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Launched in 2009, the EFIS-EJI Ita Askonas Award was established to increase the profile and recognize the excellent contributions of women in immunology. The first winner, announced and awarded at European Congress of Immunology (ECI) 2009 in Berlin, was Fiona Powrie from Oxford, UK.

The application rules were revised slightly for 2012 as the EFIS Board wished to recognize female group leaders at an early stage of their career, which was defined as someone who had run an independent laboratory for a minimum of four and no more than eight years. This prize remained a €10,000 cash award plus travel support to attend the ECI with the laureate presenting her work at the Congress.

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We are pleased to announce that the winner of the EFIS-EJI Ita Askonas Award in 2012 is Francesca Granucci from Milan, Italy. Below Francesca answers the questions that we posed upon her winning the award.

Ita Askonas (image courtesy of the MRC, National Institute for Medical Research, London).

Q&A with Francesca Granucci, winner of the EFIS-EJI Ita Askonas Award 2012

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  2. Q&A with Francesca Granucci, winner of the EFIS-EJI Ita Askonas Award 2012

What inspired you to enter scientific research?

After high school, I decided to take a Master's degree program in biological sciences at the University of Pisa (Italy). In order to graduate you have to work for two years in a laboratory and complete an experimental thesis. Since my pivotal interest was molecular biology, I contacted the head of the only molecular biology laboratory in Pisa at that time and I was lucky enough to be accepted. Although it was not a very productive lab in terms of publications, mainly because of a lack of funds, the people working there were very stimulating intellectually. They were able to pass on their enthusiasm for this type of work; furthermore, they taught me the importance of learning and how data discussions and exchange of ideas among scientists can be fun.

One of the highlights of that period was a course on the regulation of gene transcription given by Gennaro Ciliberto, a young and successful Italian scientist from Riccardo Cortese's group. It was very exciting because Prof. Ciliberto not only taught us the relevance of molecular biology, but he also gave us the flavor of the environment in highly competitive laboratories performing high-level science.

After graduation, I had no doubts that I had to try and enter the research world.

Why did you choose to research immunology?

It may sound incredible, but when I graduated it was more or less normal practice to work in a lab without receiving any salary. Since economic independence was one of my priorities, I decided to move to Milan, a much more dynamic place compared with Pisa, to attend a PhD program. There I met Prof. Paola Ricciardi-Castagnoli, a very active female scientist. On principle, she could not accept anybody working for free so she offered me the possibility to prepare my PhD dissertation in her lab while being paid. The project was about cloning an antigen-specific TCR, the generation of transgenic animals and the study of antigen-specific T-cell tolerance. I could not understand much at the start since I did not know anything about immunology, but there were molecular biology tasks to be solved, such as cloning with race PCR, the choice of the right vector in order to have tissue-restricted expression and the possibility to learn how to make transgenic animals.

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Catherine Sautes-Fridman (EFIS President 2009-2012) presenting Francesca Granucci (winner of the EFIS-EJI Ita Askonas award) with a certificate commemorating the award.

To study immunology, Paola suggested that I read Jan Klein's textbook. It was like reading a novel. I was used to thinking about reductionistic models to solve molecular biology questions, while the description of the immune system in this textbook introduced me to the concept of complexity and how to face it. In addition, I found the attention to the evolutionary aspects very fascinating. Besides immunology, the lesson I learned from Jan Klein was that each time you make a new observation you always have to ask yourself: does it really make sense? What is the possible evolutionary advantage? This was my first important approach to immunology. Then, during my PhD Paola gave me the opportunity to attend a lot of meetings and to discuss immunology with eminent scientists, therefore I had the possibility to obtain a good immunological background and to become fond of immunology.

Who has been inspirational/influential with regard to your scientific career?

In addition to Jan Klein, the respective theories (protein recognition receptors, danger and “dose localization and time”) of Charlie Janeway, Polly Matzinger and Rolf Zinkernagel and the ensuing continuous debates have been very inspirational. I have also followed for a long time the B-cell work by Klaus Rajewsky and Chris Goodnow and their genial way of doing science. More recently, the work and theories of Mark Davis on thymic selection and of Ruslan Medzitov on tissue tolerance, inflammation, as well as the debate regarding type II immunity, have all captured my interest. Of course this is just a short list, many other eminent scientists have been and continue to be inspirational.

Prof. Ricciardi-Castagnoli has also been very influential. She taught me not to be afraid or skeptical about technology, because technology always represents the future. She also taught me that you can do highly competitive science albeit if you are in an isolated place with limited resources. The only secret is to work very hard.

I was also very lucky to work in the laboratory of Harvey Cantor at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute during my post-doc where I learned a lot about immunology and I fully understood the importance of rigorousness and synthesis.

What is the current focus of your work?

I am currently focused on the signalling events downstream of CD14/TLR4 within cells of the mammalian innate immune system. My group has identified a new signaling pathway activated by LPS in dendritic cells controlled exclusively by CD14 and leading to the activation of the NFAT transcription factor family members.

Innate immunity is the most ancient form of response to pathogens and its principle mechanisms are conserved from plants to humans. Therefore, it is not surprising that it relies on old signaling pathways that are also present in invertebrates, i.e the NF-kB pathway. Nevertheless, the recent discovery that the NFAT transcription factors appeared late in evolution and can be activated in innate immune cells following exposure to inflammatory stimuli has stimulated a new scientific interest in my group.

Based on the prediction that the appearance of the NFATc family members has allowed the development of vertebrate-specific organs or functions or the evolutionary adaptation of older organs, functions or structures (Crabtree et al, Trends Cell Biol. 2007. 17: 251–60) and that the transition to vertebrate life has progressively required a higher level of complexity of innate responses, we have hypothesized that the appearance of NFATs in innate immunity may have contributed to the evolutionary adaptation of this arm of the immune system. Therefore we are now focusing on deciphering the consequences of NFAT activation in innate immunity by investigating inflammation initiation, inflammation resolution, the establishment of chronic inflammatory processes and the activation of adaptive immunity. Two intuitive aspects we think may have required an evolutionary adaptation of innate immunity are the minimization of the costs of inflammation to reduce tissue damage and the collaboration with adaptive immunity.

Therefore we believe that the definition of the role of NFAT in innate immunity represents a new emerging area of investigation with important implications for the comprehension of the complexity of inflammation-driven immunity and offers the possibility to open new avenues to the identification of novel targets in inflammation.

What, do you feel, is currently the most exciting topic in immunology? Excluding your own work of course!

Many different fields are very exciting. For example, gut immunology, regulatory T cells, pattern recognition receptors, type II immunity and so on. Nevertheless, a fundamental issue without a clear answer concerns the nature of protective adaptive immunity. Is the induction of neutralizing or opsonizing antibodies the only chance to have protective immunity or, in some circumstances, can T-cell immunity be protective as well? The knowledge we have produced up until now has failed to be predictive. I think that studies aimed at tracking and characterizing specific T-cell responses induced in vivo in different conditions in humans will lead to important discoveries in this field in the future.

Do you think awards specifically for women are welcome or patronizing?

Although I personally never really felt gender as an issue, discussing this topic with female scientists from all over Europe, I have realized that gender is indeed an issue, especially because e.g. by taking maternity leave women reduce the time they can dedicate to work and can often be penalized as a result. Therefore I believe these kinds of awards are important for female scientists that are also mothers to give them the right visibility.

Are there any initiatives or do you have any advice for women entering into science? Do you even think gender is an issue?

As I mentioned, I personally never thought I was discriminated as a woman or that I should have lower expectations in my professional life with respect to a man. This is probably because I was very focused on my work and had as a priority my personal professional realization before motherhood. Therefore, I postponed having children until my lab was organized and I had excellent collaborators. I understand that this type of planning may not be the right solution because women may feel too frustrated by this sacrifice, even if it is only a temporary one. Therefore I think that each institute should have nurseries and nannies for when children, as they inevitably do, get sick. Moreover, to reduce the disparities between women and men, it would be probably helpful to provide those postdoctoral fellows who are also parents with a full-time technician. To this end, it would be nice to have dedicated funding programs for this.

If you weren't an immunologist what would you have become?

I would probably have persued an academic carrier in Italian literature, focusing on the study of the Italian language. I was born in Tuscany, where the Italian language is supposed to be born and I have always admired purists of language.