Q: What attracted you to the field of autophagy?
I trained as a postdoc in the genetics of aging using the short-lived nematode C. elegans as a model organism. Through a genetic screen, I had identified a link between mRNA translation and longevity, which again led me to study the nutrient sensor mTOR. From there, got interested in mTOR’s role in regulating autophagy, and soon I was hooked on learning how this fascinating process of cellular recycling contributes to aging, a topic our lab is still working on!
Q: What do you consider to be the most exciting recent discovery in autophagy?
That’s a difficult question – I think there are many exciting findings! I only joined the field in late 2000s (submitted my first autophagy paper as a postdoc and started my independent lab at the end of 2007) and I had to learn a lot, as this field is both very mechanistic, but also being studied in the context of many different physiological settings – like for autophagy’s role in aging. But if I should point to recent exciting observations it must be the growing notion of autophagy proteins ‘moon-lightning’ in other vesicular events, like secretion, which has really significant implications for inter-tissue signaling, an important concept especially in organismal aging.
Q: What is the career achievement you are most proud of?
Another difficult question! Let me mention one science- and one mentoring-related, representing my two big passions about being a researcher: As for scientific achievements, I was awarded the 2021 Irving L. Wright Award of Distinction from the American Federation for Aging Research, to recognize our lab’s and my contributions to the aging research field. As for mentoring, current and past lab members nominated me for the 2017 Mentoring Award from the National Postdoctoral Association, which I then went on to win – an absolute honor because I find it incredibly rewarding to help people pursue a career of their choice. Plus the award ceremony happened to be in San Francisco that year, which is where I did my postdoc, making it an incredibly special event!
Q: What advice would you give to young women in science?
The advice I would give to not only women, but to all junior scientists, is to find mentors and role models! With an emphasis on multiple to provide feedback and perspectives on different aspects of your career, as well to get multiple opinions on a given problem. I am fortunate to have and have had multiple spectacular mentors myself, and I am very grateful for each and every one of them. Here I’d like to mention Beth Levine, who provided myself as well as my lab members with a lot of inspirational advice, which was priceless as newcomers to the autophagy field.
Malene obtained a PhD in molecular biology from Copenhagen University, and then moved to the US in 2001 to carry out postdoctoral studies with Dr. Cynthia Kenyon at UCSF. In 2007, she established an independent lab at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, a non-profit research institute in La Jolla, CA, where she also served as Faculty Advisor for Postdoctoral Studies as well as Associate Dean of Student Affairs for the institute’s graduate school. In 2021, she moved back to the Bay Area to become Chief Scientific Officer at the Buck Institute for Aging Research, the first research institute in the world dedicated to the study of the biology of aging, where her lab continues to use both C. elegans and mammalian cell cultures to study links between autophagy and aging.