March 7, 2022

Perspective: Sara Boiani

Sara Boiani works at our facility based on Milton Park, in the UK. She is Senior Scientist in the Cell Pipeline & Preclinical team. Here she shares her enthusiasm for science and how it helped to shape her future as a scientist.

How did you first become interested in science and biotech? Who inspired you?

In high school, I discovered that scientific subjects were quite simple for me to grasp. I was particularly fascinated by the elegance of chemical reactions and their need to ensure that all electrons are accounted for, as in mathematical equations. With this fascination I thought I would become a chemist until my science teacher, Angioletta Evangelisti, took the class on a field trip to a laboratory at the University of Bologna (Alma Mater Studiorum, A.D. 1088). Our task was to isolate the green fluorescent protein (GFP) from E. coli bacteria and to identify and match DNA samples based on the fingerprinting techniques widely used in forensics. From that moment on, I became fascinated by the world of molecular biology and the potential to change living things, and I knew I would become a scientist in the biotech field.

Rita Levi-Montalcini, a brilliant Italian scientist and Nobel winner in 1986 for discovering Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), an award shared with Stanley Cohen, was a huge source of inspiration for me during my scientific journey. You can't possibly not know her if you're Italian, but it wasn't until I read her autobiographical book (Elogio dell'imperfezione[1]) that I realized the human side of being a brilliant scientist as she was. Her path to success was not simple, and her persistence and love for her profession, as well as for pursuing science and discovery through difficult times, were truly remarkable and motivating.

She was also a pioneer in sponsoring women in science and I especially like one of her quotes: "L’umanità è fatta di uomini e donne e deve essere rappresentata da entrambi i sessi", meaning "Humanity is made up of men and women and must be represented by both sexes".

What is it about science that drives your passion? What do you accomplish every day in your job?

I am confident that science can, and will, improve people's lives. Knowing that gives me the motivation I need to pursue my passion even further into the unknown. I've always been interested in the application element of my study, which is why I'm so fond of immunotherapy. Although there is still much to learn in this sector, the application is already changing the ways cancer is treated. Every day, I get closer to understanding cells (particularly T-cells), their mechanisms of action, their functions, and discovering their secrets to help create safer and more effective therapies for people with cancer. I wish I was a T-cell whisperer, that would make my job much easier.

Greatest obstacles and opportunities you’ve experienced establishing yourself in the industry? What has been your approach to succeeding in the field?

Transitioning from academia to industry was my most difficult obstacle, which turned out to be an opportunity. During my academic years, I only attended one seminar organized by the PhD office in which representatives from industry were invited to explain that there is life outside of academia, but life beyond academic research was not a generally addressed subject. So, when my funding ran out and I had to move to industry, a part of me felt like I was failing as a scientist.  

Fortunately, this feeling rapidly faded away after I joined Adaptimmune and saw how much my input, experience, and ideas were welcomed and appreciated. When I saw how everyone was working toward the same goal, I realized I had the chance to be a part of something that truly change people's lives. That gave me the confidence I lacked during my academic years, when it was easy to feel isolated and question why I was doing what I was doing and made me want to be part of it. I couldn't have done it without the continuous support of my family, particularly my husband, who always thought I was a brilliant scientist who should pursue her dream. 

To be successful in my discipline, I approach science with honesty, integrity, transparency, and passion. I enjoy working in cross-functional groups with people from a wide range of backgrounds, sharing knowledge and ideas, assisting colleagues, and mentoring young scientists. Finally, my approach to success in this sector is to do what makes me happy every day and to share my enthusiasm for research.

What needs to be done to ensure that more women like you enter STEM fields?

To make STEM subjects more appealing to young students, I believe education is the key, such as establishing a hands-on approach to science teaching in schools, workshops, and field trips. That is what fuelled my curiosity during my university studies, when I spent more time in the lab splitting cells, running PCRs and discussing about science than in a scientific class. Showing the application and significance of science and mathematics in our society can help young students understand that you don't have to be a genius to become a great scientist; curiosity, motivation, and dedication will usually lead you in the right direction.  

Sharing professional experience and career paths from other sectors through forums and mentoring programmes would also be beneficial in creating awareness about the possibilities that science and technology have to offer.

What advice would you give to the women and girls pursuing careers in STEM?  

My advice for everyone that would like to pursue a career in science is, be curious, be brave, have fun and follow your passion.

[1] The autobiography of Levi-Montalcini, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986. Born in Torino into a middle-class Jewish family, she experienced the rise of fascism and antisemitism in the 1930s-40s (discussed on pp. 73-105). After the promulgation of the racial laws in 1938, it was impossible for her to pursue research at the Neurological Clinic and she continued her work in private. She survived the war hiding in a small town in Italy and later emigrated to the United States.