Antonella is like a positive, warm and determined whirlwind. After an exciting scientific journey that took her all over Europe, she ended up at the VUB in Brussels and was crowned the most promising young researcher in Flanders last May. Wtnschp was curious to find out more …
Antonella is part of the VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology. She discovered a new way to fight anthrax, and is currently spearheading the development of new tools and therapies against harmful bacteria.
Nickname: The Bug Slayer
Lives in: Ixelles
Grew up in: Tuscany
Life motto: If life gives you mold, you make penicillin
On her bucket list: Seeing the northern lights
Unexpected talent: She can sing and act
Favorite spot on earth: Wherever you can see a clear sky full of stars
Before you properly meet our heroine, we ardently recommend reading ‘Saving the world from anthrax with … a llama’. With a blazing Nature Microbiology paper, Antonella turned the world of anthrax research upside down. Buckle up for a science fairytale!
What inspired you to become a scientist?
I’ve always been amazed by nature. From the stars in the sky (I’m always with my nose up in the air) to the bugs on the ground. Understanding life and its secrets is fascinating. Apart from that simple curiosity, I also liked the idea that by studying all these phenomena I could find a way to help people and animals around the world. That ambition and drive led me to become a scientist. I have no preference for any specific field. To me they are just different ways or tools to get to the answers you’re looking for. That’s how I started doing genetics in Florence, but ended up here in molecular and structural microbiology.
What’s the one thing people should know about anthrax, your object of study?
That studying this disease brought out the best and worst in humanity. Anthrax was the first disease that was linked to a specific microorganism. Before this discovery, diseases were thought to be a punishment from God, bad luck, a curse … and who knows what else. In the 19th century, scientist Robert Koch was able to formulate 4 ‘postulates’ or criteria to identify agents responsible for a disease. To this day, that represents the foundation of medical microbiology. In the same way, the success of the cattle vaccine against anthrax developed by Louis Pasteur, marked the beginning of the science of vaccines.
” Anthrax brought out the best and worst in humanity “
On the other hand, not only did anthrax kill thousands of animals and human beings since antiquity, it was also turned into a murderous bioweapon. Since World War I, it’s been developed and used in warfare by combatants on all sides. In 1945, the Soviet troops discovered ‘Unit 731’, a secret unit from Imperial Japan that carried out experiments on war prisoners and the Chinese people for the development of bacteriological warfare. As a response, several nations – including the UK, Canada, the US and the USSR itself – developed bacterial warfare programs during the post-war period. Today it’s forbidden by international treaty, but bioweapons have been used on several occasions by bioterrorists.
What surprised you the most on your journey so far?
That I made it. That I had a dream and I’ve seen it come true.
Which hurdles did you have to overcome to succeed?
Technically it was a big challenge to be able to study the S-layer proteins as a single unit, since they self-assemble to form the bacterial armor. Another challenge altogether was convincing the anthrax world (think military people, public health scientists and physicians) that this weird microbiologist, that knows how to mess with structural biology, had the right idea to solve the S-layer enigma. So you could say this project was all hurdles. From the technical challenges to convincing the anthrax world that I was able to fight this bacterium in a new way.
You won the ‘Eos Pipet’, a prestigious prize. What does this opportunity mean to you?
It means visibility for my research. It means having the chance to talk about science and raise awareness among the general public on the importance of pathogenic disease and the power of vaccination. And most importantly, it means I can remind people how research needs to be a priority long before the emergency comes. The current global health crisis is unfortunately a good example of that.
What would you say to an aspiring scientist?
It doesn’t matter what your background is. Learn and exchange as much as you can, changing scenery from time to time. Interact with scientists that are far from your field, don’t be afraid of asking, don’t be afraid of questioning and raise your hand at seminars and conferences. Talk to your peers to move on with your research, but take the courage to talk to professors and researchers too. Be persistent, be brave. Deal with your failures: these are data too! Failing is part of the discovery.
Antonella likes to keep things light from time to time. Here she is, very pregnant, with her fearless ‘S-Layer Team’!
You fight a pretty serious disease. What do you do to keep things light?
Singing and dancing Jungle Book songs in the lab when we have good results! Actually, the tradition has evolved into ‘Friday morning Disney songs’ now. And yes, everybody chooses songs in their native languages!
What gets you of bed in the morning?
This is actually a difficult question. I know I am going to sound incredibly cheesy, but many things get me out of bed in the morning: the certainty that I am going to get the biggest smile and the warmest hug from my two-year-old daughter first thing in the morning, the Brussels’ sky with its Magritte clouds, the coffee that someone who loves me very much will prepare for me (much better than I do, yes, not all Italians make coffee the same way), the thrill of discovering what the result will be of an ongoing experiment, …
Where would you like to go next with your research?
I would like to apply my ‘armor destroying approach’ to other microbes. In particular the ones for which we are out of options in treating them. For example Clostridium Difficile, more commonly known as ‘the hospital bug’, or Serratia marcescens, a terrible threat to newborn babies.
Why is communicating about science important to you?
If a scientist doesn’t communicate to the general public about science, who will? To me it is a civil duty, a responsibility towards others to educate and inform people about scientific matters.
Science is an investment in the future of us all. The research we do today – even if the impact that it’s going to have on the daily life of people is not always clear – is setting the foundation for the future of humanity. It is not just raising awareness about a specific problem in a moment of need, it is to reinforce the support of people towards scientists that are looking for solutions even before the problem arises.
What question would you like to ask a fellow scientist?
Who is your favorite scientist?
Dr. Antonella Fioravanti is a European scientist that obtained her master’s degree in Medical Biotechnology at the University of Florence (Italy) in 2010. She then joined the Laboratory of Comparative systems biology of signal transduction (Dr. Biondi, Lille CNRS-France) where in 2014 she obtained her PhD in Cellular and Molecular aspects of biology, performing breakthrough work on the role of epigenetic regulatory mechanisms in bacterial asymmetrical cell division. Since October 2014 she joined the Structural and Molecular Microbiology group at VIB – Vrije Universiteit Brussel, headed by Professor Han Remaut. Here she had the opportunity to take over and lead the S-layer research project, with the aim of filling the gap in the structural and functional understanding of the bacterial Surface layers (S-layers) in the highly pathogenic bacterium Bacillus anthracis.
She currently spearheads the development of anti-layer assembly inhibitors as promising new tools to fight anthrax and other diseases caused by S-layer carrying pathogens.