What motivated you to become a scientist?
It was already clear to me towards the end of high school that science was what I wanted to do. I really loved having an interesting question and trying to solve it. The specific topic mattered much less than the process of discovery. And this process still motivates me today.
You received the 2018 FEBS | EMBO Women in Science award for your recent research on SUMO (small ubiquitin-like modifier). How did it become the focus of your work?
I started out studying chemistry and changed research topics multiple times in my scientific life. During my first postdoc I worked on fission yeast to discover a protein family that didn’t exist. But this project got me interested in nucleo-cytoplasmic trafficking. So I picked my second postdoc to find out whether there are GTPases in nucleocytoplasmic transport.
Indeed, I found the GTPase Ran, and I initially though that this was what I could build an independent career on. But it turned out quickly that there were many labs interested in it, and there was no way I could have competed.
Luckily, I stumbled upon SUMOylation when looking more closely at Ran and its regulator, the Ran GTPase Activating Protein. And I just knew that this was something I could take with me and build my career on. I had time before the community realized how exciting, interesting and widespread it is.
SUMOylation is now at the centre of my lab’s work – every question begins with SUMO! But looking at different proteins and enzymes drags us into many different corners. What I really love about it is being able to follow the science where it leads me.
The award also recognizes your generosity in guiding and mentoring young researchers. What advice do you like to share?
I strongly value listening to and reading about science outside your immediate field. So I tell my students to go to all the seminars. In part this has to do with my own discovery of SUMO. At some point I noticed the very weak similarity to ubiquitin, and I would not have realized the significance had I not known something about what ubiquitin does and how to study it.
Career-wise I would also say that it’s very important to find a postdoctoral supervisor who is generous enough to let you grow beside him or her. Because postdocs need to find a topic that they can take with them.
My postdoc supervisor Larry Gerace was incredibly supportive right from the start. He sent me to meetings on his behalf. He even fought with meeting organisers to let me speak instead of him. He was also extremely generous to let me publish as last author and to take the SUMO project with me to set up my own research group.
What do you think about formal mentoring schemes?
I have, over the years, taken part in several mentoring programmes, either dedicated specifically to women in science or to young investigators. It’s something I enjoy doing, but I don’t think they should be mandatory.
Instead it’s important that we all learn to ask for advice when we need it. I’ve been surprised how frequently both women and men are not asking for advice at the right moment – and that’s a pity! I think we have to think of ways to encourage and empower people to ask for advice.
What does receiving the award mean to you?
It is a wonderful honour and great motivation to receive this award. I particularly value the combined recognition for my scientific discoveries and my work in mentoring and supporting younger scientists.
It can be a tough challenge to engage in all the activities that are necessary and, at the same time, to keep up the scientific standard. At this stage of my career it tells me that I have been doing something right in trying to combine these different aspects into my work as a scientist.
This interview was conducted by EMBO and first appeared on the EMBO website at http://embo.org/news/articles/2018/frauke-melchior-interview
For more details on the 2018 FEBS | EMBO Women in Science award winner, see the press release on the FEBS website here: bit.ly/FEBSEMBOWIS2018