#WhyIScience Q&A: A computational and molecular biologist helps inspire the next generation of scientists
As a 13-year-old student in Italy, Elena Torlai Triglia stood at a crossroads. She and her classmates had to choose which subjects they would focus on for the next five years. This was a challenge for Torlai Triglia, who was interested in not just science, but also language, literature, art, and philosophy. After touring the science-focused high school and seeing the laboratory space, her decision became clear. “That lab just seemed super cool to 13-year-old me,” she said. “I wanted to use the tools in this laboratory."
Torlai Triglia first trained as an experimental biologist and later started doing more computational work, gravitating toward the collaborative environment of systems biology.
As a graduate student at the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology in Germany, Torlai Triglia studied gene regulation, before moving to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Now as a computational postdoctoral associate in the labs of Aviv Regev (on leave) and Brad Bernstein, Torlai Triglia investigates how genetic mutations and epigenetic changes affect cells in healthy and disease states. She has worked on collaborative projects studying a wide range of diseases, from cancer to psoriasis to COVID-19.
Beyond the lab, Torlai Triglia is helping inspire the next generation of scientists by taking part in a pen pal program called Letters to a Pre-Scientist. She also co-chairs Broad NextGen, a community of postdocs and graduate students working to enhance the training experience for Broad academic trainees.
Torlai Triglia recently spoke with us about her passion for research, her experience as a woman in science, and her goal of inspiring future scientists in a #WhyIScience Q&A.
Why did you choose a scientific career path?
Science is a rewarding career if you're very curious, and I've always been quite curious about the human body. I studied medical biotechnology at university, which was very interesting for me — this idea of looking at how the human body functions, and identifying mechanisms that would allow us to develop better drugs and understand what's going on when disease appears. That seemed like a perfect fit for me.
How did you start doing more computational work?
My studies were more on the experimental side in the beginning, but then I also got exposed to the computational side. I took a course in bioinformatics and then did an experience abroad in the UK, in a lab that was mostly doing computational biology. It seemed to me a very interesting approach to both be able to generate data and also analyze them. I liked all the challenges of looking at a lot of data, figuring out how to best visualize them, and being creative.
How important has mentorship been in your career journey?
All my mentors throughout my career have been very, very supportive. That’s why I think it should be part of a scientist’s job to mentor the younger generation, to give back, because we have benefited from mentorship throughout our careers.
Can you tell us about the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program you’ve been part of?
I first got involved in the program in 2015. The organization works mainly with schools where most children are from lower income families. Their aim is to show these kids, who normally might not meet scientists, that scientists are not abstract creatures who exist very far away from them. Scientists in the program are matched with students based on common interests. Then you write letters, and the idea is that you are helping these kids see themselves as scientists too. They see that scientists are not very different from them.
The first year I was matched with a sixth-grader in California. Then I was matched with a fifth grader. My pen pals and I shared an interest in the human body, but we also talked about our love of cooking, or about our families, pets and experience at school. It has been a very rewarding experience.
Are you still a pen pal now?
I'm doing a similar pen pal project with a school in Italy, where I’m paired with a whole class, so I'm exchanging letters with a bigger group of 13-year-olds from a town near Naples. They are just about to decide what high school path to take, so it's very interesting.
Do you think any of the students you have corresponded with will go into science?
It’s hard to say, but my hope is that their idea of what a scientist looks like has changed. In the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program, the organizers asked kids to draw a scientist before and after the pen pal project. Before the program, the kids often drew scientists to look like Einstein: white males with crazy hair. Then after the pen pal project, they drew pictures of scientists who were much more diverse, because they figured out there are, for example, a lot of women who are doing science, and there's all these different nuances in the scientific world.
What has it been like for you as a woman in science?
When I was in university, both the medical and science programs actually had quite a lot of women. The problem starts arising later on, when you advance in your career. You start to see that there's still not a lot of women in top positions. I was lucky. In my PhD, my supervisor was Ana Pombo. For my postdoc, I am co-mentored by Aviv Regev. Just the fact that these women are there and are doing an incredible job, it motivates you and shows that something is changing.
But on the other side, I have had moments in my career when I felt like people weren't really trusting my abilities just because I was a woman and not a man.
There are amazing women who, no matter how many people tell them that science is not a woman's job, they're going to do it and be amazing. But the science community is losing talented people who would also do phenomenal, creative science, but who get exhausted by all the additional challenges that come from being part of an underrepresented group. It is getting better. But still not as much and as quickly as it should be.
This is not just an issue with women in science, we see it with all types of diversity: science is not diverse enough. We still need to keep pushing for the field to open up to people from diverse backgrounds. I think initiatives like the pen pal projects and talking with kids in schools are helping.
On top of that, we also need to support people once they're part of the scientific community. We have done fairly well in convincing women that they should go into math, or physics, or biology, or chemistry. What we're still losing out on is what happens when they get here.
Who has inspired you?
I am inspired by scientists who are committed to improving the science community. Broad NextGen organizes a series of seminars called Facing Forward, where we invite top scientists to talk about their career and their challenges. One time we had Galit Lahav, who is the chair of the department of systems biology at Harvard Medical School. She talked about how sometimes she felt out of place in meetings and on committees.
But she also said that she transformed that into motivation: "If I'm not there, then the voices of people like me are not part of the conversation. Even if sometimes that makes me feel out of place, I need to be there." That inspired me. Over the years, there have been a lot of examples of things that haven't been spotted as issues just because the people who would have spotted them easily were not part of the conversations. We need to do better on that in science, to make sure diverse voices are in the room.