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Snezhka Oliferenko

Snezhana (Snezhka) Oliferenko grew up in Russia. She studied biochemistry and virology at Lomonosov Moscow State University before joining Lukas Huber's group at the IMP for her doctoral studies in 1996. After earning her PhD degree in 2000, Snezhka moved to Singapore to work as a postdoc with Mohan Balasubramanian. Two years later, she established her own research lab at the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) in Singapore. In 2013, Snezhka moved her lab to King's College London. Today, she is a group leader at The Francis Crick Institute and Professor of Evolutionary Cell Biology at King's College London. She uses related fission yeast species as a discovery tool to understand how cells organise and remodel their interior during growth and division.

Snezhka, you studied biochemistry and virology at Lomonosov Moscow State University. How did you come across our PhD Programme and what made you choose the IMP for your doctoral studies?

Pretty much by chance – as everything else in my career it seems. I was a summer student with Ulla Günthert at the Basel Institute of Immunology. A bunch of friends and I decided to drive to Vienna for a few days – it was such a wild, epic road trip! Ulla asked me to bring some anti-CD44 antibodies to Hartmut Beug, with whom they were collaborating. Hartmut turned out to be that wonderful, inspiring bear of a man. He was working in a tissue culture room when I came, so we ended up talking for a long time with me sitting by his laminar flow cabinet - about my work with Ulla, what he wanted to do with those antibodies I brought, all kinds of things. He asked me if I wanted to apply for a PhD at the IMP and all of a sudden, I just knew that this was the right thing to do. I was late for that year’s programme applications, so he offered me a six-month visiting student position to start with, to work on his project with Ulla. His lab was full, so I ended up getting a bench in Lukas’s lab. I had PhD offers from other places, but I pretty much fell in love with the IMP the moment I stepped in, so I came to Vienna, just like that.

You spent four years working in Lukas Huber's lab. How did this time shape you and what lessons did you learn that you found useful?

This is where I got completely hooked on doing science. I remember the first time I got this incredible adrenalin rush of coming up with my own hypothesis and a series of experiments to test it. And, of course, the day the results came in. Lukas was a wonderful mentor. He gave people in his lab the space to develop, yet he was there for us whenever we needed him. He encouraged us to speak with as many people as possible about science. He was always up for a laugh. It is from Lukas that I learned the importance of stepping back, looking at the funny side of things, having a drink with friends, a walk and a laugh, whenever work does not go according to plan. In academia (at least my version of it) things often do not go to plan. Being able to have a laugh helps me to maintain focus on what I think is really important in science, I mean the sheer joy of discovery and all the great people we get to meet.

I feel privileged to know so many amazing, brilliant people from my IMP days.

Snezhka Oliferenko

You recently published together with David Teis who also did his PhD with Lukas Huber. Are you collaborating with any other former IMP colleagues? Are you still in touch with any of them?

We do have a wonderful collaboration with David, my friend and bench mate in Lukas’s lab, and we are about to start a proper collaboration with another close friend from the IMP, Frank Uhlmann [who is now also a principal investigator at the Crick]. We’ve talked about doing this for years but now we are ready to go! I keep in touch with many IMP friends – we try to see each other whenever we can, and I almost always have a couple of WhatsApp chats going. We mostly laugh at things happening to and around us, but we also talk science and career. We read each other’s manuscripts and grant proposals. I feel privileged to know so many amazing, brilliant people from my IMP days.

Can you tell us briefly how your career unfolded after you left the IMP and what choices you made along the way?

I went for a postdoc with a fission yeast geneticist, Mohan Balasubramanian, in Singapore. I suppose this decision was a bit unorthodox – Singapore was barely on the scientific world map back then – but it worked out well. In Mohan I found a very supportive mentor, a brilliant colleague and a close friend. After a couple of years as a postdoc, I got an independent position at the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory and stayed there as a group leader for almost twelve years, before moving to London at the end of 2013. Arguably the most important scientific decision I made was to go all the way into developing the fission yeast S. japonicus as a sister model to the popular model organism S. pombe. Despite being fairly closely related, these two organisms have sufficiently different biology. Using them in parallel can tell us a lot about the fundamental cell biological mechanisms and how they evolve. My scientific life has never been boring since – there is always something unexpected cropping up in the lab.

Moscow, Vienna, Singapore, London ... how important is mobility for a research career?

Well, it was important for my career. It definitely made me a better scientist. I also want to believe that living in societies with different cultural codes helped me to grow as a person, and to become a better mentor and colleague.

What was the most challenging time in your career? And what do you find most rewarding in your line of work?

I had quite a tough period a couple years into being a group leader. This is when I had to come to terms with what I can and cannot do, to learn and most importantly accept my style as a scientist. I have been very lucky to meet many senior colleagues who helped me with a kind word and sound advice. Two aspects of academic career keep me going – the absolute joy of finding things out and a similar joy of seeing my younger colleagues and students getting the bug for it.

You are a group leader at The Crick and professor at King's College. Research, teaching, administration ... how difficult is it to balance these tasks? 

It can be quite difficult at times. My life was much easier - idyllic almost, come to think of it - in Singapore when I was a group leader in a core-funded research institute. Everyone has their ways of dealing with stresses of an academic career. I have again started doing experiments at the bench, whenever I can spare time, as a reminder of why I like doing science. It also helps to be close to people in the lab, feel a part of the group and share a laugh.

What is your group working on right now and what are your plans for the future?

We use a comparative biology approach to investigate how cells organise and remodel their interior during growth and division and how cell biological processes evolve. We probe how the nuclear membrane growth is controlled and how the nuclear envelope is remodelled during mitosis. We work on understanding the cell size-dependent variation in cellular processes. I am really excited about the new direction in the lab. We are now beginning a major effort to define how genetically encoded lipid metabolic capacity controls membrane organisation and cellular physiology. Who knows what the future brings!

Snezhka, thank you very much!

Interview by Heidi Hurtl, 2021