Examining how cells work
Ana Smith, professor for Theoretical Physics at FAU, is to receive one of the most coveted prizes for young researchers for her research into cell membranes: an ERC Starting Grant. The Croatian-born scientist will thus have 1.5 million euros at her disposal with which to advance her research: in her project ‘MembranesAct’ she examines the way biomembranes function in living cells – research at the intersection between physics, biology and materials science.
Biomembranes are of great importance in medicine. Roughly half of all currently approved drugs can only work if the biomembrane in the cell plays its part properly, namely the selective transport of molecules or the transmission of signals between cells. Biological membranes act as a barrier between the cell and its environment and serve as separating layers between different areas within the cell. Proteins are embedded into the thin layers. In order to fulfil a biological function, proteins from different cell areas move towards a certain location where an action is to be carried out andwhere they aggregate into a larger structure. ‘However, we researchers still know too little about the mechanisms on which the transport of proteins is based – and how the proteins can form such complex structures at their destination,’ Ana Smith explains the challenge.
As part of MembranesAct, she aims to determine the biophysical principles behind these cellular processes and develop a theory that she will then test with collaboration partners. The first stage of testing will be carried out on biomimetic membranes, i.e. synthetic membranes that mimic nature, as simplified model systems. In the second test stage, living cells will be used. ‘I hope our findings will be of fundamental importance for cellular biology,’ the young researcher says. She is investing the 1.5 million euros mainly in positions for young researchers with whom she plans to form an interdisciplinary team.
Ana Smith’s research career began at the University of Zagreb, where she completed her physics degree in June 2001. At TU München, where she earned her doctorate, she specialised in the theory of cellular processes. Her path led her via the University of Sydney to FAU – where she completed a brief period as a post-doc – to a position as a research associate at the University of Stuttgart in October 2009, and then back to Erlangen, where she was appointed to a professorship in the Cluster of Excellence ‘Engineering of Advanced Materials’. EAM is a perfect environment for the gifted scientist, who holds both French and Croatian citizenship: researchers of different nationalities and from nine disciplines in science and engineering – physics, chemistry, mathematics, materials science, chemical and biological engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science – as well as medicine work in close collaboration.
The ERC Starting Grant for Ana Smith did not come as complete surprise: as early as 2011, the Cluster awarded her the internal EAM Starting Grant, which is endowed with 100,000 euros – it is meant to directly support young researchers in becoming promising applicants for the ERC Starting Grant. The European Research Council (ERC) supports promising young researchers with the sought-after Starting Independent Researcher Grants, thus giving them a chance to expand their own research groups and projects with a high potential for innovation.
Everything has fallen into place for Ana Smith. Can a young scientist imagine a greater joy? Yes, the grant winner says: she is expecting her third child shortly.
Prof. Dr. Ana Smith
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