Dr Alina Pushkarev
What is your field of expertise?
Trained as a marine microbiologist, I am working on light-reactive proteins from various organisms. After researching rhodopsins from marine and limnological niches and discovering a new family of rhodopsins, I moved to the rhodopsins of the mantis shrimp. I like using functional metagenomics for the discovery of new light-reactive proteins.
Tell us briefly on your academic path?
I completed my undergraduate degree in bio-medical studies at the Hebrew University and continued there to an MSc focusing on transcription and translation regulation in Salmonella by folding of RNA at the lab of Prof. Shoshy Altuvia. Nearing the end of my master's degree I attended the marine microbiology course at the IUI which changed my path entirely. I went on to complete a PhD in marine microbiology at the Technion under the supervision of Prof. Oded Beja where I had the privilege of sampling different environments and developing new screening methods for rhodopsins.
What type of research do you do (what excites you mostly)?
What excites me the most is the fusion of field sampling and research. Processing samples, acquiring the data, and analyzing it for a month at a time in a lab, can be very challenging, but being the person who sampled everything in the field gives a sense of responsibility and completeness that is crucial for scientific success.
What are your professional plans/ aspirations?
My plan is to return to the northern part of Israel and to start a research group that will aspire to answer fundamental questions in biology, as well as search for useful applications from aquatic organisms.
How was your experience as a postdoc so far?
A postdoc in Europe is a quite pleasant experience. The work-life balance is valued here, and the research quality is very high. Collaborations are much easier when so many countries around are accessible by merely several hours by train. I am being asked often how is it possible to be a marine microbiologist in Berlin, where the sea is not accessible, and I explain about artificial synthesis of genes, but to be honest I miss the sea very much and looking forward to coming back to the abundance and diversity of Israel.
Can you give an advice to your younger self or a new postdoc?
This is advice I followed religiously, and I stand by it as the most important advice in any academic step. Choose a laboratory by the personality of its leader and the spirit of the laboratory. Other things can be better or worse, but this is not negotiable, and can not be compensated by any grant money or quality of research.
What is the most amazing thing about your topic that people may not know?
Often even other researchers are surprised to know that microbes have a very similar light-sensing protein as humans have, and can sense light and respond to it. In recent years, a field in neuroscience called optogenetics has emerged, where such proteins are used to manipulate single neurons by using light. This leap from research into microbial light response to the frontiers of neuroscience keeps me in awe for the longest time.
Can you share any professional or personal challenges that you have overcome?
I started my postdoc in Berlin in the first half of 2021, with the pandemic at its peak, closed skies in Israel and a family with two children moving to another country without childcare. It has been a tough but fascinating experience to manoeuvre through the new reality, acclimation of the kids and getting used to a completely new lab where you start from scratch.