you could have tea with another scientist (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about?

I think I would choose one of the most important Italian female scientists, Rita Levi Montalcini. She had to leave Italy and fled to the United States when fascism ruled in Italy. Then she discovered nerve growth factor and was awarded the Nobel Prize. I would ask her about her life and experiences and ask her advice on how to become a good scientist.

What is the most unusual thing you have done as a scientist?

I don’t think I did anything very unusual as a scientist. Like many of my scientist friends, I talk “science” in my everyday life (e.g. I make aliquots when I am meal prepping). I still think my family do not understand me sometimes!

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?

When I was a kid I wanted to become a teacher. Then I wanted to study foreign languages. But since I was 13 years old, I wanted to study biology – or something related – so I think I could have been only a scientist!


Do you have any advice for people who want to go into this field of research or start a career as a scientist?

Science is one of the most demanding professions. Passion is essential and must be cultivated every day. Never give up, results may be hard to achieve, but in the end they are usually very rewarding.

What do you think are the major challenges facing humanity? How can science help?

I think science can help to improve health, make life more comfortable and even make death more acceptable.

Related Links

Elisa Barbieri profile

Ian Chambers Research Group

Centre for Regenerative Medicine