In early 2022 we caught up with alumna Dr Emma Watson, who is now based at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine in Münster, Germany.
Photo of Emma Watson smiling at the cameraEmma undertook her PhD at WEHI from 2013 to 2017, studying blood vessels – particularly in the retina – to understand how cell death is regulated in blood vessel growth.
Reflecting upon her time at WEHI, Emma remembered the excitement she felt when she sat down at the fluorescence microscope.
“I was checking some of the first samples for my PhD project and observed there was a strong effect on the blood vessels of the retina. I had been waiting several months for these samples and at that moment I could see there was really something worth investigating further.
“It’s such an exciting feeling, knowing you’re the first person to see this new development with your own eyes.”
During her studies, Emma was awarded the Edith Moffat Travel Scholarship at WEHI, which helped fund her trip to an international conference on the endothelial cells in vascular biology being held in Spain. After the conference, she visited and presented her work at several research institutes in Paris, Zurich and Germany.
The scholarship helped cement Emma’s desire to undertake her postdoctoral studies overseas, so she could experience what it’s like to do research in other countries, along with experiencing other cultures.
Whilst completing her degree at WEHI, a paper came out from Max Plank looking at blood vessels in long bones such as the femur, and it was an area of vasculature that was both extremely complicated and not well studied. She also identified two other labs whose research was of particular interest. Emma was intrigued and began to explore opportunities with the German Institute.
Emma describes the process of finding a postdoc as “a bit like a matchmaking process”, with a little bit of good luck and timing added into the mix.
Whilst the three labs of interest to her at Max Plank didn’t have any postdoc positions advertised, Emma took the time to approach each one and express her interest in future opportunities; by contacting the labs a year before finishing her PhD, she was able to secure her preferred postdoctoral position.
Arriving in Germany and not speaking the language presented some challenges, although with more than 50 per cent of Germans speaking English, the biggest adjustment turned out to be getting used to most things being closed on a Sunday.
Emma said coming from Melbourne, it was a culture shock to find virtually everything was closed on a Sunday. “It’s now a day that I treasure,” she explains. “Sundays are about relaxing and recharging.”
Not long after joining Max Plank, Emma was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship, among the most prestigious and generous awards in Germany. It’s something which was a great source of pride, to secure funding for her research independently.
Emma’s current research is focussed on understanding the various roles blood vessels play in the bone. Changes in the blood vessels, and the endothelial cells that line them, can lead to impaired haematopoiesis (defective bone formation). She is working to understand the role of different transcription factors in bone endothelial cells using techniques including single cell RNA-sequencing, confocal microscopy and flow cytometry.
Having identified some candidate regulators of bone endothelial cells, this year her research will focus on understanding exactly how blood vessels interact with the bone environment.
On Emma’s LinkedIn page, you will find a stunning image of a longitudinal section of a developing femur, with the endothelial cells lining the blood vessels highlighted in green and the nucleus of each cell shown in magenta. In this image we can see specialised blood vessels in different regions of the bone. Specialised blood vessels play an important role in supporting cells that contribute to bone formation, however certain types of blood vessels are gradually lost during ageing.