Elena Ferri began asking big scientific questions at an early age. Growing up in Novara, Italy, Elena was wondering how the human body works long before it was time to head to university to discover the answers. Now, years and degrees later, Elena is the recipient of the prestigious Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) Chateaubriand Fellowship.
Awarded by the Office for Science and Technology (OST) of the Embassy of France in the United States, the Chateaubriand Fellowship encourages collaborations, joint projects, and partnerships between the United States and France by providing funding for doctoral students at American universities who wish to perform research in a French laboratory as part of their Ph.D. studies.
Elena’s career began at the University of Milan, where she earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Industrial Chemistry and Industrial Chemistry and Management, respectively. After completing her coursework, Elena worked in a university lab for a year, where she fell in love with research.
“I love science,” Elena said. “Chemistry allows me to answer the biology questions I’ve had since childhood… As a researcher, I get to solve a few [of those] little problems every day.”
To continue her studies and research, Elena joined the USC Chemistry Ph.D. program and the lab of Dr. Charles McKenna, professor of chemistry and Vice Dean for Natural Sciences in USC Dornsife.
Dr. McKenna laid the groundwork for Elena’s current project when he formed a partnership with scientists at the Institut de Biologie Structurale Jean-Pierre Ebel (IBS) and the Institut Albert Bonnoit of Grenoble, France, for which he was awarded a Partner University Fund (PUF) grant in 2010. This collaboration brings together scientists of both countries, including student researchers, such as Elena. The Prime Minister of France recently recognized Dr. McKenna’s scientific accomplishments and collaborations with French scientists and institutions by naming him a Chevalier, or Knight, of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques (Order of Academic Palms), one of France’s oldest and most prestigious civic honors.
Elena has now also made a name for herself with the Chateaubriand Fellowship. She is the lead chemist on the PUF grant-funded joint project. For the past year and a half, she has researched bromodomains, proteins that are able to recognize particular modifications of chromatin (part of the cell nucleus). Bromodomains are involved in cancer, viral infection and inflammatory diseases. For this reason, the team’s research has great implications for the future of medicine and the development of drugs to treat harmful diseases. “Our project aims at designing potent and selective inhibitors of bromodomains, utilizing our expertise in molecular modeling and organic synthesis and our collaborators’ expertise in structural biology and biochemistry,” Elena says of the collaboration.
This December, Elena will travel to the Institut de Biologie Structurale in Grenoble, France, to test and continue her work alongside the partnering French biologists in the lab of Dr. Carlo Petrosa, the project’s primary French collaborator. Other partners in the project are Saadi Khochbin and Mary Callanan of the University of Grenoble, and Jerome Govin of the Center for Atomic Energy. The team is working on epigenetics, or cell memory, which is a hot area of research. Elena is honored to be researching the same question as so many masters in the field.
As well as being eager to continue her research, Elena is excited to live in Grenoble, a city of scientists. Home to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), a university, and numerous institutes and research facilities, Grenoble attracts scientists from around the world. Elena looks forward to spending nine months in Grenoble’s vibrant scientific community.
Elena will enter the fourth year of her doctoral studies upon returning to USC in August. She hopes to continue her career as a research scientist upon graduation.