Natalie Zeytuni: From Magentotactics to Bacterial Pathogens

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On a hot July day two PhD students, Adit Naor and Natalie Zeytuni, received the prestigious L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship in Israel 2013. Both received the prize for scientific contributions while pursuing their PhD studies, as well as for research planned to be performed as post-docs.

Natalie, a student at the Raz Zarivach lab at the Ben Gurion University, studies the structure and function of proteins synthesized by magentotactic bacteria which are responsible for the biominerallization process of magnetite crystals. Through the use of these magnetite crystals the bacteria can navigate according to Earth's magnetic fields. During her PhD research, Natalie published half a dozen papers, demonstrating impressive productivity in the challenging field of protein crystallography.

Natalie will conduct her post-doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC) under the supervision of Prof. Natalie Stryndaka researching the secretion system used by Mycobacteria tuberculosis, the notoriously deadly human pathogen that causes tuberculosis.

We recently spoke with Natalie, and heard her insights about scientific research, four tips for productivity, and choosing the right post-doc lab.

What was your motivation to proceed to an advanced degree in the life sciences?

I was very curious to learn more and expand my knowledge with regards to both field and methods used. In the last year of my Bachelors degree I was studying the ethology and zoology of marine animals and felt curious to learn molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics. The advanced degree, conducted at the Zarivach lab, enabled me to pursue these fields.

Why did you choose Raz's lab, a PI who had just started pursuing tenure track?

I first learned about magentotactic bacteria in marine microbiology and I thought these bacteria are so cool. So, when I asked Raz about his research, and he told me he is investigating magnetotactic bacteria, I was immediately hooked and didn't really care that he was just opening a new lab. I was interested and that was enough for me.

Can you share with our readers your most low and high moments of your PhD?

Protein crystallography is a field in which research is progressing in a step-by-step, binary manner. You can't collect data from poorly diffracting protein crystals, you can't decipher the data if you don't solve the phase problem, you can't finalize the model if you can't assign all atoms in the electrodensity map and the list goes on. Thus, I had many moments of frustration and many challenges, from the cloning of the genes to the full determination of protein's structures. The most remembered low point was when Raz traveled to Brusells for a grant application, and I was alone in the lab visualizing crystals through the microscope. I was sure I got protein crystals, barely waiting for Raz's return to put them on the X-Ray beam. When Raz came back, we placed the crystals on the beam only to realize they were salt crystals. I was devastated and it took me two months to lift myself up and push forward through hard and determined work to the high point of my PhD.

I can still remember that moment – it was the same protein I tried to crystallize and produced salt crystals. Only this time I had good crystals but yet could not generate the electrondensity map since I could not solve the phase problem. Only after placing my last heavy-metal-soaked crystals I got something which looked like a protein fold. Raz's confirmation sky-rocketed my feelings and I was feeling high for a full week.

You've been quite productive in your PhD, publishing six articles with more on the way. Can you share with our readers some tips on how to be so productive?

I would say four guidelines have been part of my productivity throughout my PhD.

  1. I routinely used a calendar to plan my work 2 weeks to a month ahead coupled to a to-do list with all my tasks, whether these are experimental or administrative ones. I have a pipeline of all my projects and every time I finish a task and move the project a step forward I determine what is the next required task to be completed so I will reach my goals. 
  2. If experiments and procedures don't work as expected for several times then regroup and evaluate alternative paths to reach the same goal.
  3. Following the previous line of thinking, if you find a certain project stuck for a year or so and no alternative path leads to a breakthrough, then let it go and look for an alternative project (if possible).
  4. Love your research. If you don't have enough passion for the things you do then you won't have the resources to push it forward.

You'll soon embark on your post-doc research at Prof. Stryndaka's lab. Can you give us some tips on how to search for a post-doc lab?

Find the topic of interest. I like protein crystallography in relation to bacteria, though I looked also for labs focused on utilizing protein crystallography in different niches as well. Search for labs in leading universities and institutions and within those find the leading scientists who conduct research that matches your interests. I used my gut feelings and when I heard about Prof. Stryndaka's research focused on M.tuberculosis' secretion system I felt the same as I felt when I first talked with Raz. See that the place is comfortable and that the people, the lab and the PI fit your needs. And not least important - hope for the best!

In five years you might be leading a new lab of your own – any insights learned from your current PI, Dr. Raz Zarivach?

  1. Collaborate – collaborations can promote the interests of both sides and get results and insights faster in comparison to solo research.
  2. I should take the scientific life much lighter.
  3. I adopted from Raz the passion for science and structural biology of proteins.