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21 March 2019

5 minutes with...Elena Ortiz-Zapater

Dr Elena Ortiz-Zapater is a postdoctoral research assistant in the Peter Gorer Department of Immunobiology. Her research looks at the role of Coxsackie and Adenovirus Receptor (CAR), the protein I’m studying, in lung homeostasis and response to inflammation. Outside of academia, Elena spends time with family and friends and travels when she can.

Picture of Elena Ortiz-Zapater
Elena Ortiz-Zapater

Briefly, tell me about your background and career up to this point at King’s?

I studied Pharmacy in Valencia (Spain), my home town where I did my PhD in plant cell biology. Then I moved to Barcelona for my first postdoc on cancer biology. That was a big and meaningful turn to my life and my scientific career. When I arrived in London in 2011, I first worked on lung cancer with Professor George Santis and progressively I started collaborating with Professor Maddy Parsons on the role of the epithelial junctions in tumours and respiratory inflammation. These last years I have been moving around between the Randall Centre for Cell & Molecular Biophysics and the former Asthma and Allergy Department - now part of the School of Immunology & Microbial Sciences. You cannot imagine how many times I have walked the distance between New House Hunt and the Tower! Very recently, and together with George and Maddy, we have got an MRC grant to define the role of Coxsackie and Adenovirus Receptor (CAR), the protein I’m studying, in lung homeostasis and response to inflammation …so here, I am for at least some more years!

What research are you currently working on?

I am currently working in respiratory inflammation. I am studying a protein, CAR, which is present in the junctions of the epithelial cells. My aim is to define the role of this protein in the preservation of the epithelial integrity in healthy lungs but also during inflammation and tumorigenesis. CAR also acts as a receptor of specific immune populations, so I want to understand how CAR participates in the crosstalk between epithelial and immune cells. We have a transgenic mouse that doesn’t express CAR in the lungs, and we challenged the mice with different inflammatory insults. Thanks to it, we are getting very cool data as we have a great model to study not only the interaction between the epithelium and the immune cells but also to better understand the lung remodelling that happens after chronic inflammation.

What is a typical day like for you?

Every day is a little bit different. I’ve become an early bird lately, so I try to arrive at the office early in the morning. First thing, I try to do some office work. Then my days can vary quite a lot, but I normally do quite a lot of bench work combined with meetings, seminars and then hopefully back to the office to do some analysis…I also spend quite a lot of time with the mice in the animal facility, and in dark rooms with microscopes. And lately, I’ve done quite a lot of teaching too. I try to leave early (or at least not too late!) as my second part of the day starts then…pickups from nursery and school, dinner time, bath time, sleep time…by 10ish I’m normally knackered!

Where is your research area heading in the next five years?

Chronic respiratory diseases represent a great medical challenge for health in the next years. The study of diseases such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) have focused on immune cells, but it’s also very clear that the epithelium and its dysfunction is involved in the development of inflammatory disorders of the airways in the lung. It communicates with the leukocytes and with the extracellular matrix, to produce remodelling and fibrosis. In the cancer field, the importance of the crosstalk between the epithelium and the cells in the stroma, including the immune cells is crystal clear. We are very interested in understanding the crosstalk between different kind of cells and we would love to have better models to study this. I am also using advanced in vivo and ex vivo imaging techniques with the expectation to “see” and understand better how these interactions happen.

What would you like members of our school to most know about you and your research area?

As I already pointed out, my background is more in the cancer field, even I am currently working in respiratory inflammation. That’s why I am always excited to learn about proper immunologists! I believe we have now a very good in vivo model to study inflammation in the lungs, both immune infiltration but also remodelling. Personally, I am passionate about histology (sometimes I think in another life I would be a pathologist) and microscopy… I love to see things happening!

What is your favourite part of your current role?

I love the freedom and the flexibility, and the possibility of working on different fronts: bench work, but also a lot of scientific reading and writing, student supervision and teaching, that I really enjoy. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by very good scientists, so good and productive meetings and good seminars are always more than welcomed.

What do you do with your time outside of academia?

I spend my free time with my family and friends. I love London, so I never get bored of exploring the city…I find London a very family friendly city and I try to get the best of it. I also travel a lot, mainly to visit family, that is dispersed throughout different places. When possible, I leave London with my family on weekend getaways by the coast. I really miss the sea, I’m a Mediterranean soul! And I love going to concerts and gigs, although it has become a little bit more difficult lately!

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self? 

I know this sounds like if I was an old lady, but life goes too fast! So, I guess I would advise myself to be more pro-active and maybe more resilient. And always, always, enjoy what you do and take life a little bit less seriously!

Who do you look up to (inside or outside of academia)?

I have great admiration for the women in my family. I admire honesty, generosity and being able to always see the bright side of the things! I’ve been very lucky to come across a good bunch of smart and stimulating people in my career, starting from my PhD supervisor to my line managers in Barcelona and of course my amazing supervisors and my King's colleagues.

Any leaving remarks that you would like other members of our school to know about you?

I really enjoy what I do but I also love to know what other people are working on. So, if you see me running in the corridors, don’t hesitate to stop me.  I’m always up for a talk (about science or life!) and very happy to find ways to help and collaborate.


Favourite Movie: One of the latest, “The Bookshop”. One classic, “Working girl”

Favourite Book: One of the latest “Americanah”. One of the classics, any from Murakami

Favourite TV Show: One of the latest, “Sex Education”. One of the classics, “Six feet under”.

Favourite Scientist: One of the latest, Maria Blasco. One of the classics, Marie Curie.