Dr Jo Durgan, a postdoctoral researcher in the Signalling research programme, is the Institute’s 2021 Sir Michael Berridge Prize winner. The award was endowed by Sir Michael who was a group leader at the Institute from 1990 until 2004, after which he was appointed the Institute’s first Emeritus Babraham Fellow, a position he held until his death in February 2020. The award recognises the contribution of a PhD student or postdoctoral researcher to an outstanding piece of published science. Jo’s recent paper sheds light on the precise molecular events that happen during autophagy, a key cellular pathway in health and disease. In this profile Jo talks about her research and career path, interests in sustainability, experience as a woman and mother in science, and the secret to a good team.
Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in science?
I grew up on the south coast and went to the local Community College. I was sporty as a kid and had ideas of becoming a PE teacher, until I connected with science at GCSE/A-level. I didn’t have experience of university from family or friends, but felt a strong sense I wanted to go and study further. I had no real long-term plan, or idea of what career this might lead to, I just followed what I was interested in! I still tend to take this approach to life – it’s a bit simplistic, but keeps me connected to what I value. I ended up studying Biochemistry at the University of Bath, where I met Oliver Florey – we’re now married with two kids and work together in the lab.
What was it like to be a Marie Skłodowska-Curie and L'Oréal-UNESCO Fellow?
I felt really lucky to be awarded the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. It was pivotal for me at the time, allowing me to pursue my research interests while Oli set up his lab. It also enabled me to work flexible, part time hours, balancing my project with caring for a baby and a toddler.
I later won a L’Oreal UNESCO For Women In Science Award, which was also a great experience. The shortlisted candidates spent a long, intense day at the Royal Society being interviewed, then filmed, followed by a fancy awards ceremony that same night. Oli was away at a conference, and our daughter was pretty much nocturnal at the time, so I was totally sleep deprived. I also really don’t like getting dressed up, so was much more uncomfortable about the filming (and L’Oreal makeover) than the panel interview! All went well though and the fellowship was fantastic, providing totally flexible support for childcare, experiments and conference travel, and allowing me to join a multidisciplinary network of women in science.
What is your current research focus?
Through my work on cell cannibalism, I began exploring aspects of lysosome biology and autophagy. This overlapped strongly with Oli’s interests, so we finally decided to work together, team working in the lab and in life! I’m currently studying ‘non-canonical autophagy’, an emerging signalling pathway with important roles in immunity, infection and cancer. We’ve recently used mass spectrometric approaches to define specific mechanisms associated with this pathway and identify its ‘molecular signature’. It is quite exciting to study this new field, which has clear functional importance, but many open questions in terms of underlying molecular mechanisms, cell biology and translational opportunities.
What keeps you busy outside of the lab?
We have two kids, Lily and Jack (7 and 10), so most of my time outside the lab is spent happily with them. I’m also involved in environmental work, volunteering with the Climate Reality Project to raise awareness of the climate crisis and its solutions. This involves giving talks to scientists and other community groups, engaging with politicians and influencers to advocate for policy change, working with the local school and mentoring others to do the same. People are increasingly aware of the climate crisis, and ecological emergency, but we’re still not responding with anywhere near enough urgency. I feel a big sense of responsibility to my kids, and everyone in their generation, to take action, and believe we scientists have an important role to play.
As chair of the Institute’s Green Labs, what can we do to make science more sustainable?
The shift towards a more sustainable future involves a wide range of actions that we can all tackle in our own lives, as well as at work, where the impact is amplified. Making changes in our energy use, transport, diets, consumption and waste will all be critical. Examples of analogous lab actions include improving energy efficiency for example switching off equipment at night and weekends; shifting -80°C freezers to -70°C and better waste management like recycling plasticware and composting animal waste.
Within the wider workplace, important actions include increasing our access to green transport and sustainable catering. We also have this beautiful green campus full of opportunities for carbon sequestration and biodiversity, which the estates team are working actively on.
The pandemic has changed the way a lot of people work, how was the experience for you?
Homeschooling was by far our biggest challenge, particularly in January, when each kid was set hours of work each day, which they couldn’t really tackle alone. So, our days were spent teaching Year 2/5 lessons, then we took turns to come to the lab during evenings/weekends. It was totally exhausting, but also a big source of joy through an otherwise sad and difficult year. We felt fortunate that the flexibility of lab work helped us navigate homeschool, and the time felt really special. We’re halfway through our kids’ childhoods already, so this opportunity to spend extra time together was precious, like parental leave but with big kids! The routine worked well for our research too, as evenings/weekends were quieter times to access socially distanced spaces and equipment. I think certain aspects of this flexible approach should continue, although it will be nice to see people in person again, in labs, meetings and over coffee and lunch, as more normality hopefully returns.
Science is often about teamwork and collaboration, what do you think makes a good team?
I’ve worked in some great teams across my career and while each was unique, some common features of what works emerge. Diversity and inclusion are really vital, along with a passionate interest in science and a warm, friendly and respectful environment, free of hierarchy. There is also clear value in bringing together a wide range of personalities, with different ideas and skill-sets. Looking back, Alan Hall’s lab set a great example here – a diverse set of people, with a broad range of interests and approaches, but who connected so well that we felt almost like family. We had a 10-year zoom reunion recently, spanning from California to Taiwan, and many places in between. It was really striking just how fondly everyone remembered those years, and also how all the team members have gone on to very successful careers in academia, biotech, medicine, publishing, consultancy and more. Alan left a wonderful legacy, not only of scientific discoveries, but also this network of colleagues who continue the work and friendships he started.
What advice would you give to early career researchers?
An important lesson to learn early on is that science involves a lot of good ideas that turn out to be wrong, and a lot of well executed experiments that don’t work! You have to get comfortable with this, and realise it’s not ‘failure’, but rather a vital part of the scientific process. This can be hard -especially if you’ve done well in school and university - it’s uncomfortable to discover that your hard work now doesn’t always pay off with positive data. But, with enough good ideas and perseverance, you will eventually find a productive research path to pursue. Recognising that this is a universal experience in the journey through science, and finding that resilience to push through, is really important.
Also, try to avoid feeling any pressure to know everything, and produce impact, from day one. A PhD is the first step into research, a long-term training process that does, and should, take time and patience. Ask lots of questions, read widely, go to seminars and speak to the people around you - in addition to the group leaders, the technical staff and post-docs have loads of insight and experience to share if you ask. By investing time now in questioning and learning, you’ll develop and mature the ideas and skills needed to complete a good thesis and pursue a future career in research or beyond.
During her degree, Jo completed a rotation project at the Babraham Institute, studying fungal enzymes from sheep. After spending a year as a Research Assistant at Gendaq, London, Jo joined the lab of Prof. Peter Parker at Cancer Research UK, for her PhD in cell signalling. She then moved to New York to work as a postdoctoral researcher with Alan Hall, at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, building on her interests in PKC signalling and cancer. During this time Jo and her husband had two children. Jo returned to the Babraham Institute in 2014 as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow to study cell cannibalism in cancer and was awarded a L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science UK & Ireland Fellowship in 2015.
Florey et al. "Non-canonical autophagy drives alternative ATG8 conjugation to phosphatidylserine"
News 1 July 2015, Dr Joanne Durgan wins 2015 L'Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship
Florey Lab research page
Header image: Jo Durgan in the lab
In text images: Oliver Florey homeschooling Lily and Jack during the pandemic and the Hall lab virtual reunion
03 August 2021