For her significant contributions to the understanding of protein synthesis, trafficking, and quality control, Maya Schuldiner of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel has been awarded the prestigious EMBO Gold Medal for 2017. At a December 4 ceremony at the ASCB|EMBO meeting in Philadelphia, Schuldiner will receive the medal and present her research at the EMBO Gold Medal Lecture.

Schuldiner earned her PhD in developmental biology at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. For her postdoctoral research, she switched to the field of cell biology to train at the University of California, San Francisco. She returned to Israel in 2008 to establish her own laboratory at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.

Maya Schuldiner

But it may be Schuldiner’s own mother who deserves the most credit for this cell scientist’s successful career trajectory. Schuldiner says a pivotal point in her career came not in the classroom or the lab, but one day when her mother found her crying on the living room floor after the birth of her first child.

“After Daniel was born I nearly left science. I felt that there was no way I could manage to be the type of mother I wanted and combine it with being the type of scientist that I wanted,” Schuldiner said. But Schuldiner’s mother told her that in her day, “all that was expected from a mother was to have her children well fed, clean, and healthy, and to have good manners. She could not understand why I felt I was not a great mother when I did all that and so much more. I suddenly realized that I was tripping myself up by setting my standards too high.”

These days, Schuldiner’s lab uses high-throughput technology, advanced robotics, and extremely sensitive imaging technology along with the talents of geneticists, biochemists, and cell biologists to help understand the host of proteins found in the organelles of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Currently, the function of about one-third of these yeast proteins remains a mystery. Since most of these proteins are also conserved in humans, having a better understanding of their function could have implications for understanding human disease.

At her talk, Schuldiner says she plans to highlight just how little we actually know about how cells work. “I would then like to share our passion for discovering functions for unstudied proteins, why we think it is important, and how we go about doing it,” she said. “I will give some examples from areas that we have focused on such as targeting of proteins to organelles and organelle contact sites.”

Although the knowledge gap seems challenging, Schuldiner is not intimidated. “I think that science is about loving the way and not expecting the goal,” she said. “I come to work every day excited to see my students again and happy to work in an environment that I connect to. I learn something new every day, and I can’t think of anything else I would rather do. How better to pass one’s life on this earth?”

EMBO’s Gold Medal recognizes outstanding contributions to the life sciences in Europe by young independent group leaders and carries a cash award of 10,000 euros (~ 11,252 USD). Schuldiner, who has been a member of ASCB since 2003, says she is excited and honored to be selected to receive the EMBO Gold Medal and shares credit with both her students and her spouse. “I wish I could share it with my amazing students, who, over the years, have done the beautiful work that has enabled me to be its recipient,” she said. “Also, I could not have done science in the way that I love without the partnership and friendship of my husband, Oren. By sharing every aspect of the love and care for our children, we have both been able to combine an involved family life with an extremely engaged career.”

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Mary Spiro

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager. She has a master's degree in Biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University and bachelor's degrees in both Agronomy and Journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. She can be reached at mspiro@ascb.org