An Interview with Gabi Heller, Rosalind Franklin Research Fellow

Hi Gabi – thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. It is so fitting to be marking Rosalind Franklin’s birthday with Newnham’s Rosalind Franklin (RF) Research Fellow. You mentioned to me previously how you feel closely aligned with RF’s research, working in the same field? Would you talk a little more about that?

Thank you for having me! Rosalind Franklin is well known today for her work towards determining the molecular structure of DNA, but she also made key contributions to our understanding of the structures of viruses. The technique that Franklin used, called X-ray crystallography, uses X-rays to analyze the three-dimensional shapes of crystallized molecules. This technique is incredibly powerful for determining the structures of biomolecules, allowing scientists to “see” and therefore understand how these biomolecules work at the atomistic level for the first time.

Like Franklin, I am also interested in the structures of biomolecules, particularly proteins. However, the proteins that I study, called disordered proteins, don’t have rigid shapes that can be crystallized and thus can’t be studied using the technique that Franklin used. Disordered proteins are extremely dynamic, rapidly interconvert between different conformations, and present unique challenges for structural biologists. Instead of using X-ray crystallography, during my PhD research I used high-powered computational methods to “see” disordered proteins, particularly those involved in cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and study how they interact with drugs.

Rosalind Franklin really has been an inspiring figure to you. Is there a specific aspect of her story, research or experience that speaks to you?

There are a number of coincidental overlaps between Rosalind Franklin’s life and my own, but perhaps I am most influenced by her own words in several letters that she wrote home during WWII while she was at Newnham College as an undergraduate student (although, as a woman at the time she was denied a Bachelor’s degree and instead obtained a “Degree Titular”). These letters, currently housed in Newnham’s rich Archives, are filled with personality. Franklin covers everything from Churchill’s speeches to an anecdote about someone who fell off a punt at 8:30 am but still had time for breakfast and a bath before a lecture at 9 am! One letter in particular, dated October 1939 begins by thanking her parents for the gas mask, then continues on to describe the “blackout” of the College and the fact that many of her Lecturers were away. In lockdown, I find myself thinking about these letters and how eerily reminiscent these strange COVID-19 times are of those eight decades earlier. It seems that the inextricable links that science and academia have with politics and society have remained constant.

You were recently selected as one of the 2020 Schmidt Science Fellows, congratulations. This really underscores how cutting edge your research is in the field of computational biology, and how vital philanthropy is for providing funding to scientists globally. Rosalind Franklin’s name graces fellowships and funding across the globe – how has the complicated relationship between scientific research and funding shaped your journey?

Thank you! I agree; there is even a Mars rover to remind future generations of Franklin’s wonderful scientific contributions!

Unfortunately, science is very dependent on funding, and I am extremely grateful to have complete academic freedom to pursue what excites me as a Research Fellow at Newnham. Nevertheless, funding in science and academia is extremely competitive (even Rosalind Franklin had to fight for funding for her work), and I often wonder whether I would have applied for funding, grants, and awards if I hadn’t seen myself represented in both the namesakes of the prizes and/or previous recipients. As a Jewish woman pursuing science during and after WWII, Rosalind Franklin (whether she wanted to or not) has become a symbol for inclusion. I see myself represented by Rosalind Franklin, but I often wonder about my peers, particularly those who are not white. Do they see themselves represented in these awards? Are they being shown that they are welcome in research and academia? I think there is an exciting opportunity to continue Franklin’s legacy of inclusion by creating additional awards to honor diverse trailblazers, particularly those who have overcome enormous social obstacles. For example, our own alumna Diane Abbott, was the first Black woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons. It would be wonderful to have a similar award honoring her societal contributions. Of course, fixing these long-standing problems of under-representation in academia aren’t as simple as creating a few named fellowships, but if such awards could contribute towards encouraging diversity, they would undoubtedly enrich the experience of the entire academic community.

Given that the Schmidt Science Fellowships represent some of the best interdisciplinary scientists around, especially vital in these unprecedented times, there is an enormous amount of pressure on scientists at the moment. This can often be compounded by the additional difficulties of being a woman in STEM fields. Do you have any advice for budding female scientists?

Sometimes, I am convinced that STEM is improving for women, but unfortunately this week (on 24/06/20) Sarah Barnes pointed out more people named ‘Brian’ received honorary fellowships from the Institute of Physics than women. Around two weeks before that, a peer-reviewed article (now deleted) in the prestigious Chemistry journal, Angewandte Chemie, claimed that diversity of the work force is detrimental to the field of Organic Synthesis. Thus, to answer your question, my advice would be to find mentors (group leaders, members of the College, supervisors, friends, etc) who champion you and your research. In Cambridge, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been mentored by a wonderful network of people who have continually supported me and my career.

Finally, a shared aspect of every Newnham alumna’s time at Cambridge is our uniquely beautiful College. What is your favourite spot in Newnham and why?

It’s a tie between the stunning gardens and the upstairs table beside the window in the Victorian Yates Thompson library. Both provide me with serenity.

Thank you so much, Gabi, for being such an interesting and willing interviewee.