Cristina Lo Celso is the first woman to receive the UK Academy of Medical Sciences Foulkes Foundation Medal since the award was launched in 2007. While a postdoc at Harvard University Lo Celso developed microscopy techniques that allowed blood stem cells to be viewed inside their natural environment for the first time. She describes her career to date, how she chose science over medicine, and her mentors.
Why did you choose a career in academic research rather than medicine?
I did consider medicine. Antonio Lo Celso, my paternal grandfather, was a surgeon in Sicily before retiring to Turin, where I grew up. He got me interested in human health and how the body works. But when I was about 15 I read Dominique Lapierre’s 1991 book Beyond Love. It’s about clinicians and scientists and patients during the early stages of the HIV epidemic and it made me realise that research can make a massive difference.
In 1996 I met Lorenzo Silengo, who was setting up the five-year biotechnology degree course at the University of Turin. At the time it included an innovative three-year lab project, which is like a mini-PhD. Professor Silengo told me that as a medical doctor I would be mostly selling or administering the products of research. He suggested that I do a degree in biotechnology, which meant I would be the person driving the research. His comments really inspired me. It was a career-defining moment.
My lab project focused on the consequences of HGF (hepatocyte growth factor) stimulation on epithelial cells. We used some of the first commercial microarrays to investigate how HGF made cells more motile, (more metastatic).
I was based at the Candiolo Cancer Institute (IRCCS) just outside Turin, which is both a research hub and an oncology hospital. I spent time in the lab but I also saw lots of patients and their families in the café. You could tell how much they were suffering. It really gave me a feeling of the impact of disease and of treatment, which was highly motivating for me.
Describe your career so far and the mentors you have had along the way.
I wanted to do my PhD in Europe and I was fascinated by stem cells, so in March 2001 I went to Fiona Watt’s lab in London at what was then the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (it then became Cancer Research UK, and is now the Francis Crick Institute).
I was just this Italian student asking about her work, but she sensed my interest and asked about my undergraduate study, and then told me I could start in September, focusing on epidermal stem cells and the role of beta-catenin in reshaping their fate. During that time I started using microscopy to analyse 3D whole mount preparations of mouse tail epidermis, which generated beautiful images because you can see hair follicles and sebaceous glands and how they are orderly organised within the tissue. Fiona has been an amazing mentor since then showing by example how not to take no as an answer, and how not even the sky may not be the limit to possible achievements.
By the end of my PhD I did not know I wanted to work with blood stem cells. I just knew I wanted to do something very different to the epidermis so I could widen my horizons. I met with David Scadden (Scadden, a haematologist/oncologist, is currently Gerald and Darlene Jordan Professor of Medicine at Harvard University. Scadden is also founder and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Centre for Regenerative Medicine, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Harvard Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Department). We just clicked immediately. At the time he was already working with Charles Lin at the Wellman Centre for Photomedicine. They had a custom made microscope and they wanted to use it to find where blood stem cells were within the bone marrow, a big unknown at the time.
Working with David and Charles was amazing It was a completely interdisciplinary project. They taught me how to make that work, how to have long conversations where the other person won’t know what you‘re talking about, and how to explain things clearly.
Some of my postdoctoral work was funded by an EMBO fellowship, and through its mailing list I saw the ad for Lecturer at Imperial College, Department of Life Sciences. I took the post, and since then I have been a Senior Lecturer, and last year became a Reader in Stem Cell Biology. It involved further work with physicists and developing new technology – it felt like it had my name on it.
I told David I would regret not going for this opportunity forever if I didn’t. I was attending a conference in Europe, and stopped off in London to see Fiona for some extra advice. I started at Imperial College in 2009.
Describe your current role.
In addition to my post at Imperial I am also a satellite investigator at the Francis Crick Institute. This is great for my research as Imperial’s South Kensington campus is an ideal hub for interdisciplinary research, and at the Crick we interact with an army of amazing biologists. The logistics of the experiments are a bit more complicated, but well worth the effort.
As part of my role, I also teach undergraduate and postgraduate students, tutor a number of them through their degree and into their next career steps, and host and supervise them for their lab projects. I serve on a number of committees within the department, College, and I am now starting to contribute to the Crick community as well. I travel a lot to disseminate my group’s work at conferences and seminars, to start new collaborations, and sometimes to join grant review panels. And of course I spend a lot of time writing grants.
I would like to continue to develop my research and lead a group that makes significant contributions to scientific knowledge. I would love to see our work translated into clinical studies or lifestyle changes. We recently completed two studies that suggest new therapeutic avenues for leukaemia patients and I hope to contribute to their exploration. This will require teaming up with multiple clinicians, and I hope my interdisciplinary background will help make this a success.
The Academy of Medical Sciences actively promotes work-life balance through its #MedSciLife campaign. What are your interests outside work?
I share an allotment outside London with a former colleague, a retired professor. We met as I was setting up my group at Imperial College. Growing vegetables is great fun and you get very caught up in it. The nicest thing about it is the yearly cycle. With science it’s very different. You can wait years for something to happen, but with veggies it is just weeks.
When I first met Fiona Watt I remember visiting Tate Modern afterwards and having a sandwich overlooking the Thames. I said to myself “I could live here, in London.” I love London life and my husband and I are currently hoarding museum memberships. I like cooking and we recently adopted two kitties that provide endless entertainment, as well as some holes in our curtains.
Cristina was talking to David Payne, chief careers editor, Nature.
Find out more:
Hawkins et al: T-cell acute leukaemia exhibits dynamic interactions with bone marrow microenvironments. Nature. 2016 Oct 27;538(7626):518-522. doi: 10.1038/nature19801.
Duarte et al: Inhibition of Endosteal Vascular Niche Remodeling Rescues Hematopoietic Stem Cell Loss in AML. Cell Stem Cell. Volume 22, Issue 1, 4 January 2018, Pages 64–77.e6
About the Foulkes Award:
- The Foulkes Foundation was established in 1972 by Ernest Foulkes, an engineer, businessman and philanthropist. It aims to promote medical research, the training of scientists and the study of medicine.
- The Foulkes Medal has been awarded awarded biennially since 2007 to a rising star within biomedical research for contributing important and significant impacts to the field before, or in, their first independent position.