NWO Spinoza Prize for cell biologist Anna Akhmanova
‘World-leading, a league of her own, a tremendous drive’
Prof. Anna Akhmanova from Utrecht University is to receive an NWO Spinoza Prize in the value of 2.5 million euros for her world-leading research into the cytoskeleton. Alongside the Stevin Prize, the Spinoza Prize is the highest academic distinction in the Netherlands.
Anna Akhmanova discovered important components of the cytoskeleton's composition and function. Her dream is to acquire such a good understanding of how a cell works that it will be possible to replicate a working cell in the laboratory.
In my opinion, Anna is the leading scientist in our field. She identified several ‘star’ molecules in her early career, which are extensively studied by many labs in the world. Recently, she made great contributions in deciphering the regulation of parts of the skeleton by combining cell biological and biochemical approaches in her lab and collaborating with structural labs.
The cytoskeleton provides sturdiness and form to the cell, while at the same time constituting the network of pathways for transport within the cell. As a result, it is crucial for the cell’s development and proper functioning. Anomalies in the cytoskeleton can lead to developmental disorders such as undersized brains, as well as diseases including ALS and Alzheimer’s.
Her publications have not only stood the test of time but have often proved to be landmark studies. This quality has taken her from being one of the top researchers in her field to leading the field. Anna has also managed to achieve what had not been done in the field until then, namely to bridge the gap between individual molecules in the cell and the functioning at the cell level, such as cell division or migration of a tumour cell into the surrounding tissue.
The starting point of Akhmanova’s research is proteins, the cytoskeleton's building blocks, which she herself likes to compare with Lego bricks. By searching specifically for proteins that seem to play a significant role, she discovered such things as two large and previously unknown groups of cytoskeleton proteins, explains prof. Gijsje Koenderink of research institute AMOLF in Amsterdam.
Anna is making important discoveries at a rapid pace. In my view, the high quality of her research is extremely impressive. She’s truly world-leading when it comes to the cytoskeleton.
Once an interesting protein has been discovered, research into its exact function follows. For example, together with colleagues, Akhmanova identified the role of the ASPM protein in the developmental disorder microcephaly. This disorder, which is caused by mutations or infection with the Zika virus, entails impaired growth of the brain and skull in the foetus.
Structure of the cell
Next, Akhmanova is keen to find out how exactly proteins and components of the cytoskeleton work together; for example, during the formation and transport of lysosomes, the cell’s ‘transport containers’. This research was one of the collaborative projects with prof. Judith Klumperman of UMC Utrecht.
Anna is working out more and more details of the entire cell structure. She is not just discovering lots of jigsaw pieces, but she is also making the overall picture increasingly complete.
A league of her own
Researchers who work with her are unanimous in their praise. ‘I think that she’s in a league of her own’, says Klumperman. ‘Anna is always willing to contribute her thoughts and to share. That quality makes her much in demand. She is great at listening and then identifying the key weakness. Asking tough questions enables you to find out how you need to proceed. She doesn’t water down her opinions, but that’s always down to her genuine interest in aiding the progress of the research. She will often throw in a joke afterwards. Being able to work with such a person is fantastic.’
Resolute and quick
‘I learned a lot from Anna. But the most important thing I learned is that to be successful you have to be determined and execute things quickly’, adds Kai Jiang, a former postdoc in Anna’s group and now Professor at Wuhan University. ‘Furthermore, Anna always finds a way to get things done. As a group leader she is available for discussion and quite open for new ideas. I think one of the reasons she is so successful, is that she supervises the group members according to their abilities.’
Anna is mainly interested in cell biology, I am a bit more in technology. My research group develops new techniques that Anna, as an early adopter, uses in her research. Our collaborations are very pleasant and have already generated a lot of new knowledge. Biologists who also quickly adopt new techniques are often the ones who can force real breakthroughs, and Anna does that regularly. You also see that her publications are picked up immediately and frequently by everyone
‘Anna has a great deal of knowledge about and insight into the complexity of the cell as well as an exceedingly intuitive sense of what the next research question should be’, says Koenderink. ‘In addition, her tremendous drive is extremely inspiring. She knows what is important and emphasises this very aspect. Moreover, she recognises the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation, including with biophysicists such as Marileen Dogterom and I.’
‘I have known Anna since as far back as the first year of my PhD and it is thanks to her that I started to recognise the value of collaborative efforts’, explains Tanenbaum. ‘Through our own collaboration, I discovered how this process bolsters the research work. Anna is very practically oriented as well. While plenty of people have interesting ideas, the challenge is in their implementation. Anna helps you to do something useful with a nice idea. That characteristic is one of the reasons why she is so hugely productive.’
Also read the interview with Anna Akhmanova: