PRIZE. Aishe Sarshad has received the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award, which is given to two young female researchers in Sweden each year. Since last autumn Aishe has served as a researcher at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Cell Biology, where she now is establishing an independent line of research that combines RNA biology with stem cell biology.
The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award is presented in many countries to women demonstrating great potential in the natural sciences and technology. In Sweden the award is given in collaboration with Young Academy of Sweden after an extensive review process. Matilda Ernkrans, Sweden’s minister for higher education and research, presented the SEK 150,000 award on Thursday, March 7, in Stockholm.
“I have been following the award for a long time. In the United States, where I have worked, it’s huge! Since my childhood I have dreamed of becoming a researcher, so I consider it a great honor to now receive recognition for my research.”
Gene regulation in stem cells
Sarshad has received the award because she has identified a new mechanism for regulation of gene expression in stem cells. She was able to show that a family of proteins called Argonaute can also be found in the cell nucleus of stem cells, something previously unknown. Argonaute proteins, which are loaded with microRNAs, can then turn off the expression of other RNA molecules in the cell.
“Previously, it had been assumed that Argonaute proteins existed only outside the cell nucleus, in cytoplasm, where the function of Argonaute and microRNA currently is well-known. But we know almost nothing about the protein’s biological function in the cell nucleus.”
Referring to the discovery that she and her colleagues published in the journal Molecular Cell, she adds: “We could show that Argonaute proteins can be found in the nucleus of stem cells and also provide a first insight on what function they serve in the nucleus. I now plan to further investigate the significance this has for stem cells to contain Argonaute proteins in the nucleus.”
Sarshad uses various cell culture systems in her research on RNA regulation.
Connection with cancer
The principal line of investigation is basic research, which will increase understanding of how microRNA is regulated in stem cell nuclei. By combining the RNA and protein sequencing methods, she plans to study the extent and significance of Argonaute proteins in the nucleus of stem cells and determine their function. Her research plan also has a connection with cancer.
“It can provide clues about whether the Argonaute protein plays a role in cancer development, because Argonaute is known to enter the cell nucleus in certain types of cancer. Might it be possible to manipulate the protein-RNA complex and prevent cancer development?”
Originally from Iran, Sarshad arrived in Sweden with her family as a child due to the revolution in her country. While growing up in Falkenberg, she had already clearly set her sights on becoming a researcher.
“For a while I considered studying medicine, but I came to the conclusion that I don’t have the right personality to work with patients. I like to put on a lab coat and focus on research,” she says.
Chose Gothenburg for the whole family
In 2014 she defended her doctoral thesis at Karolinska Institutet with a dissertation on gene regulation and then spent four years as a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Laboratory of RNA Biology, in Bethesda, Maryland. There she changed her line of research, focusing instead on RNA-binding proteins. During her time as a postdoc, Sarshad received a three-year grant from the Swedish Research Council administered by the University of Gothenburg.
In August 2018 she returned to Sweden. When the time came to choose the university to which she should return, she and her husband together chose Gothenburg.
“Since both my husband and I are researchers, we have high expectations for the university we choose. There has to be good collaboration available for both of us.” She talks about the good contacts she made with several researchers at the department, including Erik Larsson Lekholm, Maria Falkenberg and Ruth Palmer.
Both Aishe Sarshad and Davide Angeletti, a researcher in immunology, are getting along well in their new hometown, which they think will be a good place for their daughter to grow up in. They have also enjoyed a very good reception from their new colleagues.
“People are extremely helpful. For example, the researchers in my department provide me with access to all the equipment I need right now, and I also receive very good advice.
I love being in the lab, but right now I spend most of my time at the computer preparing applications to bring in more funds so that I can establish my team, which so far consists of myself and one student. Although I may miss working in the laboratory, I am also glad that I can take the time to really think of my future research plan, as I am now doing.”
Eleni Stavrinidou at Linköping University also received this year’s L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award. The award is granted to support women early in their research careers and to encourage more women to pursue research.
TEXT: ELIN LINDSTRÖM CLAESSEN