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Outstanding People: Meet Giovanna

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18 April 2022

“We’re on a fast train!” Giovanna Bergamini, Senior Director of Discovery Biology in Genomics Sciences at GSK, on the excitement of being at the cutting edge of a golden age for molecular biology, why teamwork is everything in the big new world of cell biology and how the joy of scientific discovery keeps her focused on new horizons.

Being a pioneer 

There is something so exciting about being the first person to see something. It’s like the explorers who reached the North Pole for the first time, planting that flag in the snow, knowing nobody else has ever been there before. I get such an energy from that feeling, and no matter how many times things haven’t gone right along the way, that single moment pays off all the failures.  

Just like those explorers couldn’t do it alone, I have had amazing people around me through my whole journey. I love building teams; collaboration is fundamental to scientific discovery, and I really believe we can all be outstanding. I think there’s a bit of luck involved in getting to a position like mine. Obviously there’s hard work, that goes without saying, but I didn’t have a clear path; there were lots of twists and turns.  

As a kid I was very shy and introverted, certainly not ambitious; if you’d told me then that I’d end up as a senior director at a company like GSK, I would have laughed! There have been a few times when I hesitated or lacked confidence, but I’ve always had people around me to say “you can do it!’ Being open to opportunities and not being afraid are the key, so you can take your chances when they come along, even if the timing might not be perfect. And having the resources to take the next step is so important – that’s why working at GSK is great, because we’ve got the right talent to think about those big questions. 

Making a difference

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I always liked thinking about big problems; I almost went into philosophy but I loved the rigour of science. I grew up with really strong values about family, solidarity, having a purpose and doing work that has a benefit. My mom was very into cultural enrichment and my dad was an engineer with a strong belief in sustainability, at a time when those themes weren’t as popular as they are now. Both of my brothers are in applied science too – one is an engineer and the other is working on drought resistant plants.  

I really connected with wanting to help patients when I did my PhD in Bologna, Italy. I had to walk through the hospital, past all the patients, to get to my lab. Every day I saw with my own eyes people with disease and it was tangible that the work I generated could help those people. Even today, all the work we do in our lab is in partnership with local hospital clinics, so I still have that really strong sense of connection that I used to have walking through those hospital wards. 

When I started out in Biology it wasn’t the most exciting science. That all changed while I was doing my PhD and suddenly, with data so readily available across the world in real time, and all the game changing technologies emerging around genome sequencing, I found myself in the middle of a new golden era of molecular biology.  

Right now, it’s like being on a fast train, and it’s getting faster all the time. If we get it right, that train is heading towards a better understanding of outcomes, and that in turn may bring us to the position of being able to cure people in a more effective way, with better rationale and better cures. In the end, that will help all of us. 

Family values 

Heidelberg, Germany is a great international city to live in, full of scientists and interesting people, but I still carry a strong Italian identity even after 20 years of being away. I love taking my children back to visit my family where I grew up in Puglia, in the south of Italy. People go there on holiday for the warm air and the beautiful beaches and olive groves. The culture is always with me; I love good food, good wine, good conversation. Things worth taking time over; that’s very Italian!  

I’m a single mom so keeping up with my children’s busy lives takes a lot of time but I love being with them, and it makes me so happy to see how proud of me they are. In the past, I’ve had this side of me that didn’t know when something was good enough. I can still be a perfectionist, but I have learned with time to be aware of those traits, and spending time with my children helps me embrace my imperfections! I also learned from them how encouraging diversity is fundamental to feeling closer to people. 

Big picture thinking

I think science was good preparation for parenting! You have to learn to live with the feeling that you might not get the result for a long time into the future, and you have to be prepared to all learn together.  

Many times in my work I’ve gone down a path that didn’t take me anywhere, and had to start over and invest all that energy again. I worked in genetics, then virology, then gene expression, then immunology and oncology. Every time you start from scratch, and psychologically that has a price, but I’ve learned to be resilient and concentrate on the things that work. That’s a lesson I owe to science, the understanding that most of the things you do might not pan out.  

To make it in science, you need to learn to take the excitement of that one thing that does work out to compensate for the other 99 times when you’re frustrated! It helps being able to see the big picture – I love to go deep into the science, but I’ve always got that philosophical side of me that’s thinking ahead and strategically, and never getting stuck in the detail of the moment. 

Pushing the horizon 

The horizons we’re reaching for with GSK are very ambitious and we are closely collaborating with academia, since these are global challenges for the whole scientific community. We are looking at cutting edge technologies and  everything that’s coming out is new. My team is developing new methods to measure what is happening inside a single cell. This is really game changing in the whole field of biology, but particularly for characterising immune cells; to be able to look at a single cell in a multi-dimensional way is revolutionising our understanding of disease and of how drugs affect cells in the human body.  

Our aim is to analyse the molecular status of a disease sample and compare it with a healthy cell, find the processes that are altered and try to modulate those processes to restore them to something more like the healthy cell. We’ve got to the point where we have the tools to do that; now starts the big work of science, and we’re right in the middle of it. That is so exciting, to see how we can bring it all together and find out what the future holds. 

Looking ahead, science fiction might not be science fiction anymore. That’s my mission, that for any symptom there is an effective way of identifying the cause and better tools to intervene so that we can prevent a lot of suffering, increase quality of life, and reduce sickness and death. It’s a real global effort, and we are all learning together. 

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