Quick Q&A with NCBI’s Evolutionary Genomics Research Group

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Quick Q&A with Anastasia Nikolskaya, Guilhem Faure, and Erez Persi
Question Anastasia Nikolskaya, PhD Guilhem Faure, PhD Erez Persi, PhD
headshot of Anastasia Nikolskaya  headshot of Guilhem Faure  casual headshot of Erez Persi
In lay terms, what is the focus of your NLM research?
My focus is on searching for and analyzing novel biosynthetic gene clusters in bacterial genomes as part of a collaborative effort to discover novel antibiotics. My work on the evolution of the influenza virus involved using phylogenetic and epidemiological analysis to monitor and analyze changing trends in influenza worldwide. My research involves the study of both proteins and RNAs—their interactions, structures, sequences, and how they evolve in different systems. I am currently focusing on the protein translation system and the CRISPR-Cas system.  Species and cancer evolution.
Why is your research significant, in your opinion? Discovering novel antibiotics becomes one of the top priorities as resistance to the old ones rapidly spreads among pathogenic bacteria. Machinery involving both RNAs and proteins perform a myriad of crucial roles in almost every aspect of cell growth, regulation, and even immunity. The intimate relationship between RNA and proteins performs complex functions triggering a lot of interest for biotechnologies. Several of them remain elusive and many are not discovered yet. Understanding the evolutionary dynamics of tumors will help to prevent them and cure them. Insights from species evolution are critical to understanding cancer evolution and vice versa.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? While in elementary school, I had an aquarium and read a book about fish breeding that explained Mendel’s laws. These struck me as beautiful and profound and shifted my interest from animals in nature to the underlying mechanisms of life. During middle school, I discovered biology and had the chance to follow courses taught by the most enthusiastic biology teacher I ever had. For numerous questions each student had, he would drive us outside in nature (one day exploring a river, one day the specific flora of a volcano, etc.) to find the answers on our own. He gave me the eternal passion to pursue my career in biology, and even as young as I was, to become a researcher. All along my career, I’ve been lucky to meet extremely talented people constantly nourishing my passion for biology. Physics is my inspiration, and I consider what I do “modern physics.” Beyond that, I pursue my own ideas following extensive reading of the literature, once I identify gaps in our knowledge.

Researchers who affected and inspired me the most are Prof. David Horn, Prof. Carl van-Vreeswijk, Prof. Eytan Ruppin, and Prof. Eugene Koonin.

How did you get started in your career? I started in “wet bench” research and then realized that computational analysis was more rewarding for me. I started my research career as a volunteer intern in a virology lab attached to a hospital during my second year of university. Between wet lab experiments, in a corner of the bench lab, my PI showed me sequence alignments and motif annotations—my first steps into computational biology. This was a turning point in my career, since I had just gotten my degrees in biology and statistics independently. I moved to another university to specifically learn computational biology. As a physicist in statistical mechanics, tuned to computational biology. I started my career as a computational neuroscientist and gradually changed my focus to bioinformatics, molecular evolution, and cancer research.
What really gets you jazzed about science and research? The unknown. Human generations linked by adding new knowledge to the common trove, each providing a foundation for the next ones. We are living in an exciting era where scientific breakthroughs occur several times a year! Every day, I am thrilled to address new challenging questions in order to learn more about life, about me, and interact with fantastic people. NLM/NCBI is a unique place to do science! Finding fundamental truths about the behavior of biological systems and solving unsolved problems.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what else might you be doing? Archaeologist
Mystery story writer
A music composer. I am so passionate about music. I studied classical guitar for 15 years, and it was a dilemma to decide between biology and music. However, science and music are not so distant, and I use my creativity daily to compose my research! I can’t imagine it.
Tell us something surprising about yourself. One area of science that I follow as a “hobby,” because I find the developments fascinating, is research into early humans in general and Neanderthals and early modern humans in particular. I love photography, especially portraiture. I can spend weeks studying all parameters—both technical and human—and eventually compose my shot as a “reflection” of the model. After science, wave surfing is probably my biggest passion in life and then playing my guitar.

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