Rehovot, Israel, 2017: Barbara Conradt

BARBARA CONRADT is a Professor of Biology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich). Her mottos in science are that “little things make big differences” and that “one can always learn something from negative data.” She received a PhD in molecular biology from UCLA where she worked on reconstitution of the fusion of vacuoles in yeast under the supervision of Prof. William T. Wickner. She recalls experiencing more than 200 failed attempts before she finally came up with a protocol that worked – a breakthrough that helped establish the current understanding of the molecular mechanism of vacuole fusion. To this day, she recalls not the frustration of failure after failure but her enthusiasm to get back into the lab every day to try again.

She moved to MIT for her postdoctoral training with Prof. H. Robert Horvitz (Horvitz together with Sydney Brenner and John Sulston received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2002 for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death). During this period, she made several seminal discoveries published in two sequential Cell papers (Conradt & Horvitz), in which she characterized the BH3-only protein EGL-1 in C. elegans and its interaction with the Bcl-2 homolog CED-9, and identified the sex determination zinc finger protein TRA-1A as a transcriptional repressor of egl-1, which mediates developmental cell death of the hermaphrodite-specific neurons (HSNs) in males.

She subsequently served as an Independent Junior Group Leader at the Max-Planck-Institute of Neurobiology, Munich-Martinsried and as Professor of Genetics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. During these periods, she continued making important contributions to the field of programmed cell death, including the discovery and thorough characterization of the role of Bcl-2 family members in the regulation of mitochondrial dynamics.

She moved to LMU Munich in 2011, and her research currently focuses on the regulation of programmed cell death and mitochondrial dynamics. Her group recently reported that components of the engulfment pathways promote programmed cell death by enhancing the polar localization of apoptotic factors in mothers of cells programmed to die. In a more recent paper, her group discovered the regulation of EGL-1 and programmed cell death by microRNAs, thus demonstrating that even after almost two decades since the first EGL-1 paper, exciting discoveries about the regulation of this pro-apoptotic protein are still waiting to be uncovered. This example perfectly describes Conradt’s way of doing science. She believes that “good science just takes time,” and that “one has to be patient and open-minded to follow the biology rather than the model in one’s mind.”

Conradt’s passion for science isn’t unusual, but her commitment to actually working at the lab bench is. Whereas many principal investigators gradually move away from the bench during the course of their careers and spend more and more time on the administrative work of running their lab, Barbara still continues to do experiments. “I just love it,” she says. “That is the part that’s the most fun.” It keeps her up to date on the latest technologies and is also “the best way to see how others in her lab are doing and to communicate with them.”

It is therefore a pleasure for the ICDS to recognize the achievements of Barbara Conradt, who has already won several distinctions and awards, including the EMBO Young Investigator (2001 – 2004) and the Leukaemia & Lymphoma Society’s Special Fellow Award (1997 – 2000). It is an honor to present one of our 2017 prizes for Lifetime Achievement to Barbara Conradt.