PROFILE: THE GENE QUEEN

Published February 7, 2021
Dr Asifa Akhtar with colleagues | Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics
Dr Asifa Akhtar with colleagues | Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics

Pakistan-born Asifa Akhtar is ecstatic that her work on epigenetics has been awarded Germany’s most prestigious award in science — the 2021 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize.

Apart from the prestige that it brings, the award also carries a purse of €2.5 million, which gives Dr Akhtar the financial muscle she needs to research further. She will receive the award in a virtual ceremony scheduled for March 15.

“This was a wonderful piece of news to brighten a year overshadowed by the pandemic,” she says of the award announcement in late 2020. “It is a great honour and a great recognition for the work that we have done.”

Born in Karachi in 1971, Dr Akhtar is a molecular biologist by qualification, and is currently a director of the Max Planck Institute for Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg, Germany. It is here that she carries out her research.

The Leibniz Prize is awarded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or DFG), a state-funded autonomous organisation promoting scientific research.

Dr Akhtar’s research was chosen from among the 10 that the DFG short-listed out of a total of 131 it was considering.

Research on the X chromosome

Consider this: Every single cell in our body contains the same DNA and the same information, so how do the various body parts — for instance, our hands and our eyes — function differently?

This is where epigenetics comes into play. Epigenetics is the study of heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence. The Greek prefix epi- in epigenetics implies features that are “on top of” or “in addition to” the traditional genetic basis for inheritance. In layman’s terms, Dr Akhtar’s research seeks to understand how genes are turned on and off, and how this contributes to the diversity that humans have in their cells and in their bodies.

Molecular biologist Dr Asifa Akhtar is the most recent winner of Germany’s most prestigious award in science. Now a director at the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg, her journey began in Karachi

A topic of particular interest for Dr Akhtar is epigenetics of whole chromosomes. A human male has one X chromosome, whereas a female has two X chromosomes. Despite this difference, both males and females have the same number of X-linked genes and products because females “inactivate” or “shut down” one of the chromosomes. This inactivation is also achieved via epigenetic regulation.

Dr Akhtar’s research is helping illuminate how such processes work at the molecular level and will help us better understand X-linked genetic disorders.

Academic Career Track

Dr Akhtar was fascinated by how human bodies work since her school days. Her interest only intensified as she grew up and learnt more. “My original plan was to go in the area of medicine, but what I also found very interesting were the nitty-gritty details of a cell, of really how things are working, how things are built, so I decided to pursue biology instead and, later on, also started research in these areas.”

Her journey began in Karachi, where she spent quite some time before moving to Abu Dhabi and then to Paris, mainly because of her father’s profession as a banker. After completing her A-Levels in Karachi, Dr Akhtar went to London for her higher studies and continued on to receive her PhD.

Those following an academic track, she says, look for post-doctoral work to gain more experience in doing research. This is how she moved to European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. She briefly moved to Munich when her lab was in transition, but then returned to Heidelberg at EMBL, this time as a group leader. “This is where I actually started my independent career of leading my own lab,” she says. “These positions have a set time-frame of nine years, so when I finished my term, I moved to the Max Planck [Institute] in Freiberg where I am right now.”

New Challenges

Looking back, Dr Akhtar says it was never smooth sailing. “At every step of the way and at different stages of your career, you have different levels of anxiety, different problems to solve. No career track is automatic, it is hard work, and it was no different for me either,” she says. “There are also times when one is unsure about where to go further in one’s career.”

For her, London was a major step towards achieving independence.

“Once I finished my PhD, I learned to be independent, learned to design a research project, and this was the time where I felt maybe I was not good enough,” she concedes. “But as an optimist, as a fighter, I never gave up and continued.”

Today, she has no regrets over the decisions she took, and is glad she followed through with her plans to do a post-doc. “I gave myself a second chance and it worked out.”

But leading a lab of her own came with different kinds of challenges, such as how to deal with different people, how to lead projects, and how to keep people motivated. It was also the time when her daughter was born. “So, I juggled my family and career,” Dr Akhtar recalls.

Dr Akhtar says she knew from the beginning that going into research and choosing it as a career was important to her. But she knew at the outset that there was no guarantee that she would succeed. “This is challenging for women in general and maybe even more challenging for people coming from countries such as Pakistan. Because there is also societal pressure on you to get married, have kids, and put your professional career on the backburner after you have completed your education,” she says.

“But here I was lucky enough that my parents and family were generally very supportive and let me do what I really wanted to do and explore my horizons. It has paid off. I wish many other families would be as supportive for women to go forward, just like the men.”

Pakistan Connection

In fact, it is her “big family” that Dr Akhtar remembers a great deal from her life in Pakistan. Despite living for a good part of her life outside the country of her birth, she says she has “lots of memories” of the country.

“That ranges from being with my uncles and aunts, with my nana and nani, dada and dadi. These are some of the best memories of this big family life one has. I have really fond memories of us coming together and playing and just having fun as young kids.”

And she really misses Pakistani food, especially the sweetmeats gulab jamun and laddu.

Her happy childhood memories, however, cannot mask her sadness over the rising inequality in Pakistan.

“(Of) Karachi, and generally Pakistan, something that I reflect on as an adult is the huge spectrum from extreme poverty to extreme richness all compressed into one. This makes me really sad,” she says. “You see extremely rich people living in villas alongside people who are on the streets with no education and no way to go forward. I wish we are able to improve this — to bring the level of wellbeing to the level that everybody has a roof over their heads, food to eat, and clean water.”

Dr Akhtar suggests the government should invest in science and education as well. “This is the best gift we can give to our next generation. If people can think for themselves, they can also make important decisions for themselves and their families.”

Dr Akhtar says people in Pakistan are no different in terms of what they can achieve within the country or elsewhere. “But infrastructure and resources have to be there to enable them to do that. I think the priorities have to be reassessed as to what we think is more important for our future,” she says.

She draws a parallel with Germany, where a lot of emphasis is put on science and education because “Germans consider investing into science as investing in their future.” In her view, this is the attitude Pakistanis have to take. “Only then can we succeed as a nation.”

Along with making required resources available, Dr Akhtar thinks that there is a dire need for the availability of equal opportunities. Pakistani society needs to make it possible for women to follow a career if they want to.

“Honestly speaking, the kind of family structure we have in Pakistan should enable more women to go forward,” she says. “Because people live in big families where nana, nanis and dada, dadis are close. This should enable childcare issues to be solved much faster than you can, for example, in Europe where families are living very far away from each other.”

Dr Akhtar hopes to be a good role model for women. “My message to the young scientists and young women is: if I can make it, you can do the same. You just have to go forward and not give up on following your dreams.”

The writer is a Mundus Journalism scholar based in Hamburg, Germany. He tweets @umerbinajmal

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 7th, 2021

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