Emanuela Pasciuto: making an impact in neuroimmunology
An interview with VIB's newest group leader
March 24, 2023
Emanuela Pasciuto starts her first lab of Neuroimmunology at the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology in April 2023. I sat down with her in a cozy meeting room at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research and interviewed her about her vision for it.
Her enthusiasm is already palpable. "I want to make a change in the field of neuroimmunology," Manu responds. "I feel very lucky that I was able to start working on that during my time here, but now’s my chance to really try and make a difference.”
Emanuela is no stranger to VIB. During her Bachelor's degree, Manu had briefly worked as a student intern for Claudia Bagni, who was spearheading a lab in Leuven at the time. Claudia later invited Emanuela to return to Belgium for a PhD, which she did in 2009. Manu then stayed on at the Center for Brain & Disease Research as a postdoc of Adrian Liston, before progressing to senior scientist through her work with Bart De Strooper.
Despite having had several opportunities to go back to Italy since first moving to Leuven, Emanuela decided to stay. When I asked what made her decide to trade pasta for Belgian fries, Manu replies: "At VIB, you feel like everything is possible. I'm convinced I have the tools and resources I need in this environment to succeed in the research I want to do." She follows up with a tongue-in-cheek, "Besides, I can always make pizza myself". (Yet admitting that on the flip side, she still hasn't figured out a way to make stoofvlees in a way that doesn't taste Italian.)
I asked Emanuela what she was most proud of in her career so far. "I’m very proud of how I managed to change fields," she explains, " When I joined Adrian's immunology lab after having done a neuroscience PhD, it was both technologically and scientifically incredibly challenging for me to catch up. But what I used to consider a problem I now think of as an asset: I'm a neuroimmunologist with a unique perspective and approach, thanks to my background in both neuroscience and immunology."
Another thing Emanuela is proud of is her study published in Cell. She didn’t skip a beat when I asked if she could tell me more about it:
"I'd had a hunch for a while that T-cells can modulate the function of the brain. I thought that maybe they were involved in shaping the morphology of neurons and, in turn, modulating neuronal behavior."
But since the 1920s – when the first grafting experiments had been conducted – the brain was considered to be immune privileged (in other words, able to tolerate the introduction of antigens without eliciting an inflammatory immune response). Why then would T-cells, which play an essential role in the body's immune system, be present in the brain?
"I figured that T-cells in the brain might act differently to T-cells in the rest of the body," Manu goes on to explain, "I really wanted to understand whether T-cells could be found in the brain and, if so, what role they play."
At this point, Emanuela stopped herself to check whether or not I was interested in knowing more about the details of the study. "I love your excitement about this," I reassured her. "Go for it!"
She continued to explain how she used a combination of imaging, single-cell technology, and surgical approaches to identify CD4 T-cells in both mouse and human brains. They also depleted a transgenic mouse model of these T-cells and found a striking effect on the development of neuronal spines. Because defects in a microglia-driven neurobiological process called pruning were already known to affect neuron spine development, Emanuela thought that T-cells might have a role in modulating microglia. She then designed another experiment that demonstrated that when T-cells are absent, microglia get stuck at a premature developmental stage. This, in turn, caused an effect on mouse behaviors such as learning and anxiety.
Unraveling the role of T-cells in the brain is something Emanuela aims to continue investigating in her new Neuroimmunology Lab at the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology. She already opened up a postdoc position, and wants PhD candidates to join her research in the near future.
When I ask her what she's looking for in a team, Manu replies: "I'm looking for people who are enthusiastic, who bring in fresh ideas, and who are proactive. Those are the most important things. Everything else can be learned on the job if you have the right attitude."
I was curious to know what Emanuela had learned from her time at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research, that she would carry through to her new role as Group Leader.
"I learned so much from each of my mentors," she recalls, "From Bart [De Strooper], I learned how important it is to take the time to sit with people and just discuss science. He also taught me that when you do science, it's important to keep your main goals in mind. That's something I really want to pass on to my students: that in research, you have the possibility of doing hundreds and thousands of things, but if you really want to achieve something, you have to stay focused."
Emanuela credited her period with Adrian Liston – in addition to its overlap with having two children and the COVID19-pandemic – to learning how to stay efficient and organized. "Juggling so many things really pushed me to learn how to communicate well and how to prioritize my time. Adrian also taught me how to provide feedback in a positive way, how to value people, and how to acknowledge others for the hard work that they put in. These are things I will definitely take with me moving forward."
Finally, she emphasizes the importance of really loving what you do. "That's something I learned from Claudia [Bagni]," Manu points out. "She was – and still is – exceptionally passionate about her work. I don't think I've ever seen somebody as passionate about science as she is."
I admit that I haven't met Professor Bagni, but I would argue that Dr. Pasciuto might be a close contender.
Interested in joining Emanuela's lab?
Check out the open positions here.
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