Associate Professor Sara Wickström elected as member of EMBO

Only highly esteemed researchers are accepted into the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO). Associate Professor Sara Wickström, who works at the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE) and heads a research group in the STEMM research programme, is the only Finnish researcher to be elected as a member of EMBO this year.

The European Molecular Biology Organisation EMBO has announced its new members. The members of EMBO feature more than 1,800 top life science researchers from Europe and beyond. This year, 52 new members and 11 deputy members from 25 different countries have been elected to join EMBO. 

Among the new members, Sara Wickström from the University of Helsinki is the only Finn. She works as an associate professor at HiLIFE and is the head of the Faculty of Medicine research group Stem Cells and Tissue Architecture under the STEMM research programme.

Wickström’s research focuses on human tissue.

“The fundamental question in my research group is how tissues are formed as a result of cellular interaction, how these tissues are maintained and how the maintenance may become disrupted in the course of certain illnesses such as cancer, or when the maintenance processes weaken during ageing,” she says.

Some of Wickström’s research group focuses more intensely on the stem cells and cellular biology of tissues, while others specialise in mechanobiology, which studies the connection of mechanical interactions with gene expression and consequently with cell behaviour.

“Our team is an interdisciplinary group, so we learn something new from each other every day. The group includes biologists, bioengineers and physicists,” Wickström explains.

Wickström’s research group recently made a breakthrough when the esteemed scientific journal Cell published their article on the mechanobiology of stem cells. In the article, the research group described an entirely new mechanism which protects cells and their DNA in particular from mechanical damage. The last time a Finnish study was published in the journal was 12 years ago.

“In the study, we determined that the exposure of stem cells to mechanical stress, such as stretching, changes the mechanical properties of the cell as well as the chromatin, which is a structure inside the nucleus consisting of DNA and proteins. Mechanical stress softens the nucleus and chromatin, allowing the cell to avoid damage to the DNA which could lead to DNA mutations and disorders such as cancer,” Wickström describes.

EMBO promotes the careers of young researchers

Associate Professor Wickström graduated as a licentiate and doctor of medicine from the University of Helsinki. She worked at the Max Planck Institute in Germany for several years. After working first as a postdoctoral researcher and then as an independent research group leader for eight years, Wickström returned back to Finland to HiLIFE two years ago.

“I thought that this was the best possible moment to return, since I had been gone for so long. I decided to seize the excellent opportunity that appeared with the establishment of HiLIFE,” Wickström says.

She considers her recent EMBO membership a great personal honour.

“New members are elected, so my membership is an indication that our research is globally respected,” she explains.

EMBO promotes and funds research in the life sciences and supports talented researchers, particularly those in the early stages of their careers.

Wickström hopes that she will be able to promote the careers of young researchers through the organisation, for example through committee work or other means. EMBO members may also mentor junior researchers.

“It’s important to provide support to the career stage following the completion of the doctoral thesis, so that the young researcher can find their path to becoming an independent researcher,” states Wickström.