Meet the Fellow: IGNAZIO GERACI

Today, we meet Ignazio Geraci, a Fellow who designs riboswitches for a living!


What does your lab do? What is a brief description of the project you work on?

If you would ask my PI, we basically are tool-makers. Need to thump? We make an hammer. Need to look closer? We make the loupe. Need to detect real-time intracellular metabolite fluctuation in single cells? Well my friend, our answer is aptamers.

Aptamers are a special class of nucleic acid molecules that can blabla… You can google what they are (or look at this recent post!). For us, these tiny little fellas are like highly-specialized workmen. They do one job, but they do it flawlessly. And of course they do, they have been specifically selected for it!

The process of selecting these molecule, called SELEX, enables us to identify specific aptamers starting from 1015 different sequences. If you were wondering how big this number is… it would cover the distance between the Earth and the Sun. In micrometers. Understanding that, you can get a glimpse of how many sequences, and possible diverse structures, we are working with. What I will be trying to do in my PhD is to implement aptamer section in order to sort for other attributes in addition to target specificity. It will be demanding, it will be challenging, but I am positive I will get the best out of it, also due to the enthusiastic research group I am part of. In any case, wish me luck!

What is your background in science (and otherwise)? Why are you motivated to work on this topic? What do you hope to accomplish during your PhD?

My background is Industrial Biotechnology with a practical specialization in Microbial bio-application. I’ve always had an industrial mindset, I want to see the end of the things I work for and I am always excited when there is a clear-cut goal to reach with a specific application. That’s probably why, especially during academia, I got bored by encyclopedic, stagnant lessons (Gosh, how much I hated Zoology back then!) and I usually started asking question instead (or go to a happy place in my mind, mostly).

Over that period, an episode in particular prompted my decision to pursue my studies into synthetic biology. I was already working on my MSc project at Novartis, but I had to attend one of the last exams of the Master course, Molecular Biology of non-coding RNA: I was struck by the regulatory mechanism of riboswitches, their plasticity and endless application  opportunities. I immediately found that those were exactly the kind of topics I wanted to pursue in a PhD project.

The only problem was that no one in Palermo, the city where I was attending my Master, was working on anything close to the field of synthetic biology. But after several experiences in other labs in different parts of the world I fortunately ended up in this amazing International Training Network that will allow me to do exciting science while preparing me for the future academic or industrial job market.


It hasn’t been that long since we were interviewing for PhDs; what are some pointers you would give to students looking for a PhD to do during their undergraduate or Master’s?

Don’t panic. Just don’t. For me, anxiety is the biggest problem during interviews because it doesn’t permit me to think clearly and give my best. I’m still working on it, but it helps me a lot to start with a joke to releases the pressure of the moment with a hearty laugh. If you have better ideas other than alcohol, I will be glad to hear it…


What are your short-term and long-term career goals (aka, what do you want to be “when you grow up” 😉 )?

Short-term goal: Make my first SELEX! And also learn German. But considering how bad I am with that, it could be stored as a long-term goal.

Long-term goal: Have you seen the Martian? Mark Watney, the lost astronaut? I want to be him. That guy is awesome.


What do you like to do for fun (outside of science, of course)?

Now that I don’t have that much time, I’ve starting enjoying spending a part of the day to cultivate a hobby. I’m playing ukulele and recently started Chess as well. Nothing works better when you have a tough day in the lab. Well, beside beer of course.


What is your favourite food?

Pasta and pizza. Yeah, I’m that Italian.

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