Weintraub Award to GMI Alumna Kate Parys

Katarzyna (Kate) Parys, who recently obtained her PhD from the Belkhadir Lab, is a recipient of the highly prestigious 2022 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award. We conducted a short interview with Kate to try to find out how the mind of a successful young scientist ticks!

Daniel F. Azar (GMI-IMBA Communications & Partnerships):  Congratulations, dear Kate, on the Weintraub Award! Could you please tell me what your PhD project was about?

Katarzyna (Kate) Parys (Belkhadir lab alumna): Thanks, Daniel! Animals and plants utilize sensory devices, called receptors, on the surface of cells to recognize microbial molecules as “non-self” and potentially activate host immune responses to supress pathogen proliferation. A canonical example of this type of perception is the recognition of bacterial flagellin, a main building block of the bacterial locomotory system. Because flagellin is essential for bacterial motility and fitness, certain regions of this protein are conserved, that is, they undergo less evolutionary changes. Fascinated by these phenomena, one of the main discoveries I made during my PhD was on the mechanisms by which the plant immune receptor FLS2 (Flagellin Sensing 2) constrains bacterial attempts to evolve flagellins that could avoid detection while remaining functional in terms of motility.

How clear was your project's path to you? Were there any unexpected twists or surprising findings along the way?

KP: I think one of the natural aspects of science is unexpected results or twists. This makes the project more exciting and being open to new and different hypotheses is certainly a prerequisite. I think the most pivotal moment of my project was when we realized that the functionality of the flagellin variants we were testing in terms of their immunogenic profiles in plants was different than we expected. It was exciting because it brought a new hypothesis in! At this point the path of the project had to be revised and new questions arose. Certainly, at each stage of the project, Youssef helped me to be sure that the next step was deliberate and that no matter how the project unfolded, the path of my PhD would be clear.

How motivated did you feel while conducting your research at GMI? What were the hurdles or challenges you had to overcome?

KP: I consider myself very lucky. I had the opportunity to do research at GMI, which offers a dream scientific environment and I got to be in Youssef's group studying what interests me the most. Moreover, I was supported by many people close to my heart. All this gives a lot of energy and motivation! So yes, I was highly motivated! Besides, having clearly defined goals and the drive to achieve them - something I encountered in Youssef's lab – helps you move forward along with other lab members. During my 3.5 years at GMI, I encountered obstacles and challenges - I think every researcher experiences this at some point - but honestly, it was in these moments that I learned the most.

How did the work environment at GMI and the VBC support your work?

KP: I first came to GMI for an Erasmus+ summer internship. At that time, I remember being delighted and overwhelmed by the good organization, the vibrant working atmosphere and top equipment/facilities offered. I realized that GMI was a place I wanted to come back to! I think doing research at GMI with the support and state-of-the art expertise offered by the VBC campus facilities is every researcher's dream. I surely benefited from this great infrastructure during my doctorate. Such support made my work easier, eased the troubleshooting and allowed me to focus on the scientific questions and get results in less time.

What does receiving the Weintraub Award 2022 mean to you?

KP: The award itself is a fantastic recognition that I did not expect. Of course, there is a feeling of satisfaction coming with it, but I see it also as a driver and challenge for the future to continue doing what I enjoy the most – research- and to do it at a good scientific level. It gives me a strong motivation to continue my personal and scientific development. It also makes me realize that I would not have been able to successfully complete my PhD without the great support I received from Youssef, the lab members, our collaborators, the GMI community and my wonderful partner and family.

And finally, the most burning question of all: “what’s next”?

KP: For more than a year I have been working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Genetics at the LMU in Munich. I’m trying to dissect the functions of receptor kinases in mediating symbiotic associations with plants. Currently, I’m expanding my research topics and methods toolbox while developing the foundation for my future career as an independent researcher. I am actively applying for funding and improving soft skills that could help me become a good mentor and supervisor in the future.

Thus, stay tuned :)