Zuzanna Kozicka: diversity in science and ’molecular glues’

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Zuzanna Kozicka (Source: FMI)
Zuzanna Kozicka (Source: FMI)

Spotlight on FMIers showcases the lives, work and passions of the institute’s researchers and support staff. We talked to FMI PhD graduate Zuzanna Kozicka about her efforts to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in science, her work on ’molecular glues’, and her excitement for an upcoming get-together with Nobel laureates and early career scientists from all over the world.

Just weeks after completing her PhD in the Thomä lab last year, Zuzanna Kozicka received a generous postdoc grant, was recognized by Forbes in their Science & Healthcare "30 Under 30" Europe list, and was invited to the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting — a globally recognized forum for exchange between Nobel laureates and early career researchers.

You graduated from the FMI in December and are now doing a bridging postdoc in the Thomä lab. What are your plans for the future?
I obtained funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation for a postdoc mobility grant, which is aimed at researchers who wish to ultimately pursue an academic career in Switzerland. Later this year, I’ll move to Boston for a postdoc at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the MIT’s Koch Institute. But I aim to come back to Switzerland after two years. In Boston, I’m going to learn entirely new methodologies but continue exploring molecular glues — chemical compounds that induce proximity between proteins that normally wouldn’t meet in the cell, mostly in the context of targeted protein degradation.

What is it that you find the most interesting about molecular glues?

Virtually all processes in biology are governed by proximity of biomolecules. The most interesting angle to me is inducing proximity between a protein we want to get rid of, because it’s disease-causing, and the enzyme that can help degrade it. The big challenge with molecular glue degraders, however, is that we do not know how to design them as most have been found by pure chance. My PhD work aimed to better understand how these compounds induce new interactions and identify a novel class of molecular glues that show unprecedented chemical diversity, despite gluing the very same interface and triggering the degradation of the same target. But there are many other ways that these chemical inducers of proximity could be used. It’s very exciting conceptually, but it’s also highly relevant in drug discovery, where glues can be a useful tool to target previously unreachable proteins.

Later this month, you’ll head to the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. What are you looking forward to?
Over 40 Nobel laureates will be in attendance, and this year the meeting is focused on physiology and medicine, which perfectly matches my interests. That’s very interesting of course, but what’s even more exciting is that more than 600 young scientists will come together, including students, postdocs, and young group leaders. The organizers ensure equal representation from all participating countries, and I really look forward to discussing science in such a diverse environment. There will also be social events, workshops, morning workouts: it’s a program packed with activities for almost a week.

You are part of TWIST , an organization that aims to empower and connect women in STEM in the Basel area. Can you tell us how this started?
I studied in the UK, where I did all sorts of internships — academic or less so, and I saw that it’s really fun and fruitful to work in diverse teams. Although at the University of Basel and at the FMI it’s clearly acknowledged that diversity is the way forward, Switzerland overall to me felt a little less dynamic than the UK in the steps that are being taken to achieve these diversity goals. A couple of years ago, the University of Basel had Paul Walton give a talk about why we’re not going to close the gender gap in science anytime soon. That gave me the direct motivation to join TWIST, which [FMI Guidance Counsellor] Piera Cicchetti had helped to establish a few years earlier.

In 2019, TWIST started organizing events. Then COVID came. Now, you’re giving it another go. Tell us more about this.
In March, Piera, Aurelia Galliot — a PhD candidate from the ETH Zürich’s Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering, and I organized an event at the FMI to raise awareness of TWIST and get more people involved. We now have about 10 people who expressed their willingness to contribute their time. We have recently started a private Linkedin group to share information and support among the local life science community. We have also created an advisory board and recruited volunteers amongst group leaders and staff at partner institutions in Basel, who will help provide continuity so that TWIST does not cease to exist when we move on with our careers.

What other events are you organizing with TWIST?

We have two events coming up: one will be a speed-dating-style advice session, where we invite mentors and students that want to be mentored and do three rounds of 15-minute speed-mentoring, followed by an apéro for more informal networking. The second one is a social event, which we plan to host every two months, where we discuss diversity-related topics. We also partnered with Athena’s Journey to host monthly talks where female scientists share their research journeys. Finally, we look forward to collaborating with Piera on a networking event where early-career female life scientists in Basel can give flash talks and receive feedback from a panel of more senior female scientists. Right now, TWIST focuses on supporting people that identify as women in science, but we would like to use our platform to be supportive of individuals from different groups that are less represented in science — whether it’s people of different races, sexual orientations or abilities.

Zuzanna Kozicka grew up in Kraków, Poland, and studied Biological and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, UK, with a year-long study-abroad program at ETH Zürich. Before joining the FMI in late 2018, Zuzanna carried out a summer project at the University in Dundee that sparked her interest in targeted protein degradation. For her PhD work at the FMI, Zuzanna was awarded the EFMC-YSN PhD Prize 2023 and included in Forbes’s Science & Healthcare "30 Under 30" Europe list. She lives in Basel with her husband, a fellow scientist, and enjoys art, design, baking and making pottery — mostly ceramic dogs.