We finish our interview series with some insights from Dr Sharon Tooze, whose continuous, important contributions to our understanding of autophagy have made her a key figure in the field and a role-model to many younger (and older) scientists across the globe.
Sharon's path into the field was littered with hurdles and challenges, making her story all the more fascinating and inspirational. She was kind enough to catch up with us to talk about her experiences, achievements and motivations.
Q: What attracted you to the field of autophagy?
Dr Sharon Tooze: Well, it was a journey, and now marked by some sadness. After my PhD work, which broadly addressed compartmentalization in the secretory pathway and protein trafficking, I started my post-doctoral work in Wieland Huttner’s lab at EMBL trying to understand how a neuroendocrine cell makes secretory granules. This was essentially a question of organelle biogenesis. In parallel, at EMBL, my husband was working with Kathryn Howell (a wonderful cell biologist, and morphologist, who sadly passed away from COVID this year) on exocrine pancreatic cells and their secretory system. They observed the “surplus” secretory granules are targeted by autophagosomes (PMID: 2166050). I thought the biogenesis of the membranes forming in these cells was fascinating, but recognized at this time that the only way to address this experimental model was by EM. I was not very good at EM (I lack the patience required to make a good section) and so put this interest aside. Over 10 years later, when I was in my tenure track position at ICRF (later London Research Institute, and then the Francis Crick Institute), Beth Levine published her Nature paper about the role of Beclin 1, and autophagy in cancer. Sadly, Beth, a leader in our field and outstanding scientist, has also passed away this year. Beth’s seminal work established a concrete, tractable biochemical link to human biology. This encouraged me to apply all my molecular cell biology experience to start to address this amazing pathway.
Q: What do you consider to be the most exciting recent discovery in autophagy?
ST: This is virtually impossible to answer! But if we limit it to recent, recent being this past month, I think the structure of ATG9A published in 3 papers was the most exciting recent discovery. I am biased because ATG9A I think is an incredibly interesting and important protein.
Q: What is the career achievement you are most proud of?
ST: I am most proud on stepping away from my established research area to start to work on a new topic. My lab had established many tools and experimental approaches to study regulated secretion in neuroendocrine cells and was an area I had developed a strong expertise in. Starting to work on autophagy was a huge challenge as so little cell biology had been done, and even observing a starvation response in cell lines was initially a challenge.
Q: What advice would you give to young women in science?
ST: My advice would be don’t get distracted from your initial dream to become a PI by the mountain you think you can’t climb (to use an analogy). If you find yourself giving up because you think you are not fit enough, don’t go straight up, but circumnavigate the mountain. Linear career paths are not always to best way to succeed. Build on your strengths, and stick to your dream – nothing is unsurmountable for talented young women. Our institutions, colleagues, students, and society need the unique contributions which women can make.
Born in Westchester, NY, Sharon studied physics at Holy Cross College. Following this, she worked as an editorial assistant, then a technician for a year in a Cell biology lab at CSHL on Long Island, NY. Sharon started her PhD at Yale School of Medicine in the Cell Biology Department, then moved to EMBL (Heidelberg, Germany) to complete it in the lab of Graham Warren in the Cell Biology Program (in 1986). Following a post-doc with Wieland Huttner (also at EMBL), Sharon moved to ICRF in London to start her own lab in 1992. From there, she became a group leader in the London Research Institute, which has now become the Francis Crick Institute. She was made an EMBO member in 2010, and a Fellow of the Academy of Medicine in 2018. She currently holds an Advanced ERC grant. Sharon and her husband have 2 children (born 1986 and 1990).
Interview by: Andrea Gubas, Roxana Resnik, and Carmen Figueras-Novoa