In May 2021, the Institute launched a new video series called Scientist Stories. Here, we want to highlight the scientists behind our world-leading research and discover more about what they do and how they got to where they are now. In the first instalment, we chat to Dr Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida, a Group Leader in our Immunology research programme, about her research, what a typical day is like and her advice for future scientists. Watch the video or read the profile below. Please note that the question order differs.
What is your background and how did you get to where you are today?
I am originally from Portugal and I studied in Lisbon. When I was joining university, there was a moment of doubt where I was undecided if I should pursue medicine or biology. I eventually studied biology, which is something I do not regret, as I really love it. I think that is because during my secondary school years, I just wanted to know more about the living world. At the end of university, I moved to the Netherlands to do a PhD. I spent five years working very much in the area that I am working now – antibody gene recombination – and it was an amazing time both personally and professionally. I really enjoyed living abroad and getting to learn about another culture, another way of working and I think that was very important for my career and myself at that time. I then moved to the UK when I started my postdoc. I did a few years in London before moving to Oxford, where I spent a bit more than six years, before I moved here to the Babraham Institute. So, there has been a lot of moving between different countries and cities but I have really enjoyed that aspect.
Tell us about your role here at the Babraham Institute and your area of research:
I joined the Babraham Institute a little more than two years ago. I am a junior Group Leader and more recently, I was awarded a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship. Our research group focuses on a molecular immunology question. We want to understand how lymphocytes, a type of immune cell, generate diverse antibody responses. Lymphocytes, also known as B cells, have this amazing mechanism to generate a variety of antibodies to fight virtually any pathogen that they may encounter. At the molecular level, they achieve this through a mechanism of DNA ‘cut and paste’. Antibody genes are encoded in very small gene segments that need to be reassembled before you form a gene locus. All these gene segments are cut and pasted together in a random manner to generate all these different antibodies. This mechanism has been studied for a very long time, and we understand it at a great level of detail. We know that the gene locus needs to be transcribed in order to open up and initiate recombination. What we do not know so well is whether the RNA transcripts generated from that transcription have a role. More recently, it was shown that these RNA transcripts fold into particular structures and this directs recombination of antibody genes. Our work very much focuses on the role of these RNA structures and the RNA binding proteins that remodel those structures, known as RNA helicases.
What are the real world implications of your research?
Understanding how an antibody immune response is generated is important because it is part of our adaptive immune system. It’s also the basis of proper response to vaccination. Understanding the role of new proteins that are involved in these mechanisms allows us to tackle it when things go wrong, like during autoimmunity or the development of B cell lymphoma for example. RNA helicases are very interesting drug targets. Our ultimate goal is to be able to identify RNA helicases that are implicated in this mechanism, and by doing that, understand why sometimes this mechanism doesn’t go according to plan and be able to target it therapeutically.
What does a typical day look like for you?
As I transitioned from a postdoc to a Group Leader, the one big change in my day is that I am no longer able to fully dedicate my time to bench work and doing experiments, which is something I really like. Nowadays, I try to be in the lab for a little bit, but on top of that, there are many meetings with my lab members to discuss experiments, discuss results and planning experiments. There is a lot of reading to do, as well as a lot of writing. There is also a lot more ‘housekeeping’ work, so things that we need to do in order to keep the lab running. We are still a very small team and some of those things are still very much taken care of by me.
What do you love about working in science?
I think it is the fact that you can look into what is known about something, but there is a big amount of freedom you have in thinking creatively about how things work. For me, it is the creativity associated with science that I really enjoy. There are many groups around the world working on antibody gene rearrangement, but we still appreciate that there are things we all do not know. Discovering and proposing ideas about how new factors could be working in these mechanisms is what I find really exciting. It is the creative part of the job I really like.
What advice would you give to people looking to get into science?
I think nowadays there is a great deal of information out there, and the UK is amazing at public engagement too. I think there are plenty of opportunities to get to know and to experience what it is like being a scientist, what it is like to work in a lab and do lab work. I think just try and get in touch with research institutes and try to gain experience in a lab setting as early as possible. At the Babraham Institute, we do provide those opportunities, which I think is important for students and should give you a real understanding of what it is like, and what aspects of the work you enjoy. I would also say that there are many different types of scientist. You can be more lab based or more computational. It’s really variable and really flexible, so it’s good to understand that and see if you can see yourself doing those many different things.
What might your next steps be?
Obtaining your first position as a Group Leader, setting up a lab, writing your fellowship, getting the money, it is a process. Although I only started two years ago, it does feel very much like the future is now. There was a lot of planning involved to get here and I’m just looking forward to getting those ideas, working in the lab, establishing my team and consolidating our research. We are still a small group so I am looking forward to recruiting and building a few more people in the next few years. But the future as I envisioned it up until now, it very much happening now. I am looking forward to just getting on with the job and enjoying it.
What are your interests outside of science?
At the moment, life is very different from what it has been in the past. One thing I have particularly enjoyed in the past year, when we were mostly in lockdown, is to cook. I think partially because with not being able to go into the lab, it distracted me, and cooking is a little bit like experimenting in the lab, so gave me a sense of normality. So, I enjoyed cooking a lot and I have been trying to master all the traditional Portuguese recipes, which are laborious and take much time, but whenever I have some time and energy, I like to spend some time in the kitchen.
Image description: Dr Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida
Scientist Stories: Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida video
Secondary school resources to learn more about the immune system and antibody gene recombination, including Weapons of Microscopic Destruction and the V(D)J recombination jigsaw game
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
News, 27 January 2021 Meet Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida, a new Sir Henry Dale Fellow
09 June 2021