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Marina Kuimova, Associate Professor, Imperial College London

Reader at the Department of Chemistry of Imperial College London (UK), Dr. Marina Kuimova scientific interests lie in imaging viscosity of live micro-environments using fluorescent probes, called molecular rotors. Recently invited speaker by the NCCR, her talk particularly delighted our teams involved around imaging mechanical forces in living systems. We are very happy to host her today in our portrait of a scientist series. Discover a very interesting personality, another definition of science and listen to an unexpected musical selection.

Why are you active in the field of chemical biology?

I am a physical chemist by training, however, throughout my career I got more and more involved in the field of Chemical Biology. I am fascinated by the impact the physical science innovation can make on biology and medicine and am keen to explore what more can be done.

Describe the most intense moment of your career.

Securing a 5-years’ Career Acceleration Fellowship from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which funded me to create a new lab, including hiring my first few postdocs and installing sophisticated microscopy equipment. This Fellowship allowed me to truly start to test out my ideas in research.

Which is the best idea you ever had?

My lab specialises in using environmentally sensitive probes (so-called ‘molecular rotors’) to measure the viscosity of the microenvironments, for example in live biological cells and tissues. My best idea so far was putting several pieces of the jigsaw together to demonstrate that the data for our first ‘rotor’ was not just an artefact, but a real effect of sensing viscosity. Once I’ve persuaded myself, it was easier to persuade others!

Do you have a role-model or a driving force?

I admire many excellent contemporary scientists, some of whom are my mentors or collaborators, for their enthusiasm for scientific research, insatiable curiosity, and the ability to inspire others. I hope that my research ethos will be infectious to my group members and other colleague that I interact with and this way we can spread ‘good research vibes’ all round.

The philosophy along which lines you lead your lab?

What drives me in doing research is ‘the pleasure of finding things out’, to quote Richard Feynman. I hope that my group members share this pleasure, and do so with research integrity, which should be central for all we do as researchers.

Pick a paper you praise for the elegance of its demonstration.

Some of my group’s research deals with detecting ‘lipid rafts’, small membrane domains that are thought to be important in biological function. This paper published in Nature Communications (2012) demonstrates the existence of lipid rafts very elegantly.

Can you shed light on the relevance of inter-disciplinarity for scientific breakthroughs?

As I’ve mentioned before, I find it amazing how much scientific insight can be achieved when physical scientists and biologists work on a problem together. The tools chemists, engineers and physicists can offer to tackle important questions in biology really drive innovation and discovery. The trick is to find a like-minded collaborator from a neighbouring discipline and to learn to speak each other’s language!

Define research with just three words.

Integrity, enquiry, fun!

How do you match the words beauty and science?

There is an undeniable beauty (at least in one’s head!) in completing a puzzle and coming up with a theory that explains the known observations and facts. We may see a beautiful natural object and admire its aesthetic qualities, and the precision with which it works, but it is all the more beautiful if we understand how it works and, maybe, through doing so, find a way to fix it if it becomes faulty.

A piece of advice you’d like to give to the young generation of researchers?

Follow your ambitions and don’t hold back! Work with people you enjoy working with, that way even when you work hard you can have fun in the process.

A book, song, poem, music or painting that you spot out and get inspiration from?

I enjoy all kinds of art, literature and music and it’s difficult to choose just one piece. I’ll pick an unusual example of a Russian composer Aleksandr Borodin, who was also a well-respected chemist of his time. While during his lifetime he regarded chemistry and medicine as his main professions, he is definitely better known as a composer now. This goes to show that you never know what your legacy will turn out to be! Borodin’s string quartets and his opera ‘Prince Igor’ are well worth a listen.

Marina Kuimova is a Reader (Associate Professor) at Imperial College London. Her current research is focused on elucidation of biologically relevant processes using different types of fluorescence imaging and time-resolved spectroscopy. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a member of the Editorial Board of Methods and Applications of Fluorescence. She has received numerous awards and honors for her work, including 2011 Grammaticakis-Neumann Prize of the Swiss Chemical Society, 2009 Roscoe the Westminster Medals at the SET for Britain, UK Houses of Parliament; 2012 British Biophysical Society Young Investigator Award, 2012 Royal Society of Chemistry Harrison-Meldola Prize, 2013 ChemComm Emerging Investigator Lectureship, the 2014 IUPAP C6 Young Scientist Prize in Biological Physics and Society of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanines Young Investigator Award, 2020. Marina Kuimova obtained her doctorate at the University of Nottingham (UK) under the supervision of Professor M. W. George in 2006. Following a postdoctoral appointment with Professor David Phillips at Imperial, she became a group leader and an EPSRC Life Science Interface Fellow (in 2007) and an EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellow (in 2010). She was appointed as a lecturer in the department of Chemistry at Imperial in 2012 and promoted to a Readership in 2016.

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