Gaia Pigino is a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG). Her group uses cryo-EM and electron tomography to uncover the structural organization of protein complexes within cilia and flagella. Cilia and flagella are slender protrusions from cell surfaces and are important for motility and signaling. These organelles use specially arranged microtubules as tracks to transport proteins to and from their tips. Pigino and her group have revealed fundamental principles of protein transport within cilia by combining live-imaging approaches with 3D structural analysis of protein transport trains and their microtubule tracks. Pigino is exceptionally creative both in her approach to science and in her passions outside of the lab.

Gaia Pigino, Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics

Let’s start with your name: Gaia Pigino

Location: Dresden

Position: Research Group Leader

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone; iPad; insulin pump

Current Computer(s): MacBook Pro 2016; diverse LINUX workstations

What kind of research do you do?

The overarching goal of my lab is to investigate the assembly of large cellular machines. In particular, we focus on the mechanisms by which the cilium self-organizes out of its numerous components. To that end, we use the most advanced cryo-EM technology and develop methods to localize proteins and resolve their dynamics at EM resolution. To understand how cilia precursors are transported from the cell to the ciliary assembly site at its tip, we investigate the dynamics and 3D molecular architecture of intraflagellar transport (IFT) machines by CLEM, tomography, and single-particle analysis. Our goal is to unravel the molecular mechanisms that allow individual proteins to find their correct position along ciliary microtubules, and the role of the “tubulin code” in orchestrating axonemal assembly at the ciliary tip. Besides motile cilia, we also investigate the 3D molecular architecture of primary cilia, the type of cilia most relevant in the context of human health.

What is one phrase or word that best describes how you work:

Under pressure!

What excites you most about your current work?

The new cryo-EM setup we got, which finally started working just in the last few months!

I am excited about finally being able to visualize the intraflagellar transport machinery in its full in-situ glory with the cryo-EM. We recently found that each ciliary microtubule doublet is used by IFT trains as bidirectional double-track: anterograde trains move exclusively along B-tubules, while retrograde trains move along A-tubules of each doublet. I simply cannot wait until we find out which mechanisms allow the two IFT associated molecular motors to walk exclusively on the A or the B tubule. In general, working toward understanding how the cilium self-organizes excites me… it’s just such a complex puzzle that I’d really love to be part of solving.

Can you describe one formidable experience from your life or training that set you on this path?

Many! Looking into the lenses of my first microscope, a toy that my parents gave me when I was a little girl, sold me on biology (my first love was structural biology). Later, when I met Joel Rosenbaum during his sabbatical in Italy, I also started falling for cell biology. On top of that, the physiology course in Woods Hole clearly was a life-changing experience for me. It was my first real encounter with the international scientific spirit that I have truly embraced since then.

Two of Pigino’s students at work in the lab. Image and photo-art by Gaia Pigino.

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging?

Finding a balance between collaborating on various cool topics and being able to say no to such collaborations for the sake of having some identifiable theme in the lab.

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty?

Hire smart, driven, creative, and nice people. Then give them freedom – your lab needs to be happy! Students and postdocs need guidance, but they also need to follow their own ideas. I encourage my people to be creative and pick up side projects if they want.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

I work under pressure… deadlines are magic! I also make an effort to finish what I have started before moving on to the next thing.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)?

Whatever… even the palm of my hand. In the last years I’ve used everything, from fancy synchronizing iPad apps to toilet paper. I constantly try to move all my note-taking activities and the to-do list to my iPad, which I guess would have a number of advantages. Still, pen and paper are often more practical. There is something extremely satisfying about writing a list on paper and crossing off tasks once they are done.

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without?

Internet, Calendar (I would be lost without it), Mail (unluckily), Skype (I call my parents every evening. Italian family!), IMOD, Fiji, Chimera, Keynote, Photoshop (at work and for fun), Pinterest (to fall asleep at night), and the Moleskine.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it?

Insulin Pump – it replaces my pancreas. I can literally not live without it! 😉

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are?

Breakfast. My day doesn’t start before breakfast is on the table! This is why my husband Florian has to prepare it every morning. I cook dinner in exchange.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person?

Frederick Banting, who pursued his intuition despite the criticisms, and saved the lives of millions of diabetic patients with the discovery of insulin. Learn more about Frederick Banting.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab?

Lots. Artsy stuff mostly. Photography, pottery, drawing, printing, etc.

In general I like to make things and learn techniques that help me make things. I also love gardening and growing vegetables. It reminds me of my childhood when I helped my grandfather grow tomatoes in our garden in Tuscany.

Panoramic view of Pigino’s office in Dresden.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about?

Not at the moment. It is actually hard to admit it to myself, but my lab and my science are completely absorbing me.

What’s your sleep routine like?

Going to bed after midnight and getting up at 7:00 am. Workload modulates what ‘after midnight’ really means, but standing up before 7:00 am is not an option.

What would you do if you weren’t doing research every day?

I have a lot of passions that some people manage to transform into their profession: photography, drawing, pottery. I could easily get obsessed with one of these things.

I also have a license to be a professional fencing coach.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Clare Waterman, Erik Betzig, Pavel Tomancak, Bob Goldstein, Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Tim Mitchison.

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees?

After every successful fencing competition, my grandfather would welcome me with saying “e ora non dormire sugli allori” (now don’t rest on your laurels) … I can still hear his voice saying these words every time I achieve something.

Another piece of advice comes from my father: “To be outstanding at your career level you need to perform as if you were a step above.”

And for everyone who tends to panic because they think they do not know enough and that everybody else is better than them (I do probably belong to this category): Everybody puts his pants on one leg at a time.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

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Jennifer Heppert

Jenny is a postdoc in John Rawls' laboratory at Duke. She is investigating how signaling between cells directs mitotic spindle orientation using genome editing and live-imaging in C. elegans embryos. Jenny shares her work and the magic of model organisms with the local community by bringing microscopes to science outreach events. Twitter/Instagram: @wormcrush Email: jennyheppert@gmail.com