Professor Maria Sasi Conte
Professor of Structural Biology
Director of the Centre for Biomolecular Spectroscopy
Randall Division of Cell & Molecular Biophysics
Date started at King’s
Challenges and achievements
When and what was responsible for you becoming interested in your academic discipline?
Ever since primary school I have been keen on quantitative subjects and I chose Chemistry for my undergraduate studies – Maths and Physics seemed too dry and Biology too ‘vague’. At the time of choosing my PhD I realised I could apply my quantitative and chemistry skills to the study of biological systems, hence Structural biology.
What are your research interests, and what drew you to this area?
As a structural biologist, I investigate the three-dimensional structure of biological molecules, in particular proteins and nucleic acids. In my lab we concentrate on important signalling molecules and nucleic acid-binding proteins linked to cancer, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disorders, in order to understand their function, regulation and how they interact in signalling cascades.
The detailed knowledge of protein structure and interactions at atomic level will increase our understanding of how health is maintained, how disorders come about and how they may be treated. Protein structure can also used as a basis for rational drug design.
Tell us about a couple of your achievements that have been particularly rewarding.
In 2004 my lab discovered a new RNA binding unit (the ‘La module’) present in the La protein, an autoantigen in a number of autoimmune disorders and a key player in RNA metabolism. The significance of this new mechanism of RNA recognition has been steadily increasing as it has been found to be conserved in a large family of eukaryotic proteins involved in a variety of functions and linked to a large number of diseases.
Last year in collaboration with Michael Marber at the Rayne Institute we published a study highlighting a new mechanism of activation of the protein kinase p38, which occurs during myocardial infarction. We are now concentrating on rational drug design to block this harmful activation.
If I am allowed a third, then I must mention the establishment of the Centre for Biomolecular Spectroscopy at King’s.
Do you have professional role models? Who are they and what do you find inspiring about them and their accomplishments?
Female colleagues who achieve seniority and influence have my utmost respect because this remains a male dominated environment
What do you feel is the most enjoyable/rewarding aspect of your job at King’s?
In no particular order: (i) The opportunity to contribute to advances in the research areas I have chosen; (ii) working closely with colleagues, and (iii) teaching the importance of fundamental science to undergraduate and postgraduate students
How do you balance the various demands of a career in academia: research, teaching/learning, administration?
With difficulty. I try to be as well organised as I can to maximise efficiency.
How do you balance an academic career with life outside the workplace?
It’s not easy, but it’s essential for me to have a life outside work. Time spent with my husband visiting museums, travelling or relaxing at home is valued. Dancing is my passion and I try to carve out 1-2 evenings a week for Flamenco classes. For me it is a great antidote against stress and prevents me getting obsessed with work.
What have you learnt from your experiences that you would like to share with others?