Volvox art. Talking to biologist un researcher Inese Čakstiņa
We meet Inese at the Faculty of Biology, University of Latvia, where she works at the laboratory and teaches new biology professionals. Nevertheless, it is one of many scientific activity edges of hers. Great work with tiny little cells hidden from a human’s sight is done at Cell Transplantation Centre, P. Stradins Clinical University Hospital where Inese works as a biologist. She teaches her students to think in broader perspective, stay critical and find connections and do not underestimate knowledges that might seem needlees at the first moment.
The bright hair colour and informal style, these are the things quite frequently mentioned in media when speaking about Inese. She laughs that there are plenty of bias of how a women in science should look like. And it’s never too much speaking about women’s role in science. Luckiliy, there is a decent gender balance in European scientific groups where both female and men are equally represented. Though, Inese thinks that the most challenging work is to stand in front of her students in order to tell about her work and researchers in a simple language by not mentioning too many complex details, instead, to use some witty comparisons.
What are your research themes now?
I work in several fields, all are related to our cells, the use in medicine and further research. My doctoral dissertation was related to a heart development and molecular mechanisms, basically, how vitamine A influences a heart’s progression.
Bird’s eggs were used as the model organism. I met a professor who works with the embryonic cells of a human’s heart. Went to France, studied those cells. As I got the scolarship from L'Oreal „For Women in Science”, I had the possibility to buy those cells in order to make an experiment in Latvia.
In that context, my little piece of a puzzle, the bird’s egg research, showed how a vitamin A impacts one molecule during the development, and it’s significant. If there is lack of vitamin A, those molecules develop too much, therefore, a heart develops with abnormality and, for instance, a bird’s embryo dies. Of course, nobody really experiments with a human’s embryo, but, still, we can make conclusions in a level of cells.
You also have to bear in mind that there are lots of significant molecules. Mine is just a small part, the transforming growing factor β2.
When putting the puzzle piece in a greater picture, the result is something new in medicine?
Yes, it can be used in medicine. It’s clear that the transforming growing factor β2 is too much for Alzheimer’s patients. The model of this desease, all the molecular mechanisms, it’s also a great field. My reserch is just one among many, I put forward a hypothesis that this molecule can be brought to a normal level if vitamin A is added to it. We could do something similar with nerve cells.
Besides, you might explore something and would not even recognize it. For example, John Gurdon discovered that mature cells can be transformed to stem cells, in 1950s, there were the first significant experiments with frogs, but The Nobel Prize was received only in 2012.
Also the relation between Alzheimer’s disease and transforming growing factor β2 was discovered by one person. Why someone should research molecules in a patient? I don’t know. Maybe even wrote a dissertation. So, that’s how we find those connections, and the greate picture appears.
So, can we speak of revolutionary moves in medicine?
Well, there is time for treting the disease, but those are the steps we need to know in order to find which way to go. Those steps come one by one.
What about other research fields?
I work at the Cell Transplantation Centre. One of our main fields is clinical research and science, as well. We use patient’s cells in our clinical researches in order to make them healthier. For instance, we work on cardiology with patients who survive a heart attack. It’s a clinical research with patients who have heart diseases and Type II Diabetes. There is another research in cooperation with Children’s Hospital, for the little ones who have heart diseases. In science, we work with the skin examples.
The research aim is to make a product for skin-burnt patients. While using their own cells, we are working on skin plastersin order to treat heavy burns.
Then there is a scientific research work where we test various biological substances such as humic acid that are obtained from the mud, then we see how it reacts to skin cells. That is the aim, to create a product we could use in cosmetology. Yet another field is a bone development where I work in cooperation with The Institute of Stomatology and Institute of Biomaterials, Riga Technical University.
You frequently use word „us”. Does it mean that a team work is important in science?
Yes, indeed. Ok, I can tell that my dissertation is only mine. Bet the rest of the research is a team work. I have never heard a professor saying that „I have done this on my own”. When The Nobel Prize is received, scientists usually mention the team and even their students. Last year’s prize winner Shinya Yamanaka said thanks to his student who had gone through gene combinations, made researches.
The main theme of this year’s „Science Cafe” is called „Women in Science”. Is it worth discussing about gender equality these days?
It’s worth discussing all the time. It’s different. There are so any opinions from various professors and laboratories. Of course, it gets better when speaking about equality. In Europe, there is a decent balance of female and male scientists in one group. But, if I am not married and without children, it could get harder to get a job. Even foreign professors have said to me – if you applied for a job in my laboratory it would be risky, because you may go on maternity leave, and I would have to find another employee. From the other side, if I was the professor who had to count on finances and time for researches...
What does your „Science Cafe” theme „From micro to macro” mean?
I have always wanted to work with people. After graduating high school, I thought I would be a doctor, back then, I did not know where The Academy of Medicine in Pārdaugava were (currently P.Stradiņš University), so I chose The Faculty of Biology, University of Latvia, it’s in the city centre. During my studies, I started to work with bacterias in molecular biology. Then I realized that, in order to do something big and important, I’d need to learn methods. Still, I wished to have more challenge. In Germany, I started to work with volvoxes, it’s a freshwater single-cell colony, Botanics call it algaes. But, still, I wanted more. Then an offer from USA came to work with the birds, and than it was..uhh..so much pleasure. Now, I got to the people. This is my story, from small to big.
I will try to show how science is surrounded everywhere. Besides, we get to have more questions as soon as there are more discoveries.
Your story could be interesting for high school and university first-year students who are still lost in theory and exploring their working field.
Me and my colleague Karīna Siliņa got an invitation to attend Jelgava Spīgola gymnasium where school girls organized an event dedicated to 8 March celebration. Back then, each of us had to explain our way how we ended up in science for about an hour, we also answered their questions.
One of their main conclusions was that you have to follow your heart, have to do things you like rather than choose a profession where the greatest money comes in. Indiid, if you do an unpleasant work, will you be happy?
I have to admit when I chose biology my family was not fond of my decision. They said, are you gonna run with a sweep-net around a meadow? I then thought, well if I have to, then- yes.
You did that in study years, did not you?
No, I crawled into a laboratory quite soon. I am what they call a „white biologist”. The green ones run with a sweep-net. I have never done jobs in cafes or shops in 1990s. I applied for a job at the laboratory in order to wash test-tubes. I got lucky to be allowed to do things I was fond of. Of course, I got minimum wage, but it was enough to survive.
You studied and did your fieldwork abroad. You probably received invitations to stay and work. Still, you are here despite the fact that our country does not support science enough.
Nothing is really constant, everything can change. I might go abroad for a year or two. Mobility is important for a scientist.
Yes, you have to go abroad. Where else should you gain experience?
I tell it to my students, to choose „Erasmus”, work in other laboratories. This is how you get skilled. I can not give everything right away. You find out many details as soon as you are put in an unfamiliar laboratory like a kitten. This is how you learn to communicate. For me, it was going back and forth all the time. I spent three years in USA, but I know that Latvia is my place. Maybe it’s too strong to say that I feel some kind of a mission awareness, maybe I grew up with it. My studies were funded by the government, it was an investment for me. It is most likely called civic conciousness. We are the ones who make society and state. So, If we do nothing, no goods will fall down from the sky.
Latvian artist Gints Gabrāns plays with borders between science and arts, grows seaweed, manipulates with the rules of physics. What is the art work you see in your field?
When I worked in Germany with the same tiny volvoxes, I recognized that those are beautiful.
The life cycle for it is two days, and I had to collect examples from various life cycle periods. You had to sit in a laboratory two days and nights in order to monitor and collect. Of course, you want to sleep in the second day’s morning. Still, you had to wait two hours, so I took some older examples without some special reason and started to look at them in the microscope. It turned out to be a cosmic beauty. Back then, I made pictures. A coursemate zoomed them and put pictures on the wall. It’s for many issues in science. We, the scientists, consider it self-evident, but a person from outside sees, for instance, the beautiful color of marked cells.
Maybe you should curate an exhibition of volvoxes.
We already had an idea with my colleagues that we should make an exhibition of the best microscopy pictures. We have to learn how to see the beauty in it, because usually, the result is what matters in science. So, it’s good that you have a contact with people from outside, they may recognize this beauty.
As previously said, on 27 September, „Scientist Night” events are held around Latvia coordinated by The University of Latvia and cooperation partners. Ruta Muceniece, the professor of the Faculty of Medicine at University of Latvia, will tell about new medicine search in nature as well as research about nature substance use. Līga Grīnberga, the leading researcher of Laboratory of Hydrogen Energy Materials at Institute of Solid State Psyhics, will speak about a passion to technical issues and phyisics of hers and other female scientists. Una Riekstiņa, the associate professor at Faculty of Medicine, will offer an insight into stem cells use in destroyed nerve tissue renewal, but Inese Čakstiņa, the biotechnologist of Cell Transplantation Centre at P.Stradiņš Clinical University Hospital and also the researcher of Faculty of Biology at The University of Latvia, will tell about the following theme „Ceļojums no mikro uz makro” („A journey from micro to macro”). At the end, Elīna Pajuste, the leading researcher at Institute of Chemical Physics of The University of Latvia, will present the following theme „Sieviete un kodolsintēze” („A woman and nucleosynthesis”.
"Science Cafe" is included in the thematic line "Survival Kit" within the "Rīga 2014" programme.