A Creative Force in Understanding Genes


This is the first article in a new series on Visionaries. The New York Times selected people from all over the world who are pushing the boundaries of their fields, from science and technology to culture and sports.

Twice in her life, Edith Heard has transformed scientific understanding.

Professor Heard studies epigenetics — changes to genetic activity that can be passed down to daughter cells without affecting the underlying genetic code. Among bees, for example, a simple difference in food supply means that a larva becomes either a worker or a queen.

Professor Heard’s first major advance was showing that these kinds of epigenetic changes can be incredibly dynamic, particularly as an embryo forms and matures. In her second, she revealed important information about how parts of the genome fold in space, allowing some genes to be activated and others silenced.

In January, Professor Heard took over as head of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, or E.M.B.L., a scientific collaboration among 27 European countries. She received her bachelor’s degree in genetics from Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College and her doctorate in biochemistry from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London. She is also a professor at the Collège de France.

As a young child, she lived in England but spoke only her mother’s native Greek. The experience of having to find new ways to communicate spurred her future creativity, Professor Heard said. Her parents also hosted other families in exile during the 1970s, inspiring her to help form the French organization PAUSE (Programme d’aide à l’Accueil en Urgence des Scientifiques en Exil) that assists scientists who have had to leave their home countries in a hurry because of war or other conflict.

Transformational moments like arriving in a new country or a new job can help inspire scientific creativity, said Professor Heard, who has lived in England, France and the United States, and recently moved to Germany to take on her new role.

In a Skype interview from Heidelberg, Professor Heard spoke about plankton, the state of her science and the power of misunderstanding. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

What would you like people to know about epigenetics?

Epigenetics is about how a genome can be used in multiple ways during development and lead to stable, memorable characteristics during life: how one goes from just a single cell, a fertilized egg, to a much more complex organism. A number of decisions are made about which genes are expressed, which aren’t expressed. Once those decisions are made, how are they maintained, so that when a cell has decided to become a skin cell, it doesn’t suddenly change its mind and become a neuron. Epigenetics is about the making of those choices and the maintenance of those choices.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

The first thing I really thought I would do was become a musician. I played a lot of piano and then the clarinet. Then, I became good at math and became quite obsessive about trying to understand things. I was only 10 or 11 years old, and I was already asking existential questions about math. I discovered biology at university, and that was truly a eureka moment for me.

Where do you find sources of creativity?

The moments where I’m most creative are when I’m forced out of my comfort zone. It’s frightening, this moment of ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what’s going on.’ Moving from one place to another [to France, the United States and Germany], each of those moments was really a moment of creativity for me, because it got me thinking differently.

You’ve said that Tara Oceans, an E.M.B.L. research project cataloging plankton and other microscopic sea creatures, serves as a role model for you. What makes it so meaningful to you?

Tara was a discovery-driven project to try and explore the oceans, but done in a very E.M.B.L. way: Do it on a shoestring, but do it deeply and properly, and make sure the data is accessible to everyone. Ten years down the line, they’ve published I don’t know how many papers; people all over the world are exploring and discovering new things in that data. For me, that was a real inspiration and a model for what we could do on a bigger scale, with humans and organisms on land. Thinking about the invisible side of life that is so important and not being fearful of the unknown.

How do you define success?

You can define success by how much you’ve allowed a new generation of science to happen.

When you make a discovery, you create a new paradigm. To watch it being challenged and to not flinch, to actually enjoy that process of people challenging your paradigm and either reducing it to cinders or saying actually it was right and building on that.

How do you plan to change your field?

Bridging molecular biology with ecology. I think that’s the challenge: understanding life in its natural environment. I tend to ask myself big questions. I always try and step back and say, what is it that’s exciting about this?

You co-run an organization that helps scientists who work in countries in crisis, like Syria and Iraq. Where does your passion for this cause come from?

If you don’t have freedom of interaction, of collaboration, of knowledge, then science can’t happen. In the past, the people who fled are often the people who end up in new environments doing creative things. You have to take care of these people. You can’t just let them land and hope for the best.

How does technology interact with your profession?

For epigenetics, it’s clear that the technologies have finally caught up with the questions. We use all of the “omics” technologies as they’re called — not just genomics, but epigenomics, metabolomics. We can find out what the metabolic state is. We can do things at the single-cell level, so we can really find out to what extent an organism has a specific set of changes by looking at many, many different levels. The big ambition now is to harness these technologies to big questions and go from the atom to the ecosystem — bringing every kind of technology together to address biology on all those scales.

What is the biggest challenge facing your field?

Trying to understand life in its natural context. It was a challenge before because we couldn’t really measure environmental changes very easily. Today, we can. In order to understand biology, we have to understand these kinds of changes in a more natural context — pollution, biodiversity collapse because of pollution or climate change. Those are the challenges I think we should rise up to.



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