Anastasia Repouliou of the Extavour Lab has wanted to be a scientist since the age of 10, when she set her sights on becoming an astrophysicist. “Nobody knows how and why that happened,” Repouliou says. “No one in my family is a scientist, but, when I was ten, I decided to be a scientist.”
Growing up, Repouliou remained steadfast in her intention to become a scientist. “I had the entire plan laid out,” she says.”I was going to go to college. I was going to get a Ph.D. I was going to do research. I was going to become a professor…Up until starting grad school, I never questioned this plan.”
But now Repouliou is no longer certain about what path she wants to follow after grad school. She enjoys scientific research and camaraderie with her labmates but wonders if being a professor is the best route for her. “I don’t know anymore, which is a very interesting position to be in,” she says. She adds that while academia is her most likely path forward, she is considering other options, such as becoming a staff scientist or perhaps switching to a career outside of academia.
For now, Repouliou is focused on her Ph.D. research investigating the molecular mechanism of a protein called Oskar, which regulates germ cell determination in fruit flies. “It’s the protein that acts as a lynchpin for all of the molecular components to come together at the right place at the right time so that the [germ] cells can form in the embryo,” Repouliou explains. “We’ve known about Oskar and its importance for a very long time, but there’s still some very basic questions about how it does what it does. That’s where I come in.”
Repouliou has been breeding fruit flies with mutations in their Oskar protein. Her long-term goal is finding clues to Oskar’s mechanism by analyzing flies’ ovaries and embryos under a microscope. She says that looking under a microscope “always makes me happy.”
“I’m sure that part of it is just the pretty colors,” she says. “But more than that, we’re very visual creatures…The way that we operate in this world is very largely by integrating the information that we get visually and drawing conclusions from that about what’s going on around us… It’s wonderful that what I’m studying is in the palm of my hand, but I can’t really see it. I can see the fly, I can see the ovary, but I can’t see what’s going on inside it. So microscopy just makes that accessible.”
Repouliou’s interest in communicating through a mix of visual images, words, and math dates back to her childhood in Athens, Greece. She remembers the city as bustling with culture and street art. As a child, she loved reading and ballet classes. Her younger sister’s nickname for her was “Chapters” because Repouliou was always in the middle of finishing a chapter whenever the family arrived somewhere. Her interests and hobbies also included writing, acting, animation, dance, and graphic design. These diverse interests, along with her habit of enthusiastically embracing extracurriculars to pursue them, led Repouliou to apply to American universities, which combine academic excellence with freedom to engage in many academic disciplines.
Her first research experience came in high school when she connected with Zoe Cournia, an associate professor and group leader at the Biomedical Research Foundation of the Academy of Athens. In that lab, Repouliou worked with molecular dynamic simulations and picked up several academically-relevant skills, such as how to reach out to other researchers and how to keep a lab notebook.
After graduating from high school in Greece, Repouliou headed to Princeton for college. She describes her undergraduate years as a busy time and “a lot.” Her coursework included an integrated science class, which Harvard’s LS50 is based upon, and her extracurriculars included acting in many campus productions. She opted to major in molecular biology and minor in bioethics and global health policy.
In 2016, Repouliou spent a summer in Alvaro Sagasti’s lab at UCLA, where she largely taught herself how to analyze RNA sequencing data. She says working on a project that was slightly outside of the lab’s expertise taught her key skills for conducting independent research.
Her undergraduate thesis work in Clifford Brangwynne’s lab centered on membraneless organelles that form through the phase separation of biomolecules. Repouliou compares them to blobs in a lava lamp. While the phase-separation blobs are liquid, they don’t mix with the cytoplasm. “I worked on one type of organelle that has this behavior; they’re called stress granules,” she explains. “They form when the cell goes through different types of stress, and we don’t know exactly what they do. We don’t know if they’re protective or just byproducts of biophysics.”
Repouliou joined the MCO Graduate Program in 2018. Her first two years in the program were fairly typical, filled with classes, deep dives into literature, and designing experiments. Then, in 2020, COVID-19 shut down the labs before Repouliou and other graduate students in her cohort could begin their experiments. She remembers being at home early in the pandemic with her then-roommate who is also an MCO student and not knowing what to do next. As she often does, Repouliou got involved with extracurriculars, contributing to and editing that year’s G3 sketch reel for the 2020 Biopalooza Retreat.
Despite her busy schedule, Repouliou still makes time for reading novels and contributing to multimedia outreach projects. She edits for the Science In The News (SITN) blog and has participated in multiple workshops where staff from the Harvard Museum of Science and Culture guide researchers through designing interactive booths and exhibits about their research, as well as videos for the I <3 Science website. Projects like these enable her to stay connected to her interests in writing, performance, and design.
Repouliou is now working on her experiments with Oskar the Protein as a student in the Extavour Lab. She says that evolutionary developmental biology, or “evo-devo,” is new to her, but she’s enjoying learning about the field and the camaraderie with her labmates immensely. “Doing science is hard,” Repouliou says. “It’s repetitive. It can be demoralizing at times, and having people around you who can uplift you and support you in both the happiest and the darkest moments is really important, and I feel like I have that. I’ve made some good friends, and I am lucky to have a supportive and inspiring adviser in Cassandra.”
Extavour admires Repouliou’s curiosity and enthusiasm. “Anastasia has boundless intellectual ambition, and one of the purest passions for understanding biology of anyone I have ever met,” Extavour says. “There is no biological problem she does not find engaging, no new information that she learns without extreme excitement, and no aspect of experimental design that she does not want to inspect in minute detail. She is generous with her knowledge, derives great joy from sharing her passions with others, and helps others think critically about their work with compassion and genuine desire to make everyone’s work better. She is a joy to work with!”
Repouliou is currently coordinating the organization of the Extavour Lab Open House on December 9th. The open house will include lab tours, poster presentations, and more. The event is open to all in the Harvard community, including students, researchers, and non-scientist staff and is part of efforts by the Community Task Force on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging to bolster camaraderie and outreach throughout the department. On December 9th, hour-long tours at 10:00 AM and 11:30 AM will showcase some of the organisms, techniques, and equipment in the lab. Tours will be followed by talks at 4:00 PM and a poster session at 5:00 PM. Join Repouliou and the Extavour Lab for these events to hear more about their exciting science!