Ilaria Piazza

Ilaria Piazza wins 2021 EMBL Alumni Award

Dr. Ilaria Piazza has received one of the 2021 EMBL Alumni Awards for her groundbreaking work on protein-metabolite interactions. She now heads the MDC’s Allosteric Proteomics Lab – but she says if she hadn’t done her PhD work at EMBL Heidelberg, she would not have chosen science as a career.

Dr. Ilaria Piazza, head of the Allosteric Proteomics Lab at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, has won the 2021 EMBL Alumni Award for early career scientists. The John Kendrew Award (JKA) was presented to her in July as part of the annual World Alumni Day celebrations of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in recognition of her excellent scientific contributions.

“I am incredibly honored to receive the John Kendrew Award,” says Piazza. “I can convincingly say that I would not have made scientific research a profession without having been a PhD student at EMBL. I met so many people who deeply changed my perspective in this network, thus I am and will always be proud to be in the EMBL alumni network!”

Piazza first studied biomedical engineering in Milan but soon discovered her interest in biochemistry, so she moved to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom with an EU-funded Erasmus scholarship before completing her PhD at EMBL Heidelberg. During these formative years (2009 –2014), she worked in the EMBL’s Cell Biology and Biophysics Unit. She was interested in understanding how the information encoded in the DNA molecules of the cells is read in a controlled way.

Groundbreaking work as a postdoc

Piazza realized, however, that cells are very complex systems and turned back to engineering in order to understand the underlying mechanisms. As a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich she used the mass spectrometer to measure the mass – i.e., the identity and amounts – of all proteins present in cells and tissues. Piazza even developed a new research method called limited proteolysis–small-molecule mapping, or LiP-SMap for short. It allows scientists to systematically map how all the proteins present in a cell interact with the metabolites in their native environment. The jurors said the work was “groundbreaking,” calling it a “widely enabling technology in both fundamental and translational research.”

Ilaria Piazza with her EMBL Alumni Award (screenshot from the online award ceremony).

The John Kendrew Young Scientist Award recognizes excellence in science or science communication. It is open to all former EMBL PhD students and postdocs, between two and seven years after leaving EMBL. The award was launched in 2007 as an initiative from the EMBL Pensioners’ Association to honor EMBL’s first Director General, Sir John Kendrew (1917–1997), and to support scientists in the early stages of their careers. It has been sponsored by philanthropist Roland Specker since 2011. It consists of a gold-plated medal and a prize of €10,000.


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