Yasmine Neirijnck and Agnes Banreti were both recruited by INSERM this year as permanent researchers at the iBV. We asked them to tell us more about their training, their scientific path so far and their choice of scientific projects.

Yasmine has always been attracted by developmental and stem cell biology. She chose the laboratory of Andreas Schedl for her PhD as he had a general interest in organ development. There, she worked on an exciting project aiming at understanding how the SOX transcription factors control kidney development. After completing her PhD, she joined the lab of Serge Nef in Switzerland, a pioneer in single cell transcriptomic approaches, to work on the IGF system in testicular development and endocrine functions. There, she generated a transcriptomic atlas of the development of the gonad and adrenal glands, which share a common embryonic origin. It was a great opportunity for her to combine novel cutting‐edge technology with mouse functional genetics. “At some point, I realized I was the first one in the world to see the gene regulation happening in the adrenal gland, it was so exciting!” After 4 years, Yasmine was offered an assistant professor position, but instead she preferred to go back to the lab of Andreas Schedl at iBV and develop her own line of research on adrenal gland homeostasis. She obtained a very selective “FRM return grant” and after 3 years, she successfully secured an INSERM position as a permanent researcher.

She is now working on the molecular mechanisms underlying several aspects of adrenocortical cell biology, from their specification through differentiation, maintenance and elimination, and on the impact of sex on these processes, both in physiological and pathological conditions. She also works on the modelisation of human cellular processes using hIPSC (human induced Pluripotent Stem Cells). “My dream for the next 5/10 years is that my work could contribute to a better understanding of the adrenal gland function and its pathologies, which would be of great help for patients. The adrenal gland is such an important organ in human health, it is centrally connected to different organs, and it reflects the body state”.

What has been always fascinating for Agnes was the intersection between biology and chemistry, and especially organic chemistry. She first entered a very selective program dedicated to chemistry and biology when she was only 14. Later, thanks to her top ranking at exams, she had the opportunity to join the lab of Professor Miklos Sass for her PhD, a fantastic lifetime mentor for Agnes, whom she still meets regularly. There, she worked on autophagy‐induced stress in Drosophila. After 1,5 years, having published this work, she contacted the lab of Yacine Graba in Marseille to develop a project on Hox protein‐mediated autophagy. Later, she obtained an EMBO‐Marie‐Curie post doc grant to join the lab of Prof. Pascal Meier at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, where she developed her own project on epithelial cell competition in the Drosophila wing and discovered that it was mediated by a receptor modulated by D‐ amino acids. It was at this point that she developed a strong interest in biological chirality. However, the most challenging aspect was the highly interdisciplinary nature of this project and the lack of tools required to detect D‐amino acids in live organisms. Agnes thus contacted Frank Wien from SOLEIL Synchrotron to use circularly polarized light for analyzing chirality at the single amino acid level. “I wanted to know what was happening at the proteome level in the fly. Drosophila wing disc is a bilayer tissue, tiny and transparent that transmits the light easily, so I thought let’s go for it!”. She then started a collaboration with Uwe Meierhenrich from the ICN and Stéphane Noselli from iBV. Agnes is very grateful to Stephane as he gave her maximum support ever since for establishing her own team. Her recent INSERM permanent researcher position will now allow her to apply for grants in France.

Agnes is now interested in genes and molecular mechanisms responsible for the maintenance of protein homochirality and wants to address the pathological consequences of homochirality loss. “A unique feature of living organisms is that they are built up of molecules with the same chirality (sugars, amino acids). I would love to build up a niche and a school in the thematics of molecular chirality. I am interested in both fundamental and medical aspects of heterochirality. Many diseases, in particular, neurodegenerative pathologies and cancers, involve homochirality loss. So far, there is no in vivo method nor an optimal model to address all the consequences of heterochirality at the level of an organism. It is the most exciting project I have ever worked on, and I want to go as deep as possible into this subject”.

Yasmine and Agnes, how did you choose to embrace a career in academy?
Yasmine: “Quite late actually, in fact during my first internship in a lab. It was a revelation; from this moment I knew this was what I wanted to do. Retrospectively, I could tell I have always wanted to do something implying investigations of some sort”.
Agnes: “From my early childhood, I have been deeply interested in chemistry and biology and since I was 21 years old, I have been autonomous in my research and have always wanted to set up my own lab.”

When you presented your INSERM/CNRS contest, did you expect the way it was?
Yasmine: “Not really. I realized that one needs to be more or less the PI type to get a position: teaching, having grants. Knowing the criteria in advance would have helped me. During my post‐doc time, I would have made it differently, given lectures, asked for my own grants even if the lab was already well funded.”
Agnes: “The interviews were so different between committees, two were extremely positive and one quite negative. Three interviews in a row were good to be prepared to “behave” adequately and answer to questions.”

How do you feel now that you’ve got a long‐term position?
Both: “Finally, we can do our best to focus on science and investigate our research in a different way. It gives us a lot of freedom. We can think of starting risky and exotic projects”.

Do you think it was different in your career because you are a woman?
Yasmine: “Not as a woman but as a mother. For example: I don’t work as much as before (less evenings and weekends). But having a child brings me back to the reality of life, forces me to see outside of the lab and helps to balance my life”.
Agnes: “I gave birth to my daughter 3 weeks after my thesis defense, so of course it influenced my choices for the future. Sadly, I faced discrimination many times: at meetings, even from peers. Be strong and prepared! But I have been very lucky with all my supervisors and PIs who were very supportive and considered me as their equal”.

What are the main qualities that help you during your career?
Both: “Besides scientific curiosity and excellence, resilience and perseverance are indispensable in science”.

Do you have any advice for young researchers?
Both: “Anyone that wants to embrace an academic career needs to think 2 to 3 years ahead of each step. One needs to be aware of the requirements and networking is important from the beginning. Don’t work on your own, share your ideas and your science with others. Ask advice from your colleagues”.

Agnes and Yasmine will be glad to help future applicants to INSERM and CNRS contests, as their experience is fresh in their minds!