High risk, high gain
Melina Schuh’s approach to science has been described as “fearless”. But dig beneath this steely description of this year’s John Kendrew Award winner and you find a story of outstanding research, fast-track career progression, and innovative outreach.
“In both my diploma and PhD, I tried something high-risk, high-gain and it paid off,” explains Schuh, an alumna whose group has made several important findings in the field of fertilisable eggs in mammals. “Understanding more about oocyte maturation could have important implications for human health, as errors during this process can lead to problems such as miscarriages, birth defects, and infertility.”
While carrying out her PhD in the Ellenberg group at EMBL Heidelberg, Schuh immediately hit the ground running, and using confocal microscopy established new ways of directly imaging meiosis in mammalian cells. “This was an ambitious project because these cells are very sensitive and meiosis in oocytes is a very long process – but the collaborative working environment at EMBL was hugely motivating,” she says.
After receiving her doctorate, Schuh achieved something rarely heard of in today’s academic world: she was offered a group leader position at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), despite having no formal postdoctoral training. “What distinguished Melina was her independence so early in her career,” says Jan Ellenberg, proudly reflecting on the achievements of his mentee. “From the start, Melina showed courageous and strategic decision making, and in many respects her PhD was like a postdoctoral training.”
Far beyond the bench
Her stunning images of polar body extrusion have graced the covers of several top journals, but Schuh has also been involved in projects that go far beyond the bench. One example is an acclaimed collaboration with artist Rob Kesseler as part of a travelling exhibition that aimed to explore mitosis, called Lens on Life. “There are many shades of research, and through this project we were able to devise creative and inspiring ways of explaining how this fundamental life process is applicable in everyone’s lives,” she says. “Artists and scientists have a lot to learn from one another.”
At the beginning of next year, Schuh will move on to the next stage of an already remarkable career, as a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, where ambitious projects in science and beyond will remain at the heart of her work.
“It is important to go for projects you are enthusiastic about,” she adds. “Recently, we led the first study of meiosis in live human oocytes, which has opened up a new and exciting field of research. By continuing to do fundamental biological research on the human system, we hope to contribute to the understanding of this fascinating field, and ultimately also to healthcare and society.”
By Julia Franke