Photo:

Melanie Stefan

Well done David! And thanks to everyone for making I'm a Scientist so much fun! Students, if you have more specific questions, you can get in touch on http://www.its.caltech.edu/~mstefan/

Favourite Thing: I love watching my computer simulations while they are running. It is really exciting to “see” an event (such as a chemical reaction) while it is happening! I also enjoy learning new methods in the lab, especially if they involve things changing colour!

My CV

School:

1987-1991: Primary school in Hallein-Burgfried (Austria), 1991-1999 secondary school in Hallein (also in Austria)

University:

1991-2005: Maths and Genetics (up to MSc) at the University of Salzburg (Austria) and for a bit at Charles University in Prague (Czech Republic). 2005-2009: PhD in Bioinformatics at Cambridge University

Work History:

During school and the first years of Uni, I have worked in all kinds of jobs, including as a waitress, page-turner, tourist guide and proof-reader for a stamp collector’s catalogue. As a scientist, I have worked in labs in Israel and Poland (for internships), Germany (for my MSc thesis), England (for my PhD) and Japan (as a visiting scientist)

Employer:

California Institute of Technology in sunny California!

Current Job:

Postdoc

Me and my work

I combine computer models and experiments to study the molecules responsible for learning and memory.

When we learn something, connections between nerve cells in the brain get stronger. I am looking at the proteins in the brain that are responsible for this strengthening: How do they do it, what kind of signal do they need to start working, how do they know when it’s enough, how do they compete with other proteins, how are they regulated? For my PhD, I have done computer models that look a these questions. Now, however, I have moved to an actual lab with actual benches, white coats and chemical cupboards, so I can do experimental tests that complement my computer modelling!  This is very exciting, although, at the moment, I spend more time learning the actual experimental methods than doing “real” research.

My Typical Day

experiments, computer work, reading and the occasional coffee break

Get in at around 10 – plan the day ahead, check work e-mails – read a bit of scientific literature – start my labwork or computer simulations – have lunch (if there is time) – write up some results – continue with my labwork – clean up the lab (!) – summarise the day’s results – go home (between 6pm and 1am, depending on the experiment)

What I'd do with the money

going to a school for an arts & science project: How to model/visualise biological systems

I work with proteins, and proteins are awesome, but sometimes I find it hard to explain what exactly they do and why they are so awesome. Part of why it is hard is because I find it hard to visualise them. I would like to have actual models of them, models that capture the essential properties of some of my proteins, but that are at the same time easy to understand, and fun to watch, touch and play with. This is not easy, and there aren’t any established standard ways of doing it – so I thought enlisting a group of students in a school and working on the problem together might be a fun thing to do. It could teach students a lot  about science, design and communication (and about how awesome proteins are), but it would do so in a playful way and while producing something beautiful.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

chocolate-loving geek

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Regina Spektor at the moment, but it changes all the time.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I used to be a drummer in a band for a short while – until they exchanged me for someone who can actually play the drums ;)

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

seeing my friends and family more often, becoming a professor, and learning to read and write Japanese

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to live in a tower and do mathematical logic all day. I still think this would be nice. Let me know if you find an empty tower.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

I always had good marks, but I got into trouble for talking back to teachers. My mark for conduct in the classroom was often the worst on my school reports.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Explained how a tiny protein in the brain can act as a switch that increases or decreases the connection between two neurons depending on how much calcium there is

Tell us a joke.

I’m not good with jokes. Look at this instead: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1221