Categories: Sanger Life30 August 20194.3 min read

Flying to the Future

Dr Sophie Adjalley is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Marcus Lee's research group at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Her research focuses on investigating the underlying mechanisms of malaria.

Tell us about your work in up to 10 words

Identifying molecular pathways as novel drug targets against malaria parasites

What is the most overused word/phrase in your lab?

For sure, "blood" and "parasites": we need the former to grow the latter!

Describe the Sanger Institute in up to 10 words

International world-leading genomics institute with great means for ground-breaking science

Why did you decide to become a scientist?

I originally wanted to become a medical doctor and work on tropical medicine. That’s how everything started, but I did not go to medical school, I did a PhD instead. When the time came to choose what kind of PhD to do, although I have a background in molecular biology - that’s really the basis of my training - I remembered the classes I took on antimalarial medicines as an undergrad. I was very interested in malaria parasites and the disease in general - my father is from Togo, where malaria is still prevalent - so it was a way for me to use my training in molecular biology and do something with a special meaning. That choice made complete sense.

Who is your science hero?

I have a few. The first one is Yves Coppens, he’s a paleoanthropologist, and he was one of the people who discovered “Lucy”, the Australopithecus. This was before I was interested in medicine, I thought I would do archaeology or paleoanthropology. My grandmother was also a big fan of archaeology and had all of these archaeology journals that I would read when I visited her - though I only understood about half of the articles when I was 10 - and she taught me about him.

There’s also Susan Lindquist, she passed away a few years ago -she was an American molecular biologist. She worked on protein misfolding, and was the one who showed that diseases could be transmitted, not only through DNA sequences, but also through misfolded proteins - like Mad Cow Disease or Alzheimer’s. She gave lectures when I was doing my postdoc at EMBL in Heidelberg, and I thought her work was just amazing.

Someone else I’m very impressed with is my friend Aleksandra Pękowska, who’s starting her own group at the Nencki Institute in Warsaw. I’ve never met someone who is so clear about what research she wants to do, and who is so scientifically cultured. She knows so much about the basics of biology, and has kept her knowledge really broad, which is something people can lose when they specialise into a PhD or a postdoc.

What is the most exciting development in your field from the last 10 years?

I am cheating as one of the two I am thinking of happened more than ten years ago: we’ve relied for many years on chloroquine as an antimalarial, but malaria parasites across the globe have developed resistance to it. My former supervisor, David Fidock, identified the gene which allowed this resistance, and that was a huge thing.

Secondly, artemisinin is another drug which is going in the same direction. For the moment, it’s the only drug that is still really working, but the marker for resistance has been identified in field parasites. We’re not really sure what the marker does at the molecular level, but we know that if parasites have mutations in that marker, there is resistance.

What is the most surprising discovery you have made?

During my previous postdoc, I worked on generating a map to understand where gene expression (transcription) initiates in the genome of the malaria parasite that infects humans. In the blood stage of the malaria parasite’s life cycle, we found that some genes are expressed from different positions in the genome, and that this position varies depending on where the parasites are developmentally in their life cycle. Just visualising this on the genome browser was very impressive. I still want to understand the molecular mechanism for this and why it is only observed in a subset of genes. This might lead to something biologically amazing!

If you could time travel to any period in history, which would you pick?

Can I pick the future? I’m very impatient and like to anticipate and plan things, even though you can’t predict how things will go. I’d like to see what my son would be like at my age and how far the research to find a cure for malaria would have progressed.

If you were omnipotent for the day, what is the first thing you would do?

I would be very selfish at first and fly. The closest I’ve done to it is skydiving, and I hated the free-fall but loved the bit when the parachute opened.