Edith Heard is the Head of Genetics and Developmental Biology Unit, Institut Curie and Professor at the Collège de France. She will be giving the ESHG Award lecture on Tuesday, May 30, 2017 at 14:15 hrs. She talked to Mary Rice about her life and work.
Born into a bilingual Greek/English family, and now working in Paris, Edith Heard says that she learned to be adaptable at an early age. « I was brought up in central London amidst lots of heated Greek political discussions with members of my mother’s family who were staying with us in exile – it was the era of the Greek colonels – while my father was quietly engineering in his garage downstairs.
« So I would often hide and read a book. This meant that I learned to concentrate wherever I was, and also to think about two different topics in two different languages more or less simultaneously, » she says.
Heard’s father was an electrical engineer. « For him science was physics or engineering ; he didn’t consider biology to be real science. My mother inspired me to care a lot about how things work, and also about people. » Her interest in biology didn’t begin until she was at Cambridge, having previously been more attracted to mathematics. « I realised that I was fascinated by all the unknowns in biology, and the buzz that was there in the mid 1980s when molecular biology, genetics and developmental biology were exploding was very exciting. I was lucky enough to come across many great and inspiring scientists in Cambridge. »
As a post doc, she started working in the field of X-chromosome inactivation. « I did not realise at the time how lucky I was to be working on on such a beautiful biological problem that opened up so many questions and fields. Working on X inactivation means that one can work on development, gene regulation, chromatin, non-coding RNAs, and chromosome biology. It has meant that my team and I have explored many different disciplines and it keeps us curious and happy ! »
Among the discoveries of which Heard is proudest is the insight obtained by looking at early mouse embryos, where the team uncovered the highly dynamic process of X inactivation, with a wave of silencing, followed by reactivation and then silencing again. « This was unexpected, and an unexpected example of in vivo reprogramming. »
Another high point was the discovery of topologically associated domains, or TADs, in collaboration with Job Dekker. « Elephege Nora, a PhD student in our lab, used chromosome conformation capture to explore the X-inaction centre, and we stumbled across these sub-megabase scale domains of chromosome interaction. This totally changed our way of thinking about the locus we were interested in, and also had many repercussions in terms of our understanding of chromosome structure and gene regulatory landscapes in general. »
Like so many others, the current state of science support worries her. « The perception – and related funding – that biology must always be related to human health in some way, is disturbing. It seems that, in the last decade or so, curiosity-driven research is much less supported than previously – except for the ERC’s grants which are a blessing for European research. Often, however, research has to be focused on improving the human condition, or else applicable commercially in order to attract funding. Things will turn around, though – I am sure we will realise (yet again) that it is only curiosity-driven research that can lead to discoveries that will be applicable to human health. »
Even so, Heard feels she is lucky to have ended up as a scientist. « I almost became a musician and I used to think that I would have liked to be a historian. But working in science is a truly fasinating job, and I also enjoy watching the emergence of young scientists and seeing the leaps in understanding that are happening in biology. »
A downside to this fascination, perhaps, is that she has little time for other interests. « I like music and art, and I love to read. Although I have no concrete plans for retirement at present, I don’t want it to be too late. And when it comes I would definitely like to do more of these things, as well as to watch my family evolve, write a book, spend more time in the Mediterranean where I have family roots, and maybe try to help the world in some way. Like many people, at present I am watching the news and worrying about our future…….. »
The subject of Heard’s lecture will be her lab’s work on trying to understand one of the most fundamental questions in biology : how do you shut down genes and how do you turn them back on again in a developmental context using the inactive X chromosome ? « Our work on chromosome organisation has led us to some exciting new avenues and we are now exploring the process of X inactivation in the context of chromosome dynamics. Is chromosome folding into TADs a cause or a consequence of gene activation, and when and how does this happen in a chromosomal context ? »
Answering this key question takes time. Such is her curiousity for further knowledge that it looks as though an early retirement is unlikely to appeal to Edith Heard.