Where are they now?: Professor Stéphanie Portet, mathematical biologist

Mar 1, 2022 | Fellows, Interviews, Transformations (Issue 5), Where are they now?

Written by Stéphanie Portet

I was one of eleven IAS Fellows in the Michaelmas term in 2014, when the theme was Emergence and I was based at St Mary’s College. I am a Mathematical Biologist working between different disciplines: Mathematics, Chemistry, Biophysics, Biology and Statistics. My long-time research interest is the organization of intermediate filaments, which form one of the cytoskeletal networks in cells. Intermediate filament networks, by their continuous and dynamic organisation, provide important functions in cells and mutations on genes expressing intermediate filaments as proteins are linked to human diseases.

Even if my work is intrinsically multidisciplinary, I interact mostly with scientists. The IAS programme gave me the rare and unique opportunity to interact, exchange and communicate with academics from very diverse backgrounds such as Anthropology, Geography, History, Law and Philosophy.  This experience helped me rethink how I communicate about my research. I learned from these interactions that Law and Mathematics share similar intellectual processes. Law and mathematical theory are human constructions. Legal arguments are built similarly to mathematical proofs using laws as “theorems”. From my interactions with Professor Peter Cane, a professor of Law who was another IAS fellow at St Mary’s College, I learned that finding a parsimonious, minimal number of facts needed to translate and support a theory is a more efficient way to communicate. In short, less is more.

When in Durham, I was finalizing a paper on the interplay between turnover and transport of intermediate filaments material determining their organization in cells. In this work, we found that transport was the dominating phenomenon driving the organization. I also worked with members from the departments of Mathematical Sciences, Biosciences and Computer Science of Durham University.  Since then, I have focused my investigations on the mode of transport of these filaments in cells. I had a fellowship at the Isaac Newton Institute at the University of Cambridge in 2015, during which I continued working on the research initiated in Durham. With another mathematician, Professor John Dallon (Brigham Young University, Provo, USA) and biologists from Etienne-Manneville’s lab (Institut Pasteur, Paris), we adapted the concept of tug-of-war model to describe the motion of individual filaments to study the possible mechanisms of regulation of transport in cells. Simultaneously, I kept working on other aspects of the intermediate filament dynamics, such as their elongation dynamics, with a group of experimentalists from Heidelberg (Germany).  I had other projects in which mathematical modelling and experimental work were combined to investigate questions in Cell and Molecular Biology. With COVID, I had the opportunity to help as a modeller by working with my partner Professor Julien Arino (Department of Mathematics, University of Manitoba), who is a member of the Public Health Agency of Canada External Expert Modelling Group.  And we also published a few papers related to the effects of travel of individuals on the spread of infectious diseases.

In July 2021, I became the Site Director of the Pacific Institute for Mathematical Science (PIMS) at the University of Manitoba for a period of 3 years. PIMS is an institute that promotes, helps, and fosters research, teaching and outreach activities in the mathematical sciences.

Until 2020, I travelled a lot for conferences, collaborations, teaching in workshops and summer/winter schools in Europe, North America, Africa and China. Since COVID, all (talks, teaching and meetings with collaborators and graduate students) went online. I miss human interactions and virtual meetings are not as efficient as in-person ones, but at the same time, I like the ease and stresslessness of my desk. I suspect that, like many others, I have become a little agoraphobic and I hope this will pass.

I came back to Durham in 2017 for a workshop on “The Assembly, Dynamics and Organisation of Filaments and Cellular Responses” organized by Professor Roy Quinlan (Department of Biosciences, Durham University), who was at the origin of my application to the IAS Fellowship. It was delightful to visit the city again, the cathedral and the Institute of Advanced Study, memories of St Mary’s College’s high table dinners and Cumberland sausages. I would like to thank Professor Roy Quinlan, the IAS, St Mary’s College and my IAS fellows for this fantastic and unique adventure.

References of publications:  Google Scholar page https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=R1UKZuQAAAAJ


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