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Diverse Perspectives in Stem Cell Science: A Q&A with Emanuela Monni

Written by Abigail Altman

Emanuela Monni, the director of the Imaging Facility at the Lund Stem Cell Center, has had an impressive 15-year career in academic research. In this interview, Emanuela takes us back to where it all began and shares how the pillars of inclusivity and teamwork in research have been instrumental in her growth and success as a scientist.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and career in research?  

A: The first thing that I can say is that I always wanted to challenge myself by doing a PhD program abroad. I decided to go for it, and I applied to research groups in France and UK, and Zaal (Zaza) Kokaia’s lab here in Lund. I was accepted at each of these universities. However, it was Zaza’s research group that truly resonated with me the most, particularly because of its proximity to clinical applications in the field of ischemic stroke. I thought if I could contribute to that, that would be wonderful. I made the decision to accept the offer, and at the same time, I was awarded a scholarship from the Sardinia regional government in Italy. At the beginning of 2008, I joined Zaza’s lab. Initially, I began with the customary six-month position as a research assistant before transitioning into the role of a PhD student. And it was really, really tough at the beginning because I wasn’t fluent in English. I mean, I had studied English and British-American literature for a long time, but everyday vocabulary—like the kind you hear in TV series—was completely lacking. It was truly remarkable that in Zaza’s lab, everyone was welcomed regardless of their level of English proficiency. 

Q: Did you always know that you wanted to be involved in research?  

A: Definitely. I always loved the idea of being a researcher since I was a child. I was given scientific gifts; I recall a little microscope, a chemist kit where you combined various reagents that undergo color changes upon completing a chemical reaction, and a doctor’s handbag. I always thought my interest lies in discovering things, finding out how things work, and I was pretty much fixated on knowing more about the brain since I was a child.  

Q: Can you describe what it is you are working on now? 

A: Currently, 20% of my time is dedicated to my role as a project assistant in Zaza’s lab. Here, I am engaged in various projects, offering consultation, and contributing to various tasks. The remaining 80% of my time is devoted to managing the Lund Stem Cell Center Imaging Facility. In this capacity, I teach microscopy techniques to aid in observations' interpretation and assist researchers in utilizing microscopes for their sample analysis. What makes this role particularly fascinating is its diversity—I encounter subjects ranging from neuroscience to hematology and lung biology and many others. The unpredictability of the facility’s users’ samples keeps each training day fresh and scientifically stimulating. I apply my research experience when encountering new topics, expanding my knowledge base, and engaging in interesting and rewarding scientific discussions with our facility ’s users.  

Q: Reflecting on your long-standing tenure with the research group, what core values do you believe have been fundamental to the lab’s environment over time? 

A: The first word that comes to my mind is inclusivity. It does not matter where you come from, we are all at the same level. Collaboration between PhD students and postdocs has consistently been strong, characterized by a lack of rigid hierarchy and a culture of mutual cooperation. I know that it seems like I am describing something that is unreal, but I promise this is a reality! 

Q: What is your approach to understanding colleagues with diverse backgrounds? 

A: Sometimes, what you perceive as kindness might be interpreted differently in other cultures, even as excessive. For me, it is always a balancing act, considering how my actions might be perceived. Over time, I have learned the importance of caution. While I feel it is essential to offer help and assistance, sometimes it is best to wait until asked and be available if someone requests it. 

Q: How can we make our stem cell science community even more diverse and inclusive of people from other places and backgrounds? 

I believe we could offer more specific seminars on DEI topics. This would be particularly beneficial because of our diverse cultural backgrounds; understanding one another is crucial. Over the years, I have realized how frustrating it can be to categorize people based on stereotypes. To counteract this, cultural seminars could help dissipate these stereotypes, allowing individuals to be seen beyond cultural generalizations. For example, as an Italian, I reject the stereotype of being loud, overly extrovert, fixated on pizza and pasta and so on. Each person deserves the chance to be themselves without stereotypes preceding them. 

Another aspect I believe would greatly benefit our environment is a stronger emphasis on emotional intelligence. This not only boosts self-awareness and confidence for everyone but also enhances interactions and productivity. When individuals possess a high level of emotional intelligence, they understand their roles and responsibilities. By promoting a safe environment where concerns can be voiced without fear of reproach, we promote healthier communication. I suggest that emotional intelligence be considered as another topic for seminars or workshops. 

Q: Are there any mentors, role models, or initiatives that have played a significant role in your research journey? 

I had an uncle and an aunt, both interested in science, who played a significant role in shaping my interests. They were instrumental in introducing me to scientific gifts during my childhood, helping me realize my interest in science. My parents always truly emphasized and encouraged my curiosity, consistently supporting my pursuit of interests. And my boss, Zaza. I have always thought that he is an incredible leader. I admire his remarkable work ethic, outstanding attention to every detail of a scientific project, and his commitment to maintaining high scientific standards. When I was a PhD student I enjoyed a great sense of autonomy in his group, I always got positive feedback from him and learned the invaluable lesson that one should meticulously verify and recheck your data while carefully reflecting on its valid interpretation.  

About Emanuela Monni 

Emanuela Monni

Emanuela Monni, a research engineer with the Stem Cells and Restorative Neurology Research Group at Lund University, serves as the Director of the Lund Stem Cell Center Imaging Facility. This facility provides microscopy systems to researchers, allowing for advanced imaging of both fluorescent and non-fluorescent live cells as well as fixed-stained biological specimens. 

Professional Background: PhD at Lund University, Research Engineer at Lund University, Director of the Lund Stem Cell Center Imaging Facility 

Emanuela Monni’s Profile in the Research Portal