Dr Maria Rostovskaya, a senior research scientist in the Epigenetics research programme, is the Institute’s 2022 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, in this case Maria’s recent paper ‘Amniogenesis occurs in two independent waves in primates’. In this profile Maria talks about receiving the prize, her research, and who inspires her.
How did it feel when you heard you had won this year’s Sir Michael Berridge prize?
I felt truly humbled and honoured when I received the news, it came as a surprise. It made me very emotional because I looked back and realised that this was a result of many years of hard work and perseverance, that were required to get from the initial observation until the actual discovery.
Have you always been interested in early development?
My research has always been connected to cell fate decisions during development and physiological turnover. I started working with adult stem cells in bone marrow during my PhD, however then moved to studying early development for my post doc. Having experience with various systems allows us to see the general principles behind life processes, so I am grateful for the chance to be exposed to various fields of research.
What was the goal of your research?
Early development is remarkably different between various species of mammals in terms of the timing and embryo shapes. I was curious about how these differences can be explained, how they evolved in evolution and how equivalent organs can be formed despite those differences.
How did you go about investigating the early window of development, and what did you find?
I created a stem cell-based model recapitulating the events occurring during early human development, including the formation of an extra-embryonic tissue amnion. In humans, this process strikingly differs in terms of its timing and organ shape when compared to many other mammals, and this was difficult to explain. Previously, formation of the amnion had been considered as a single-step process, however I found that there are two distinct stages in humans. The early stage is distinct in human with differences in timing and shape. However, the late stage is shared across mammals, therefore they all still form equivalent organs. My research findings explained how the timing of developmental processes and organ shapes can be altered during the evolution.
Was there a key moment of discovery during this research?
I observed how stem cells can self-assemble into three-dimensional epithelial cavitating structures in a dish, which strikingly resembled the process known to occur in embryos in terms of its timing and the organ shape. I did this experiment many times by now, and it still fascinates me.
What are the next steps for this research?
This discovery opens up exciting opportunities to model and explore early human development, which is otherwise difficult to access for experimentation. We can study the molecular pathways involved in cell fate decisions, how the organ shapes are controlled, among other interesting and important questions.
Who is someone who inspires you? Inside or outside the lab.
Olympic champion in ice skating Anna Shcherbakova. Intelligent and humble, purposeful, persevering, working hard, critical on herself, striving to improve, being able to collect all her power to give her best despite pressure and injuries and pain at the most important moments, standing up after a fall to keep going despite failures, aiming to achieve the best performance rather than a medal. She's a true example to me.
What is your favourite part of being a researcher?
When you get a surprise and something that was hard to explain or believe turns out to be true.
Contact: Honor Pollard, Communications Officer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Header image: Figure 2K, Immunofluorescence of naive and partially primed hPSCs during the time course of differentiation, from Rostovskaya et al., 2022, Cell Stem Cell 29, 744–759
May 5, 2022
06 December 2022