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Pictures in her mind’s eye

Susan Mango, new Professor of Developmental Biology, is a visual person. When she thinks of RNA, molecules or proteins, she sees pictures not words. Her move to Basel feels like an adventure. She joined her partner Biozentrum director Alex Schier. Her son will continue to study at Harvard, but her mother may become the oldest ever immigrant to Switzerland…

Have you been to Switzerland before?
When I was young, I came to Europe many times. So, it’s not completely foreign to me. But still, it’s a huge change and even tiny things are completely different. I mean, it’s amazing how little things, like buying a bus ticket, can trip you up. But people have been so friendly and welcoming. This, and, of course, Alex’s family, who lives here, makes everything easier for us. 

What about your own family? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in England. We moved to America when I was seven, then when I was thirteen we returned to England and then moved back again to America. In the end, my father ended up at Oxford as a Professor of Byzantine History and my mom stayed in the US working for the National Endowment for the Humanities. So, I am the first scientist in my family.

Does your family plan to move to Switzerland?
My mom hasn’t decided whether to join us or to stay in the US. But if she comes to Switzerland, I guess she will be the oldest immigrant ever.  She turns 100 this December.

100 years old?
Yes, we all want to know her secret.

And she is honestly considering moving to Basel?
She knows Switzerland very well and loves it here. She used to come for a holiday every summer. But, of course, it would be a big decision for her. 

And for you, was it a difficult decision to move to Basel?
Well, it was hard of course, but also exciting. 

Why hard?
I definitely will miss my son Finn who has just started university at Harvard. In the US, when you go to college, it is always a big break. For many kids, this is the time they leave home. So, in that sense it’s ok, we just did it the other way around: Finn stays and we leave. Now, Finn is independent and can have Harvard to himself. But, of course, for me as his mother it’s hard.

But has moving to Basel also been exciting?
Absolutely. I can do research projects here that I could not do in the US because in the US, one’s research is tightly tied to one’s grants. It is harder to do exploratory work. There is, for example a project I am very curious about. Years ago we did a genetic screen and pulled out an interesting gene that is conserved in animals but not in bacteria. This gene is over-expressed in cancers but its function is not understood. I thought wow, cool, we can figure out what this factor does.

Could you answer the question?
No, unfortunately the project was not funded in the USA because it was too far afield from what we usually do. The gene has been sitting in the freezer since then. It’s ironic. It is probably my most practical project, and I think it could really make a difference in thinking about cancer. So I’d love to get back onto it here in Basel. 

Has your group also come to Basel?
Five people have moved with me. For them it’s also an adventure.

What is your group working on currently? 
We look at how worm embryos develop and how their development is altered by the changing environment. These changes might be triggered by experiences of their parents or shifting circumstances. We are working with the worm C. elegans as our model system and investigate how the embryos adjust to their environment beyond genetic mutations. At the moment, we look at it from different angles.

Which ones?
Worms communicate between generations, for example, about food availability, pathogens and toxins. We do not know yet how their experience is passed on from parents to babies. So, our first approach is to find out how these mechanisms work. The second project is about how cells respond to their being squeezed, pulled and pushed. And the third topic is about how DNA is packaged in the nucleus.

Why are you working with C. elegans, a worm?
I would have problems working with mice, probably even with fish. For humanitarian reasons, I am not sure if I could. Also, worms have been at the forefront of surprising discoveries because they are a powerful genetic system, meaning it is easy to do experiments with them. Many scientists working with C. elegans have won Nobel prizes! Personally, I am a big believer in the worm.

What was your biggest success in your research career?
We discovered a gene that builds an entire organ – the gut. We fished out a certain type of transcription factor, called PHA-4, and wanted to understand how it worked. In the beginning, we thought that building a gut is a linear process: a gene makes a protein, PHA-4, and PHA-4 turns on the next gene, making a protein, which turns on the next and so forth. But this is not how it works. We found out that this factor regulates all genes in the gut, it binds to thousands of places in the genome and continuously regulates hundreds of genes. This definitely was a big surprise at the time, and although this happened more than ten years ago, this is what we are probably most known for. Today, we know that many transcription factor proteins function this wa

What do you like to do in your spare time?
For a long time, work and my son Finn were virtually everything in my life. We went to the theater, to museums or did biking tours. A lot revolved around him. Which was a lot of fun, of course. Now, he is taking off. This is a different phase for us. Alex and I, we both like the arts, so we are really looking forward to discovering Basel. A small city with so much art.

Did you always get excited about the arts?
Well, I never did arts myself as my father did. But I loved both, art and science. I had the idea to do the science side of art conservation. Before I got my PhD, I worked for some time in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Why they hired me, I don’t know, but I had a fantastic time. But I also realized more and more that this wasn’t scientific enough for me.

Curriculum vitae
Susan Mango was born in 1961 in New York City and after her undergraduate studies at Harvard University, she earned her doctorate at Princeton University. As a postdoc, she conducted research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison/Howard Hughes Medical Institute and then became Professor of Oncological Sciences at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and University of Utah in Salt Lake City before moving to Harvard University in 2009. Since July 2018 she is Professor of Developmental Biology at the Biozentrum.