Judith Sleeman Q & A

Judith Sleeman at the University of St. Andrews works on some of the basic cellular processes in which the SMN protein is involved, and provides our next SMA scientist Q & A.

When and why did you first decide you wanted to be a scientist?

I don’t really remember making a conscious decision at all. I liked science at school and just chose the subjects I found most interesting at each stage. I think the research project I did in my final year at university really convinced me that I wanted to be a research scientist, rather than opting for a science-related career. I just immediately felt at home in a laboratory environment and loved the detective work that’s involved in scientific research.

How did you come to work on SMA?

I was working as a postdoctoral researcher in Angus Lamond’s lab in Dundee on a project looking at how the cell makes pre-mRNA splicing factors called snRNPs (“snurps”). The cell needs snRNPs to decipher the information carried in its genes. It was becoming clear that small structures inside the nucleus of the cell called Cajal bodies were important for making snRNPs. Then several discoveries were made: mutations in the SMN1 gene were identified as the cause of SMA; the SMN protein was found in nuclear bodies called gems that are highly related to Cajal bodies AND a role for SMN in making snRNPs was found. It was just too interesting not to follow up. My first degree was in cellular and molecular pathology, but my PhD working on embryonic stem cells had taken me away from medical sciences a bit. I was pleased to be able to get back to research with more medical relevance.

What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?

Erm...unemployed? I expect I would find something, but I’ve no idea what! When I was very little I wanted to be an opera singer for some inexplicable reason, but I certainly don’t have the voice for that!

If you are not in the lab, you are...

At work; probably teaching, supervising research students, writing or reviewing grants or papers. At home; spending time with my family, reading (nothing too high-brow: Ian MacEwan and Susan Hill are favourites), sewing, maybe a decent walk with a pub somewhere along the route.

Describe yourself In three words

Tenacious, pedantic, messy.

What has been the most important moment of your career so far?

Probably being awarded a Royal Society Research Fellowship. It enabled me to follow my own independent research interests, helped me get my current job and meant I could spend most of my time at work on research without too many other responsibilities. Alas, it ended a couple of years ago!

What is your most memorable finding relating to SMA?

That’s hard to say. I always like to think the biggest discovery is just around the corner! Most of our research is quite fundamental cell biology so it’s not always clear straight away how important things might turn out to be. Our latest paper showed that snRNP splicing factors move around too quickly in the nucleus in cells with low levels of SMN (click here for a Jennifer Trust article on this research). This is probably why problems with splicing have been seen in several models of SMA. If it turns out that splicing problems cause the symptoms of SMA, we’ve uncovered an important part of what goes wrong. If it turns out the problems with splicing are not involved with SMA, then at least we’ve helped to explain why the splicing problems happen. Time (and lots more experiments) will tell.

What is your favourite conference location?

Anywhere I can manage to meet up with old friends. Preferably nowhere too hot!

What is the best scientific advice you ever received?

Be your own worst critic. If you can spot flaws in your data, a reviewer will drive a coach and horses through them! Easier said then done, though, when you think you’ve found something important but that final killer experiment just won’t show the same results on the third (or fourth, or tenth) repeat!

If you could start your career all over again, are there things you would do differently?

That’s an impossible question to answer. Maybe ask me again just after I retire!

In your opinion, what makes a good scientist?

I think there are many different sets of characteristics that make good scientists. We need all sorts of diverse people to get things done. Honesty is key, though. The creativity and imagination to see the less obvious aspects of a problem are important as well.

Where do you see the SMA research field in the next 10 years?

In an ideal world, the knowledge obtained from curing SMA will be being used to address other neurodegenerative conditions. More realistically, I think the technologies currently under development are genuinely very exciting and will be successful in treating some SMA patients within 10 years. There’s still a long way to go though.