Dr. Aldema Sas-Chen

Written by Paula Petronela Groza

“Try defining your niche” – is the advice that Assistant Professor Dr. Aldema Sas-Chen has for post-docs who are eager to take the next step forward in their careers towards becoming a principal investigator (PI). Dr. Sas-Chen just recently completed her postdoctoral studies and opened her new lab as an Assistant Professor as part of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel-Aviv University in Israel in October of 2021. Establishing her own independent group has been crowned by “a lot of energy and excitement in the air.” Together with her brand-new team, she is “combining experimental and computational biology to investigate the role of RNA modifications and the interplay between cancer metabolism, mitochondrial function and tumor progression.” Her research vision is centered on uncovering the “novel functions and mechanisms of action governed by the epitranscriptome, and to utilize these insights to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment”. The ultimate aim is “to examine the impact of RNA modifications of coding and non-coding RNAs in each of these fascinating fields and to uncover a potential crosstalk between them.”

Dr. Sas-Chen “fell in love with the complexity of the RNA world” during her undergraduate studies while working as research assistant “in the lab of Prof. Hermona Soreq at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.” While in the Soreq lab she studied the involvement of alternative splicing in Parkinson’s disease. She continued her training in the lab of Prof. Yosef Yarden at the Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS) and was “intrigued by the vast variations and functions of RNA molecules.” There, she was fuelled by the thrill of identifying novel molecules and uncovering their functions as she aimed to understand the involvement of microRNAs and long non-coding RNAs in cancer progression. Her passion for exploring the unknown led her to the lab of Prof. Schraga Schwartz at WIS, where she began studying epitranscriptomics during her post-doc. Specifically, she focused “on developing novel tools to detect various modifications and to study their mechanisms of action”.

From her own experiences, she believes that trainees should try to navigate between different labs and topics that make them feel excited about science. However, in her eyes it is more relevant (and important) to find a place where they feel comfortable with the scientific environment. Simply, “enjoying your day and having colleagues with whom you can discuss science and collaborate fruitfully is the most important part in my eyes.” Thinking back about the advice that guided her through her journey she mentioned the two that had big impact on her becoming the scientist and woman that she is today. First, “become an expert in your field” and second, “always work on things that challenge you”. These two notions have “always motivated me and helped me expand personal and scientific horizons”.

Even though her progression in the academic hierarchy has been quite smooth, she faced a great challenge when she transitioned from a bench scientist during her PhD in molecular and cellular biology to a computational postdoc, which necessitated mastering various programming languages and conducting bioinformatics studies. However, with hard work and dedication she overcame this difficulty and now she feels the excitement of being able to follow the experiments from inception, to bench, and to full computational analysis. She recalls one of her most rewarding achievements during that transition period with joy “I will always remember the first group meeting, where I presented a plot which I created using the programming language R. It might seem silly, but for me, it was a landmark that I am on the right path to achieving my goal (back then, to become a computational biologist)”.

First, “become an expert in your field” and second, “always work on things that challenge you”. These two notions have “always motivated me and helped me expand personal and scientific horizons”.

As a member of the RNA Society, she recognizes that this community “gives great opportunities for its scientists to advance their work and increase its visibility as well as creating opportunities to meet and foster new and ongoing collaborations. I think that it is a special case of a society that manages to highlight individuals and support them and at the same time to promote collaborations and advance good community ties.” Her hard work and achievements have been noticed by the Broader RNA biology community and was awarded with the 2022 RNA Society Eclipse Award for Innovation in High Throughput Biology. When asked about the significance of this award for her career she proudly and joyfully said: “As a scientist working on RNA for the past 15 years, it was very rewarding to receive such an award from a community so relevant to the core of my work”.

During her PhD studies she had the chance to unveil the functions of the RNA molecule that has now became her favorite RNA, namely the long non-coding RNA LIMT (aka LINC01089). The importance of LIMT for her comes not only from its biological role of being “an epidermal growth factor (EGF) regulated lncRNA involved in regulation of cell migration and metastasis”, but also from a more personal perspective. “For me, LIMT represents the excitement that we scientists feel when exploring uncharted territories and the satisfaction of contributing to expanding our collective knowledge.”

Among her favorite articles in the RNA Journal are two recently published reviews: Max Ferretti and Katrin Karbstein (PMID: 30733326) and by Joseph Georgeson and Schraga Schwartz (PMID: 34312287). She finds these two reviews interesting because they address in a thorough manner a topic that she finds fascinating, the “plasticity of the ribosome, which can lead to functionally specialized ribosomes.” Her desire to “decipher how cells react to changes in their environment by dynamically modulating gene expression programs” led to her interest in this topic. Exploring this scientific pathway “led me to investigate the regulation of ncRNAs in response to oncogenic growth factor signaling and to explore the responsiveness of RNA acetylation to temperature alterations.” It is in this way that she became aware of “the impact of environmental conditions on the dynamic patterns of modifications in archaeal ribosomal RNA.  This modularity of RNA modifications complements heterogeneity found in rRNA sequences and in composition and post-translational modifications of ribosomal proteins.”

Currently she is looking for enthusiastic post-docs who are willing to work hard “to uncover novel roles of non-coding RNA and RNA modifications in etiology of disease”. Her ideal team “is composed of curious individuals, working in a supportive and challenging environment”. If you are interested in joining her lab, you can connect with Dr. Aldema on LinkedIn (Aldema Sas-Chen) and twitter (@AldemaSasChen).