If you ask Andrea Pauli, she’ll tell you she got lucky—that her scientific career has been a domino effect of coincidence and good fortune. An abrupt relocation, a new hobby, and an international rowing competition all landed her in the right place at the right time to discover Toddler/Apela, a short secreted protein essential for cell movements during gastrulation. As her postdoctoral term with the Schier lab draws to a close and she prepares to establish a lab of her own at Vienna’s Institute for Molecular Pathology, she inspires a strong suspicion that merit has more than a little to do with her success.
After doubling in Chemistry and Music in high school (she is an avid cellist), Pauli set out to study medicine as an undergraduate at the University of Munich. It didn’t take long, however—a year as a hospital intern—to realize that she found fundamental questions and frontiers of scientific discovery more exciting than a day-in-the-life as a practicing M.D. She therefore transferred to the University of Regensburg as a biochemistry major and, after 8 months in Madrid, Spain racking up a third foreign language (Spanish), proceeded to a Master’s in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Heidelberg. While she headed to Heidelberg hoping to tap into its renowned applied sciences and cancer research, she soon surprised herself by lighting on yeast and ribosome biogenesis, “purely basic science,” she shrugs, “nothing at all to do with cancer.”
For her doctorate, Pauli moved to Vienna to attend the Institute of Molecular Pathology as a joint PhD student between Kim Nasmyth’s and Barry Dickson’s labs. Her lab-mates were skeptical; Nasmyth studied yeast, while Dickson worked on flies. Nasmyth investigated cell cycle regulation and sister chromatid cohesion, while Dickson focused on neurobiology and courtship behavior. “Everyone said, ‘working on flies and transcriptional regulation in Kim’s lab is a crazy idea, this is not going to work,’” Pauli recalls. But she persisted, confident that she could determine cohesin’s non-canonical functions outside of sister chromatid cohesion. In the meantime, she requisitioned a piano for the institute, at which she and her colleagues held bi-annual chamber recitals.
Not two years later, Kim Nasmyth accepted a post as head of the Oxford University Department of Biochemistry and Pauli packed her bags to join him there. “Initially, I disliked almost everything in Oxford,” Pauli admits. She found it “tiny and old-fashioned.” Gamely, she resolved to embrace her new home despite her reservations and joined the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club—an Oxford hobby for an Oxford initiate.
To her surprise, she found her second calling on the water. She and her crew trained over 20 hours a week for months, culminating in the annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race—five-to-six crucial minutes on the Thames. Despite their valiant efforts, Oxford lost. “It was a disaster!” says Pauli, “but motivation enough to try again the next year.” Fortunately, after winning the following year, she was able to retire from competition in order to complete her dissertation.
Using Drosophila melanogaster as a model system, Pauli’s doctoral research provided conclusive evidence that cohesin, the protein complex best known for holding sister chromatids together during cell division cycles, has essential functions in non-proliferating cells. Based on inducible TEV-cleavage in vivo to selectively eliminate cohesin in non-mitotic cells, Pauli’s work demonstrated roles for cohesin in neuronal pruning and in transcriptional regulation in larval salivary glands.
As Pauli’s dissertation defense and postdoctoral applications approached, a former rowing teammate invited her to join a composite boat of four Oxford and four Cambridge women at the Head of the Charles regatta in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Pauli eagerly accepted, and, killing two birds with one stone, scheduled interviews with a number of labs in the Boston area for that week in October.
Pauli adored Boston on sight, and not long after Alex Schier introduced her to her first zebrafish, she signed on to join his lab, self-admittedly “hooked” on another ambitious project. Intrigued by the realization that most of the genome is transcribed, yet only a small proportion had been functionally described, Pauli’s research focus shifted from a single well-studied gene to the genome-wide exploration of uncharacterized transcripts. Using zebrafish as a model system, her postdoctoral work with Alex Schier resulted in the identification and annotation of uncharacterized embryonic transcripts, culminating in the discovery and functional characterization of the novel, essential embryonic signal Toddler/Apela/ELABELA (read more about Toddler/Apela/ELABELA and Pauli’s research here).
Pauli marvels at her own success: “If someone had told me at the beginning when I joined Alex’s lab that I would work on signaling peptides, I would have said, ‘Never!’ I had not imagined that I would be interested in that.” Her research interests have reliably veered in unpredictable directions and she has learned to expect the unexpected. “This has happened to me a lot of times now,” she reflects, “that I managed to somehow be in the right place at the right time.”
She has had similar good fortune with honors and fellowships, which snowballed from the European Molecular Biology Organization grant that kicked off her postdoc here, to the Human Frontier Science Program postdoctoral fellowship, followed by the NIH Pathways to Independence Award. Last summer, The Genetics Society of America honored Pauli with its Chi-Bin Chien Award, for which she is particularly grateful as a former student of Chien’s Zebrafish Course at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.
This fall, Pauli returns to Vienna to head a lab at the Institute of Molecular Pathology, where she intends to introduce the zebrafish model system and continue to investigate the functions of Toddler and other newly discovered short translated open reading frames (ORFs).
Despite her obvious aptitude for writing grants, Pauli looks forward to working in an environment where the perpetual competition for funding will no longer dominate her life and research. Favored with offers from multiple universities, she accepted the position at IMP after careful deliberation between careers in Europe vs. United States, weighing the costs and benefits of being a female scientist in either environment. In the U.S., she reasons, “I would be a tiny little fish in a giant pond so I would need to fight my way to survive.” While there are even fewer women in senior positions across the Atlantic, she figures, “if no one goes there it’s not going to change and it would potentially be really fun to show that women can be successful there.”
Regardless of environment, Pauli approaches her work (and most things for that matter) with an indomitable spirit. As Alex Schier observes, “Andi is amazingly energetic in everything she does – and she does a lot. For example, at our yearly lab retreat she would get up at 6 AM to bake for the lab, then lead everyone up and down the ski slopes till 4PM, come back and make Caipirinhas, and then give an inspiring talk during our science presentations in the evening.”
Pauli may credit coincidence and happenstance, but her singular knack for throwing herself, undaunted, at new and foreign challenges is what makes her a prize fish here and across the Atlantic pond.