Dr. Daria Siekhaus: Crossing All Boundaries

An American cell biologist leads a team of cutting-edge researchers at the Institute for Science and Technology

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | November 2013

It was just 14:00 as I locked my bike on Kolingasse alongside Café Stein where I was to meet Dr. Daria Siekhaus, a cell and developmental biologist and project leader at the Institute for Science and Technology Austria (IST) in Klosterneuberg. 

But she had arrived ahead of me and was leaning, half standing, half perched, on the scaffolding that currently adorns the café façade which was long overdue for renovation. And tapping out a text message. She may be an academic, but she is also a techie.  

She looked up and smiled… and we headed inside. Dr. Siekhaus walks with a limp, the result of a spinal curve fused since birth. I held the door.

Dr. Siekhaus joined the faculty at IST in January 2012 from New York University Medical Center, where she was a Research Scientist in Developmental Genetics. When she arrived at the three-year-old institute, there were 18 faculty members; now there are 29 from 14 countries – including 5 women.

"It’s better than zero; when I applied, there was one," she told me. "It’s not misogyny; it’s just that the best candidates…" she paused, "…well, they have had husbands that are not as flexible." And now the Institute is focusing on hiring in chemistry and physics – there are more women in biology – so the number is unlikely to go up substantially for a while.

What had attracted her was the atmosphere of openness, top scientists – Nick Barton in evolutionary biology, Peter Jonas in neuroscience, and C.P. Heisenberg in her area of cell development and biophysics – who were excited about their work but also in learning from each other.

"It was exactly the kind of atmosphere that I love," Siekhaus said. "Everyone who had come there was quite a bit of a risk-taker, with a desire to cross boundaries, to work together."

Café Stein is a many-layered Lokal. There are several tables in the street level entryway, but the main rooms are up a wide staircase, with still others dispersed yet further up short flights, through doorways and archways in various directions.

It’s all pleasingly seedy, as suits its university clientele, with many private corners and places to get lost. But there are stairs everywhere. I looked up and swallowed hard. What was I thinking of?

"Don’t worry," she said brightly, grabbing the handrail and giving her leg an extra swing from the hip, pulled herself tidily up the dozen steps to the centre of the action.


The wonders of evolution

Dr. Siekhaus’ research at IST is on cell migration, the basic activity that enables the formation of body parts, the functioning of the immune system and the spread of cancer.  In particular, she is interested in how cells move within the body and how they penetrate the tissues that lie in their way.

To study this, she uses the immune cells of a fruit fly – the Drosophila – "one of the premiere organisms for doing genetics."  It’s small, and fecund – one pair can produce 200 offspring – "and you can keep them in a vial this big," she said, measuring about 15 cm with her hands.

Genetic alterations are reasonably easy to create to make different strains ("We have 600"). The flies lay their eggs in rotten fruit… In short, "They’re cheap to keep." Unlike mice, which as vertebrates, raise a lot of ethical issues.  Apparently, no one gets sentimental about a fruit fly.

But a fruit fly shares a lot of genetic codes with humans.

"Evolution is a wonderful thing," she told me. "If you look at eyes, for example – human eyes and fly eyes – they look very different but they are controlled by similar genes. You can compare genomes and see if there’s a string of words, a sentence, or a small essay, which encodes the instructions to make a particular protein in humans.

"Then you can see if there’s a similar version of this string of sentences in the fly. It’s sort of like translating from Italian into Spanish. You can recognize the similarities. It’s not identical, but you can tell they are related."


Fly genes with ‘funky’ names

Flies’ genes have "funky" names among researchers, for the characteristics that remain "when you get rid of the function". So for the eye, the gene is called "eyeless".

"So if you take this "eyeless" gene and you stick it somewhere else in the fly, say on the leg, it will make a fly eye," she explained. "And if you take the human gene, which makes the human eye, and stick it onto a fly, you get a fly eye.

"So the top dog, the master regulator, can talk to the workers and make them do what they think the instruction is: Make an eye. And when the fly cells hear ‘make an eye,’ they think ‘ah, fly eyes.’ So they make a fly eye."

There are certain tissues, like the skin, and those that line the blood vessels, in which cells have very strong connections to one another, called "junctions", proteins touching between cells. "It’s like Velcro," she said.

And understanding how the fly immune cells are able to push their way between other cells could answer questions about the processes of cancer and immune cells functions.

The last time we met, I had understood something about a time frame of about a year by which she expected to have established something with medical implications.

"Oh gosh," she laughed. "Definitely not in a year..." She laughed again.

Horizons in science are long. But in this case I had the sense that it was a goal not all that far away, that what she was saying was that, until we have the definitive answer, we don’t have an answer.


A German-speaking American

Dr. Siekhaus is relatively unusual at IST in that she is both American and a native speaker of German. Born of German émigré parents, she grew up in a "Germanic cultural bubble" in Berkeley California.

Both parents had earned their PhDs at the University of California at Berkeley; her father became a surface chemist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and her mother a Professor of German Studies at Mills College.

"They decided the language they would teach me would be German, and not English because they didn’t speak English very well," she said. "So I spoke only German until I was four. And then went to nursery school and learned English there.

"But I really had no clue about America or how it worked. And in Berkeley, you really don’t learn how America works, because Berkeley is not America. It’s a little, you know, academic enclave of left-wing values."

Her parents were Roman Catholics, who, early on, lost interest in organised religion. But not in the cultural values, the moral sense, that "your actions should be beneficial to others."

"For my father, science was his religion," she said. " ‘It’s the language of god,’ he would say: If you want to understand the mystery of existence, understand the rules of nature, learn the language of science. So for him, that’s the way god is speaking to us.

"For me, it was this great, mysterious thing that was underpinning life that immediately got me hooked into this business. It’s like a puzzle on the one hand, because it’s incredibly intricate, structures that have arisen through evolution that allow life to occur. But it’s also mysterious.  And awe-inspiring."

It was only when she spent two years in Germany after college that she realized how American she really was. "Nothing defines you as an American like leaving the country," she said. (As an undergraduate at Harvard, she was defined as a Californian, "because all the East Coasters thought Californians were crazy". Which may explain her return, to Stanford, for her PhD.)

"It struck me watching TV commercials, I realized that everything about American culture is this sort of bold horizons thing, this ‘You can do it!’ They are utterly different from the commercials in Europe. They have this almost mythic sense of possibility."


Kindness and missing handrails

I looked at my watch; we had been talking for over two hours; the time had flown by. As we gathered up our things, Dr. Siekhaus paused.

"One last thing, on Austria," she began, easing herself out from behind the table, "about being a woman, and being someone with a disability in Austria. I do not feel like a minority here, and I really appreciate that. In Germany, I felt much more singled out."

Not that everything’s perfect. Like the missing handrails; in the Opera, they only begin several steps up. She had worried before coming here; could she get around?

Still, she decided to come ahead and take the interview. And in the subway, she saw an elderly man with a crutch, hesitating and uncertain getting onto the escalator. A businessman walked up behind him.

"Without a word, he gave him his arm, and stayed with him all the way up," she recalled. "It was all done with enormous elegance and grace.

"And I thought, I can live here."


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