Professor Maria Barna

Written by Jennifer Porat

The ribosome has long been at the heart of RNA biology, and as such, Dr. Maria Barna, an Associate Professor of Genetics at Stanford University (California, USA), is determined to unravel its mysteries. But despite her intense focus on everything ribosomal, Dr. Barna completed her PhD studying the control of tissue patterning and never thought she would be studying ribosomes one day. A chance encounter with a mouse mutant characterized by the replacement of one skeletal element with another led to Dr. Barna’s career-long fascination with the ribosome. She recalls, “When we positionally cloned the responsible gene, it turned out to be a deletion spanning a single ribosomal protein! I think this was the first evidence linking something as fundamental as tissue patterning to control of ribosome activity. That made me fall in love with ribosomes. Since that moment, I have been intrigued by the yet undiscovered roles that ribosomes can play in control of gene expression and development.”

Following the completion of her PhD with Dr. Lee Niswander at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medicine (New York, USA), Dr. Barna had the unique opportunity to work as a faculty fellow at the University of California, San Francisco (USA). This allowed her to skip the traditional postdoctoral training phase and jump right into starting her independent group. Of this exciting time in her career, she says, “By starting my lab as a faculty fellow, it really sparked my interest in addressing bold and challenging research questions. I didn’t feel like I had any bounds; I could study anything!” She therefore encourages trainees to not fear diving into brand new fields. “As an outsider to the ribosome field, I believe it gave me a unique perspective on a research problem from the lens of developmental biology. It is incredibly exciting to bring expertise from a new area of biology that is unique to the field.” Although she recognizes the risks associated with exploring unknown research areas, she advises trainees to nevertheless embrace the unknown and venture boldly into new territory. “Instead of pursuing something trendy that everyone is doing at the present moment (which might seem easier), try to find your own, unique niche in a less explored research topic. You want to be ahead of the curve on what will be interesting in the coming decades rather than looking short term on what is interesting now.”

“I believe that the most important insight that I ever received is simply having had really outstanding female role models as mentors throughout my research career.”

While Dr. Barna is eager to offer advice to trainees on how to navigate the ups and downs of RNA biology, she believes that simply having an abundance of female mentors to look up to has been the most important aspect of her career development. “I had examples of strong, successful, and accomplished female mentors that I could assimilate with,” she says. “This really shaped who I am today and gave me more confidence to pursue science even in a male dominated research field.” Still, Dr. Barna also readily acknowledges the challenges one often faces when at the cutting edge of biological research. “Whenever you discover something completely new and unexpected, there can be a certain degree of skepticism that can arise in the field. I have found this to be a point of motivation and exhilaration in driving my science forward, but also a challenge to overcome personally. It can be a stressful feeling that you have to live up to your skeptics.” She shares that the best way to deal with such doubt, whether internal or external, is to do the best science she can. “I realize that I am in science for the long haul. I strive to overcome skepticism by carrying out research that is meticulous and exciting that can inspire others.”

Dr. Barna’s drive to produce high quality science and push ribosome research forward has made her an invaluable member of the RNA Society. As she is always excited to learn about and share new stories about RNA, she believes the greatest advantage of the RNA Society is that it provides “a home where you can geek out on all things RNA and have creative and supportive colleagues.” She has especially fond memories of the 2019 annual meeting in Kraków, when she was awarded the RNA Society’s Early Career Award. “I felt the support and encouragement of the RNA Society and I was blown away by how welcoming everyone was,” she remembers. “That feeling of acceptance was really something special for me.”

Looking forward at the future of ribosome research, Dr. Barna is particularly excited about one of the current projects in her lab which seeks to create “a cellular roadmap of ribosome variation across stem cell differentiation.” Building off previous work demonstrating that ribosomal protein subunit composition varies across individual cells, her team is busy tackling the question of whether ribosome composition is dynamic as cells differentiate. She shares, “We have identified one ribosomal protein that is differentially incorporated in polysomes during mesoderm differentiation and is critically required for mesoderm formation in vivo. It blows my mind to think that a change in ribosome composition can control the production of one of the three germ layers in the body. What is more interesting is that it appears that heterogenous ribosomes do this by controlling the translation of key cell signaling pathways.” With constant new insights into the intersection of ribosome biology and developmental biology, we can doubtless look forward to more exciting discoveries from the Barna lab in the future.

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Barna’s favorite RNA is “rRNA of course!” You can find her on Twitter @mbarnalab or find out more about her lab at