Dr Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida joined the Institute as a tenure-track group leader in the Institute’s Immunology programme in 2018. In 2020 she was awarded a prestigious Sir Henry Dale Fellowship, a scheme that supports researchers to establish and develop their independent research careers. In this profile, Claudia describes her early interest and curiosity about the natural world, her research, her excitement at becoming a Sir Henry Dale Fellow and reflects on careers and setting up her lap during a global pandemic.
Tell us about how you came to follow a research career:
I grew up in Tomar, a small town in Portugal where I did all of my studies prior to university. I then moved to Lisbon to study biology, more specifically microbiology and genetics. It was not until my undergrad years that I decided to become a scientist, but as far as I can remember I always had a genuine love for everything related to biology. I remember trying to replicate at home experiments I did in my classes or paying special attention to the living world, trying to observe what I had learned on paper. Over the years, I realised that for the most part studying biology was just a means to fulfil my curiosity. When I finished university, going abroad to do a PhD was a natural next step and at the time this was very much encouraged by the Portuguese government/European Union with financial support I could apply for. I had a very enriching five-year PhD experience in the Netherlands that has driven my professional and personal life ever since and then moved to the UK to do my post-doctoral training. After six years as a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Prof. Nick Proudfoot in Oxford I joined the Babraham Institute in November 2018.
What’s your research about and what excites you most about research and the questions you are trying to answer?
I am interested in understanding how gene expression is regulated during lymphocyte (immune cell) development and how it controls lymphocyte function, with the ultimate goal of elucidating the pathogenesis of immune disease.
I get really excited about areas of study we know relatively little about. In lymphocytes it is only recently we started appreciating that an important part of gene regulation occurs at the RNA level, through the activity of RNA-binding proteins (RBPs). We are currently studying a class of RBPs that remodel RNA secondary structure (known as RNA helicases). A main question in the lab is how RNA helicase activity participates in the mechanisms maintaining genome stability during the rearrangement of antibody genes.
How do you feel about becoming a Sir Henry Dale Fellow?
I am absolutely thrilled to receive a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship, obtaining a prestigious and substantial source of funding like the Sir Henry Dale fellowship is a proud moment in the career of every junior scientist. The award will allow me to dive into an emerging area of research I am really excited about, and provides the level of support required to develop and grow this research ambitiously. I am also very much looking forward to joining the community of Sir Henry Dale Fellows and benefit from the opportunities for networking and collaboration this will offer.
2020 was a unique year, how did you and your team adapt to the pandemic situation?
The key for us was to maintain regular, open communication when we started working from home during the first lockdown. We acknowledged as a group that this was a difficult and challenging time for everyone and, being unprecedented, we had to creatively think how to make the best out of it. Because we were pretty much at the beginning of lab work and didn’t have much data we could analyse or write up, we dedicated most of our time to reading the literature, identifying priorities and planning future experiments. As a result, I think we became a more focused and cohesive team. I feel really proud for how my team has been getting the lab work off the ground during a pandemic, which has been a real challenge.
Any advice from what you’ve learned from setting up your own lab and for those considering pursuing a research career?
I think the best advice I can think of is not to rush the process of building your own lab. There is a certain pressure to demonstrate you can quickly grow your team but I think it is equally important to build a solid lab structure, with good research practise and shared lab values. This requires investment and may slow down your initial progress but I feel it’s important as it will allow your science to develop with greater consistency in the long run.
Regarding finding your research niche, I think it is important to study a research topic you are passionate about, while keep open to new approaches and ideas that challenge the way you are thinking. In my opinion the best way to achieve this is to experience working in different labs, going out of your comfort zone and get to know about work outside your immediate field of research. Every step of your career must feel like a valuable addition to the unique portfolio you are building.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you might be?
Most likely I would be a medical doctor, and I am sure I would get a strong sense of fulfilment by helping others. However, I think pursuing a research career was inevitable and I would have probably combined both.
Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida studied Biology at the University of Lisbon before moving to the Netherlands in 2005 to obtain her PhD at the Erasmus MC, Rotterdam. During her PhD she characterised the function of the CTCF transcription factor in lymphocyte development, including its role in immunoglobulin k locus V(D)J recombination. In 2012 she joined the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford as an EMBO post-doctoral fellow. While working in the lab of Prof. Nick Proudfoot, Claudia discovered a role for RNA-unwinding proteins (known as RNA helicases) in Class Switch Recombination (CSR). Since joining the Institute, Claudia and her group continue to study RNA-mediated mechanisms controlling DNA recombination at antibody genes.
Image description: Dr Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida
Additional/related resources:Research pages for Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida
Research feature: New horizons for immunology
News, 20 August 2018 Institute welcomes three new research groups to study the immune system
27 January 2021