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Coffee & tea session with Prof. Daniela Rhodes

About the Interviewee

Before joining Nanyang Technological University in Singapore in September 2011, Professor Daniela Rhodes spent her whole research career at the world-renowned MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge UK. After studying for a PhD with Nobel Prize winner Aaron Klug, she obtained a Research Scientist Position in 1983, followed by tenure in 1987 and Special Appointment in 1994 (equivalent to Full Professor).

She served as Director of Studies 2006 – 2009 and has been a visiting professor at both the Rockefeller University in New York, USA, and La Sapienza in Rome, Italy. Among her other activities, she chaired the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Fellowship Committee (2000 – 2006), and was chair of EMBO Council (2010 – 2012).

She chairs the European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grants LS1 Committee since 2010 and also chair the External Advisory Committee of both the Centro de Investigaciones Biologicas in Madrid, Spain and the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche Institute in Napels, Italy. Her research is centred on uncovering nucleic acid structure and function; how DNA is packed into chromatin; how DNA sequences are recognized specifically by proteins such as transcription factors, using structural methods ranging from Nuclear magnetic resonance to X-Ray Crystallography to Electron Microscopy. Most recently, her research group has determined the first three-dimensional structure of full-length human telomerase using single particle EM methods.

Professor Daniela Rhodes, the director of NTU Institute of Structural Biology

In 2011, Rhodes moved to Singapore and joined the School of Biological Sciences at Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) as a professor. Prior to her current designation, the Italian-born research scientist spent a significant amount of time in Sweden and the United Kingdom. Rhodes is an internationally recognized structural biologist who made remarkable contributions to the area of chromosome biology at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), Cambridge.

When Rhodes was asked on the push-pull factors for her move to Singapore, she reckons it was multifactorial. After giving a seminar at NTU in early 2011, Rhodes was offered a position to start a research team in Singapore by NTU President Professor Bertil Andersson, whom she had met when he was previously the Chairman of the European Science Foundation.

‘Before my move to Singapore, I already had existing collaborative work with Prof Lars Nordenskiold from NTU’s School of Biological Sciences on chromatin research work. With the new position and funding, I asked myself why not give it a try and move to Singapore?’

There were also concerns about continuing her research at LMB as the UK had an imposed retirement age of 65 years old. ‘It is a good regulation to ensure that there is a constant flow of young talented minds entering Science and new ideas originate from the new generation,’ said Rhodes.

Rhodes spent most of her education life in Sweden. In 1969, she graduated with a Diploma in Chemical Engineering and got married. Together with her husband, she took a one-day boat journey from Sweden to England. Rhodes then applied to the LMB for a position and spent the next 42 years of her career at the institute. There she worked for 9 years as a technician before she embarked on her doctoral degree with Sir Aaron Klug (1982 Nobel Prize in Chemistry).

‘I really loved my time at the LMB. It is a place where researchers are inspired to do the challenging research and are able to discuss their work with open doors.’ Rhodes is trying her very best to create a similar imprint of LMB research spirit and culture in Singapore.

At the LMB, 13 scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Nobel Laureates include Sydney Brenner, Aaron Klug, John Walker, James Watson, Fred Sanger, etc.1

Rhodes used to work in the laboratory located on the same floor as Fred Sanger, and she recalled, ‘When I was doing my PhD, once when I was stuck on an experimental problem and I met Fred along the corridor. I spoke to him about my problem and he solved it in just 30 seconds.’

LMB has been remarkably successful to develop and create Nobel Laureates, but what exactly is the secret ingredient? ‘There is no reason not to do the best possible work,’ said Rhodes. ‘The Institute is centrally funded. The criterion is to hire the best minds, provide funding and let them do what they want. History shows that this model is the best way to achieve excellence in science. It is surprising that so few research institutions or countries have taken this model.

‘When I started my research career, I was very fortunate that there were no problems about hierarchy. Since its foundation over 50 years ago, from the head of LMB to scientists and the cleaners, all are addressed by their first name without their designation or professional titles.’

Structural biology has been the central topic of Rhodes’ research work and she has provided fundamental insights into the packaging of DNA in chromosomes, the structure of telomeres, the role of epigenetic marks and transcriptional regulations, etc.

‘In terms of ageing, we lose 50 to 100 base pairs of DNA from the tips of our chromosomes per year as we age. A number of groups are studying telomeres length across the populations hoping to link it not only with aging but as markers for certain diseases.’ However, Rhodes reckons that the rate of telomeres shortening over increasing age should be calculated and a prospective study is required to achieve such work.

Telomeres are the end caps of each chromatid and protects the ends of the chromosome from deterioration and fusion with neighboring chromosomes. Each round of replication shortens the DNA template strand, and the cell has a counteractive mechanism for this shortening process called telomerase.

‘When the DNA structure was discovered, it was James Watson whom first suggested the idea that there must be something in the cell to counteract the activity during the replication process,’ said Rhodes. James Watson received his Nobel Prize with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in year 1962 for the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA.

Telomerase is the reverse transcriptase enzyme which carries its own RNA template and it elongates the telomere ends. ‘Telomerase is only active in stem cells, and it is not active in somatic cells. It is, however, reactivated in 90% of cancer cells.’

Rhodes is a believer in basic science. She completed a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge within a time-span of 2.5 years. Her doctorate work comprised of publications in Nature: two Original Contributions articles and a Letter.2-4

When Rhodes was asked for useful tips for young scientists, she said to them ‘stay true to yourself, work on the questions and ideas that truly interest you rather than to publish for the sake of doing so.’

Rhodes enjoys painting and her photographic memory may have been the reason on why structural biology captivated her interests. ‘When I was young, I wanted to become an artist. And it was an accident that I became a scientist, partly because I was also very good in Math. I won the mathematics award for six consecutive years (during her education in Sweden).’

It is very difficult to not notice the presence of Rhodes in conferences or among a group of scientists. ‘Some people may question on why career-oriented women are strong-willed. What most people don’t realize is, it is society that makes women who want to have a good career to behave like men.’

‘I think it is also important to be married well, and I am very lucky to have met my husband who was very supportive of my career and he played a very good role as a father while my son was growing up.’

Rhodes then made her exit to purchase a new electron microscopy for her laboratory.


  1. LMB Nobel Laureates: https://www2.mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk/achievements/lmb-nobel-prizes/

  2. Rhodes, D., and A. Klug. "Helical periodicity of DNA determined by enzyme digestion." (1980): 573-578.

  3. Klug, A., et al. "A low resolution structure for the histone core of the nucleosome." (1980): 509-516.

  4. Rhodes, D., and A. Klug. "Sequence-dependent helical periodicity of DNA." (1981): 378-380.

  5. Baer, Bradford W., and Daniela Rhodes. "Eukaryotic RNA polymerase II binds to nucleosome cores from transcribed genes." Nature 301.5900 (1983): 482-488.

  6. Sauerwald, Anselm, et al. "Structure of active dimeric human telomerase." Nature structural & molecular biology 20.4 (2013): 454-460.

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