Skip to main content

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz - Four Way Interview

Photo by John Cairns
Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz is Professor of Mammalian Development and Stem Cell Biology at the University of Cambridge, and Bren Professor in Biology and Bioengineering at Caltech. She has published over 150 papers and book chapters in top scientific journals and her work on embryos won the people’s vote for scientific breakthrough of the year in Science magazine. Her new book, co-authored with Roger Highfield, is The Dance of Life: symmetry, cells and how we become human.

Why science?

I fell in love with biology when I was a child because I loved doing experiments and seeing what happened. It was fascinating and enormous fun. I also fell in love with art at the same time. Art and science are both based on experiments and uncovering new paths to understand the world and ourselves. Why do we think the way we think? Where do our feelings come from? Is the 'right' answer always right? Where do we come from? How do parts of our body communicate with each other?  What is the nature of time? How do our cells measure time? Can I understand it?

I was raised in a laboratory so everyone around me was doing an experiment and asking questions.  But my passion for art is more difficult to track. It might have something to do with how I was dyslexic and yet wanted to communicate with people around me and so I started to express myself intuitively through art – mainly through abstract art and design. 

Science and art are both imaginative and creative. They allow me to find the miraculous in everyday life.

Why this book?

There are many excellent popular science books. Roger Highfield and I wanted The Dance of Life to be different and to cover not only the science of how our life starts and how we build ourselves but also to be a human story, my story.  We wanted our book to be an intimate and personal account of scientific discovery.  We wanted it to talk about conflicting thoughts – devotion but also sacrifice in pursuit of science; friendship but also competition, which both dominate scientific life.  We also wanted to show the joy of discovery. 

It was a challenge to write this book as we wrote it together – a man and a woman with different life experiences, with different schedules, with our brains working differently but we both share a passion for science, life and truth.  We were talking about some of the most complex and deepest feelings in my life and, at the same time, the most profound topics in biology, from the life of an embryo to stem cell research and the nature of our own origins. We wanted to explore what we currently understand and the limits of that understanding. We wanted to be honest in showing the life of a woman in science and the life of an immigrant. I was both and it nearly broke me at times. 

What’s next?

Recently I restarted my life. I moved my scientific and personal family from Cambridge (UK) to California. This last year has already been an amazing new challenge and experience. I hope some enlightenment will come from this new chapter along with the pure joy of discovery. 

I would consider writing a second book to expand on some of the ideas in The Dance of Life to show that we should be more open and prepared to contra polarizing views about science and woman especially in science. To me, science and art are about openness, creativity, a deep way of thinking and joy that brings happiness. 

What’s exciting you at the moment?

My research on combining biology with engineering.  Creating embryo models from stem cells – building synthetic embryos one cell at a time - and learning answers to all of the questions that have puzzled me since I was a little girl.

In LA, new collaborations allow me to bring new techniques in microscopy and imaging to let us see stem cells on their complex journey in embryo development, creating beautiful images that blend art with science.  Roger and I had always planned to bring even more art into The Dance of Life

Every week brings a new discovery in science. If you look into the last issue of journal Nature, you can see an image from our latest paper, on an amazing mechanism that embryos develop in the second week of their life. To allow them to grow, they make holes in a membrane ‘corset‘ that originally holds them tight. How ingenious! It is great time to write about breaking boundaries, just as embryos do. 


Popular posts from this blog

The Dance of Life - Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and Roger Highfield ****

There is without doubt a fascination for all of us - even those who can find biology a touch tedious - with the way that a tiny cellular blob develops into the hugely complex thing that is a living organism, especially a human. In this unusual book which I can only describe as a memoir of science, Magalena Zernicka-Goetz, assisted by the Science Museum's Roger Highfield, tells the story of her own career and discoveries.

At the heart of the book, and Zernicka-Goetz's work, is symmetry breaking, a topic very familiar to readers of popular physics titles, but perhaps less so in popular biology. The first real breakthrough from her lab was the discovery of the way that a mouse egg's first division was already asymmetrical - the two new cells were not identical, not equally likely to become embryo and support structure as had always been thought.  As the book progresses, throughout the process of development we see how different symmetries are broken, with a particular focus on…

Meera Senthilingam - Four Way Interview

Meera Senthilingam is currently Content Lead at health start-up Your,MD and was formerly International Health Editor at CNN. She is a journalist, author and public health researcher and has worked with multiple media outlets, such as the BBC, as well as academic institutions, including the LSHTM and Wellcome Trust. She has Masters Degrees in Science Communication and the Control of Infectious Diseases and her interests lie in communicating global health issues to the general public through journalism and working with global health programmes. Her academic research to date has focused on tuberculosis, particularly the burden of drug-resistant tuberculosis and insights into the attitudes and behaviours of the people most affected. Her new book is Outbreaks and Epidemics: battling infection from measles to coronavirus.

Why science?

I have always found science fascinating and have always had a strong passion for it. My friends in high school used to find it amusing to introduce me to people…