A Family, a Laboratory, and an EMBO Award

When French graduate Sandrine Etienne-Manneville inquired about the possibility of doing a postdoc in his lab, Alan Hall, then a principal investigator at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at University College London, invited her for a visit. “She gave a very nice talk and had clearly done very well during her Ph.D.,” Hall, now chair of the cell biology programme at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, recalls in an e-mail to Science Careers. “However, I had had a couple of other postdoc applicants visit during that time and they too gave very good talks.”

To help with the decision, Hall asked Etienne-Manneville what new lines of research she would like to pursue in his lab. Etienne-Manneville submitted “an absolutely outstanding set of ideas about what she would like to do and how she proposed to do it. This showed to me that there was something very special about Sandrine.”

A flair for important-yet-underestimated research questions and a stubborn aspiration to independence are the leitmotifs in Etienne-Manneville’s career so far. Her talent and go-for-it attitude have allowed the 37-year-old mother of two to have both a successful research career and a family. She was just announced as one of three women among the 22 scientists selected this year by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in their Young Investigator Programme (YIP).

A taste for independence

Born into a family of medical doctors, Etienne-Manneville had decided to pursue a career in biomedicine by age 15. After high school, she went to classes préparatoires near Paris, where she studied biology, maths, and physics for 2 years in preparation for nationwide competitive examinations for entry to the French Grandes Écoles. She scored among the top students and chose the(ENS) in Paris.

By the time she finished ENS in 1995, Etienne-Manneville had obtained the equivalent of two M.Sc. degrees–one in biology and biochemistry and another in immunology. She had also experienced her first taste of independent research during an internship in neurology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in the United States and another in immunology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “I realised that at least in American labs, … you are by yourself,” she says. She got hooked on “this feeling of having your project and trying to … find the good questions with a good way to test them, and having an answer at the end.”

While at ENS, Etienne-Manneville also earned a teaching diploma, which she saw, in part, as a career alternative in case her research didn’t pan out.

Important, yet underestimated

Etienne-Manneville has a knack for identifying important research questions that have received little attention. Seeing that the relationship between the central nervous and immune systems was poorly studied despite being responsible for numerous diseases, she went to the Molecular Immunopharmacology Laboratory at the Cochin Institute in Paris to do a Ph.D. combining the two disciplines. There, she worked to elucidate the intracellular signalling driving the migration of immune cells into the central nervous system through the blood-brain barrier. She graduated in 1999 with seven papers from her Ph.D. work, five as first author.

Etienne-Manneville then decided to go to England with her physicist-husband for a postdoc. Of the many labs she visited, she chose Hall’s because “I could do what I wanted to do and in a very good lab.” She studied the migration of astrocytes, cells in the central nervous system that are “very underestimated and understudied and probably play an important role in many pathologies.” Like many choices in science, the choice was risky. “I was starting a completely new project that I made myself. I didn’t know whether it would work or not,” she says.

It did–and all of it. “Sandrine worked incredibly hard, but, more importantly, everything she did worked,” Hall says. “All her experiments were beautifully controlled and the point proven in several different ways, if possible. She knew exactly what she was doing, where the project was going, and what needed to be done.” She still found time to try new things. “Often, we’d come up with a crazy idea for an experiment, and a month or two later, I’d hear that in addition to relentlessly pushing her project forward, she had designed and tried an experiment ‘on the side’ to test that off-the-wall idea.”

“The analysis of cell behaviour in tissue culture is becoming less fashionable these days, with the misplaced belief that we perhaps know enough about cell biology and how things work,” Hall says. “Sandrine’s work showed that a simple tissue culture assay can provide tremendous insight into the biochemical pathways that control fundamental aspects of cell behaviour.” Etienne-Manneville published 12 papers from her postdoctoral work.

Mixing science and motherhood

Etienne-Manneville had her children, now ages 6 and 4, when she was still a postdoc. She was cautious in the lab, but she took off just a month when she had her first child and just 3 months for her second.

Juggling work and family is an organisational challenge, Etienne-Manneville acknowledges, but “there are other things that can put you more backwards” in your career than having children. Indeed, “it brings many good things, … even in your scientific life, … [such as] questions about what’s alive, how it works. It’s refreshing.”

“I’m sure there were stresses and issues that I didn’t know about,” Hall says, “but if there were, Sandrine always dealt with these and got on with things.”

Getting permanent

Etienne-Manneville returned to France for a National Centre for Scientific Research permanent junior researcher position at the Morphogenesis and Intracellular Signalling Laboratory at the Curie Institute Research Centre. It takes most scientists several attempts, but she got the job first time round. She continued her work on astrocyte migration, now focusing on the role of tumour-suppressor genes. But soon her position began to feel limiting. “I had the feeling that I had more and more administrative things to do and could less and less take care of bench work, and I had more and more things that I wanted to do. I basically needed to have my own group.”

In 2003, she secured a grant of €100,000 for 3 years from the French government to start her own group within her host lab. But she wanted a quicker path to independence, so she applied for a position at the Pasteur Institute. She started her own group there in January 2006, supported by funding from the Pasteur Institute and an ATIP grant, which together provide €250,000 and salary for a postdoc and ingénieur for 5 years.

Heading her own group didn’t bring much relief from administrative duties, she admits, and it offers additional challenges. “The success of her lab will depend not only on Sandrine’s spectacular technical and intellectual skills but also on her ability to recruit and guide a team,” Hall says. This “requires additional skills that are not typically learned during graduate or postgraduate studies.” Today, her lab counts one ingénieur, two Ph.D. students, and three postdocs.

Becoming an EMBO Young Investigator

Etienne-Manneville’s latest achievement–becoming an EMBO Young Investigator–may help her meet these new challenges. YIP membership comes with a grant of €15,000 a year for 3 years, but the other benefits are the most important: lab-management training, travel funding, access to mentoring, and networking opportunities with other YIP members. Although up to now she didn’t pay much attention to developing contacts, she now feels the need “to know people of the same … generation who are having the same problems.”

Etienne-Manneville was selected as a Young Investigator because “she has an excellent, sustained record of achievement [and] has successfully established her own group while raising two children. That is an outstanding performance, and we want to recognise that,” says Michael Bevan, head of the EMBO selection committee and a cell and developmental biologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, U.K.

“Sandrine is not typical,” Hall adds. “She has a seemingly indefatigable amount of drive and energy but, just as importantly, this is coupled with an ability to focus that energy on what needs to be done.”

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