Written by Nóra Lehotai and Claire Sayers.
I interviewed Claire Sayers, who is a postdoctoral researcher in the Billker group. She left behind her parents in Tasmania, and twin brother in Western Australia, to join first the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, then MIMS in Umeå in May 2019. What brings her so far away from home? It is Claire’s passion and openness for science and the world.
Picture: Calire Sayers. Credit: Claire Sayers.
Can you tell us about your role at MIMS, what are you working on now?
“I started my current project with Oliver Billker at the Sanger Institute in the UK. Malaria parasites reproduce sexually to infect mosquitoes, and blocking transmission has a key role in malaria elimination. We don’t understand many of the molecular mechanisms that could be targeted, so it was my role to design and undertake a genome-wide screen in a rodent malaria model parasite to identify fertility genes at scale. Our approach identified hundreds of genes that affect fertility, which is presenting some really exciting avenues for future work.”
Most recently, Claire has used ultrastructure expansion microscopy to investigate the role of a male fertility gene that was discovered in the screen.
“This involves physically expanding your cells in a gel, so that you end up with cells that are four times bigger than their original size. The increased resolution is incredible and proved vital to understanding the function of this gene in male fertility, says Claire.”
“Sophia (Sophia Hernandez, PhD student in the Bushell lab) mastered this new technique at the University of Geneva, and I was so grateful to learn from her when she returned to Umeå! It’s been wonderful learning a new skill that’s really furthered my project.”
What were you doing before you joined MIMS and what attracted you to start a position here?
"I did my PhD in Geoff McFadden’s group at the University of Melbourne, which was the start of my malaria research. I finished my PhD studies in 2017, then moved to Cambridge when I got the opportunity to do a postdoc with Oliver at Sanger."
When Oliver became the director of MIMS, Claire had to make a decision: follow him and relocate, or not.
“I loved living in Cambridge where I made a lot of friends and enjoyed the ease of travelling in Europe. Ultimately, I decided to follow Oliver and continue my postdoc in Umeå because the project was such a good opportunity, and I was really enjoying working on it and having Oliver’s mentorship. The decision was easy to make in the end.”
If you would not have your current profession, what do you think you would be doing?
“I used to like reading National Geographic magazines and always thought that being a photographer for National Geographic would be the coolest job ever! So, perhaps something to do with photography.”
What do you do in your free time and what are you most enjoying in living in Umeå, Sweden?
“Even though I am looking forward to not having freezing winters anymore, I’ve enjoyed experiencing the extreme seasons and different environments in Sweden. One of the coolest things is being able to see the Northern lights on a regular basis.”
Claire's favorite place to go in her free time is Nydala lake. A bike ride or long walks, taking photos of the aurora, are among the best things to do for her.
“Sometimes it is hard to motivate myself to go aurora hunting when it is dark and cold, but then I always think that I am not going to live here forever, so I need to grab the opportunity.”
Pictures: Claire's two favourite places, far away from each other: the aurora dancing over Nydala lake in Umeå (left), and Tassie beach in Australia (right). Credit: Claire Sayers.
Is there a little known/interesting fact about yourself?
“When I lived in the UK, I played Australian rules football (AFL or Aussie rules) at the Cambridge University Australian Rules Football Club (CUARFC*) and was proud to be a part of the first ever women’s AFL Varsity match against Oxford.”
Although Claire had played casually in Australia, when joining the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, she took football to the next level.
“I was recruited when I met the president of the Club who also worked at Sanger. Joining was a nice reminder of home, and a great way to connect with other Aussie expats.”
*Check out the club’s homepage in Cambridge here: http://www.cuarfc.org.uk
How would you summarize your stay at MIMS? And what will you do next?
“Overall, it has been a really good experience. MIMS is so well connected with EMBL and the Nordic Partnership, and the junior MIMS group leaders bring in freshness and creativity. MIMS has enabled me to facilitate good science, and I am proud of what I achieved here. I am really grateful for all the experiences that came with the transition from the UK to Sweden, and being a member of MIMS, I felt a greater sense of belonging.”
As I wrap up my current project in the next few months, I look forward to moving back to Australia to continue my research career and reconnect with family and friends.”