6 July 2022 – “Cilia are fundamental for human health, and they are simply the most fantastic cellular machines,” says new EMBO Member Gaia Pigino about her research subject. These conserved organelles with important functions in signalling, sensing, and motility are found from protists to virtually all cells in our bodies. Cilia are crucial for reproduction, development, and for the function of organs such as kidneys, liver, pancreas, and brain. But not much is known about how their many components self-organize to form the functional machines they are. “It’s a big puzzle. We don’t know how all the involved proteins find the exact positions along the microtubules,” Pigino explains. The aim of her research is to decipher this puzzle and uncover mechanisms of cilia assembly and function.
Asked about defining moments in her career, Pigino, a native Italian, points to changing fields from bioindicators for her PhD research to 3D electron microscopy and cell biology for her first postdoctoral research project in Italy. The renowned physiology course, an inspiring summer school she attended in the US at the time she was transitioning to a postdoctoral researcher position in Switzerland, caused a major mindset switch on how to conduct science and find and replenish energy for doing it. More motivation came from a successful application for an EMBO Postdoctoral Fellowship. “It was a test to see if I am really fit for this job. I thought to myself that getting the fellowship means that I have a chance to succeed,” Pigino recalls. During the evaluation process for this fellowship, she also connected with a scientist who introduced her to the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany, where she later started her independent research group and worked productively for ten years.
Since 2021, Pigino has been back in Italy as associate head of the structural biology centre and group leader at the Human Technopole in Milan. “It’s a big honour to become an EMBO Member, and it also means that the research we are doing in the lab is internationally recognized,” Pigino says about her election to the EMBO Membership. “It will bring a lot of new possibilities to have interactions with an amazing group of fellow scientists.”