by Elena Beli
I’m Elena, I come from Italy and I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Montreal. I’ve never been a computer-science enthusiast, but for my PhD project on Rhabdopleura recondita (Hemichordata – Pterobranchia ¬– Graptolithina), a marine, colonial, tubicolous animal, I had to characterize the composition of the tubes. The tubes are tough, flexible and chemically inert, and previous researchers suggest they may be keratin, chitin, collagen or cellulose. There are no reliable chemical assays to differentiate these chemicals, so I decided to take a bioinformatics approach.
My supervisor, prof. Chris Cameron (University of Montreal), has a true passion for hemichordates: he travels the world talking about hemichordates, searching for them and infecting researchers with his enthusiasm, creating a world network of hemichordate-loving people. In this net there’s a professor from the University College London, Max Telford, renowned expert in animal genomics, phylogenetics, macro-evolution and development of invertebrates with specific skills in bioinformatics, who accepted to host me for one month in his lab in order to research the molecular development of Rhabdopleura tubes.
I began this project two years ago, scuba diving off Otranto on the east coast in Italy for Rhabdopleura, and isolating Rhabdopleura zooids from the tubes, at the University of Salento. The tubes were subjected to proteomic analysis and infrared spectroscopy analysis. The zooids were sent to the Telford lab at UC London to sequence the Rhabdopleura genome.
My QCBS funded research adventure started in late September when I departed for the Telford lab at UC London. I was a teenager when I first visited London, and fifteen years is enough to see things from another perspective. Since the first day, I felt at home among PhD students and a postdoc who had been notified about my arrival and made sure to make me feel comfortable. They began by treating me to pizza, a dish from my home country. I was immediately included in meetings with other members of the team involved in my project. I learnt the mysterious art of working remotely on a powerful computer and discovered that there is a software available for every kind of genome informatics imaginable. I am extremely thankful for the bioinformaticians who already began working on my question related to tube composition. My month in London was quick and productive. I assimilated difficult concepts easily thanks to my great collaborators. I am now enthusiastic about computational informatics and its efficacy in addressing long-standing questions.
Of course, London was not just bioinformatics, and the most exciting thing for me was to work at the famous Natural History Museum, where I viewed specimens and learned how to extract DNA.
The team. Clockwise from back left: Paschalis Natsidis, Max Telford, Irepan Salvador Martinez, Philipp Schiffer, Paschalia Kapli, Daniel Leite, Laura Piovani, Elena Beli.
A moment in NHM labs
I spent entire weekends exploring London museums but, as I am not only a biology nerd, I also enjoyed neighbourhoods, live music, food and beer! This was my second research internship supported by QCBS, an exceptional network that has supported my scientific growth and allowed me to address a question that has long puzzled palaeontologists, biologists and chemists.
Elena Beli is a PhD candidate at the University of Montreal. Her PhD thesis is called “Induced phenotypic plasticity and tube composition of Rhabdopleura recondita (Hemichordata, Pterobranchia, Graptolithina) from the Mediterranean Sea.” Elena is co-supervised by Christopher B. Cameron, associate professor, University of Montreal, and Stefano Piraino, associate professor, University of Salento.