FEBS Excellence Awardee spotlight: Moran Frenkel Pinter

How it all began: Moran Frenkel Pinter introduces her field of origins of life chemistry – and also touches on her early interest in science.
FEBS Excellence Awardee spotlight: Moran Frenkel Pinter

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Moran Frenkel Pinter joined the Institute of Chemistry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, as an Azrieli Early Career Faculty Fellow, in July 2021. She received her BSc and PhD in biotechnology from Tel Aviv University. She then became a NASA postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, USA, and, subsequently, a research scientist in its School of Chemistry. Her research merges concepts from biotechnology and origins of life chemistry, fields in which she specialized during her PhD and postdoctoral research, respectively. She recently won the Stanley L Miller Early-Career Research Award. She received a FEBS Excellence Award (funds for equipment/consumables for early-career group leaders) in 2022. 

What is your current research focus?

Numerous long-standing questions in research of origins of life center on the history of extant biopolymers. Our research focuses on elucidating mechanisms that lead to the formation of primordial polymers that can spontaneously polymerize, fold, and interact with other molecules under prebiotic conditions. Moreover, in my lab we address the question of how nature selected the polypeptide backbone and proteinogenic side chains. We study chemical evolution and the process by which molecules evolve over time, and seek to bridge the gap between today’s biochemistry and the chemical principles that led to the emergence of life on Earth. Once we truly understand these principles, we will be able to tame them for innovative purposes, with implications in a variety of fields such as drug delivery, agriculture, and tissue engineering. For example, we harness the creative power of chemical evolution to develop evolving functional biodegradable polymers for biotechnological applications.

Lab website: https://mfplab.huji.ac.il/

What drew you to work in this area?

My passion for science started at a very early age. As a young girl growing up in a small village, I constantly explored my surroundings and tried to understand how basic things operate. In a 6th-grade science project presentation I discussed my ambition to engineer purple strawberries and manufacture cows that produced chocolate milk. It was in 9th grade when I decided that I wanted to be a scientist, when a parent of one of my classmates came and told us about her job as a genetic engineer working at a biotech company. Realizing that we can change the course of biological fate, during high-school I majored in biology and robotics, and loved the ability and knowledge that allows us to engineer novel applications. In my early academic career, I studied biotechnology, but with time I learned that I want to manipulate not just genes and biological systems, but the very small molecules that made them, and understand how it all began. Subsequently, in 2016 I moved to Atlanta and joined the Center of Chemical Evolution and the NASA Center for Origins of Life, and established my own independent lab at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2021.

What would be your advice to PhD students and postdocs who would like to eventually start their own lab?

First, I would advise to seek mentorship from established researchers. They can provide valuable insights, guidance and lessons learned from their own experiences. I was lucky to have such great mentors over the years, including my PhD advisors and postdoc mentors. Second, I suggest establishing connections with colleagues and fellow researchers in your field from the very beginning. This can be done in person at conferences but emails also work well! I also strongly suggest to practice grant writing. This is a very important skill which takes time to own, so it’s best to start early.

What do you see as the most important role of a group leader?

I think that having a clear vision and recruiting students and scientists that share the same passion is key to success. On a personal level, I seek to mentor students to become creative, resilient and independent scientists. I often encourage my students to come up with their own ideas and explore them. I try to identify students’ individual needs and tailor approaches to address them.

What makes an effective research group?

Collaboration and teamwork are a very crucial aspect for an effective research group in my opinion.  Through teamwork, team members can work together to solve complex problems. In addition, I also strongly believe that an effective research group consists of members with diverse backgrounds, expertise and skills. Moreover, it’s also important for me to ensure a supportive and positive working environment, which contributes to the overall well-being of all group members.

What are your current/next goals?

I think that this is such an exciting era for origins of life research. We see so many scientific breakthroughs in recent years and understand that we can observe chemical evolution in an experimental setting. In order to continue discovering important principles about the origins of life, I think we must gradually move away from the comfort zone of simple systems and examine more complex systems, even if it comes at the expense of a deep understanding of every aspect that occurred within the system. If we figure out chemical evolution, then the sky is truly the limit!

Top image of post: by Guillaume Preat from Pixabay

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