“Science is my Drug”

For some, science is something foreign and perhaps even intimidating. But for Barbara Picone scientific knowledge is not only the building blocks of life, but the cornerstone of her life.

Picone currently works as a research assistant at the Department of Genetics at Stellenbosch University. She obtained her degree in Natural Science at the University of Palermo in Italy in 2005. Palermo is located in the south of Italy and is one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations.

“I enjoy living in South Africa but more than anything, I miss my family, my friends, and how we would get together and spend hours and hours sitting at the table talking loudly, drinking wine and eating food. I also miss the beauty of my city, Palermo.

As part of her PhD in Animal and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Palermo she came to Stellenbosch University on exchange in June 2007.

“While I was doing my PhD I had the choice of going on exchange to South Africa or to Russia. But I would never have survived Russia’s cold winters. I mean, you will have to drink Vodka the whole day to keep warm. I am also very interested and passionate about primates so coming to South Africa seemed like the better option for me.”

Although she misses her family in Italy, she says that moving to South Africa has been one of the greatest adventures that she has ever embarked on. “South Africa is a place of spirit, a land that swings you from joy to despair. Living in South Africa has made me feel more alive than I have ever felt in any other country I have been to. I am just completely overwhelmed by South Africa’s beauty.” She smiles and says, “And of course I met my husband here.”

Picone’s husband, Stephen Rautenbach, is an artist. His gallery in Church Street, Stellenbosch, is filled with majestic bronze and wood animal sculptures. His work is playful and dramatic with a slight hint of madness. The titles of his sculptures such as The Tale of the Brave Brave Mice and Crazy Sprinting Hare are testament to that.

“I absolutely love being married to an artist! It is the most wonderful and refreshing thing. I would never be able to be married to a scientist; it would be so boring! Sometimes scientists can be so serious about life. I just love watching my husband create things. I am also very fortunate that he is interested in the work that I do.”

Picone’s research is focused in the fields of evolutionary genetics and aspects of chromosome biology. This includes; molecular cytogenetic, systematics and phylogenomics of primates. Picone has been studying cytogenetics, evolution and ecological diversity of mammalian species since 2000 and has become an expert in the phylogeny and molecular cytogentics of primates.

Phylogenomics is a combination of evolution and genomics. The field of Phylogenomics is focused on looking at the evolutionary relationships between animals and also assists scientists in the prediction of gene functions. Cytogenetics deals with the function and structures of cells and more specifically that of chromosomes.

“I always enjoyed a little bit of mathematics and physics but it was biology that completely captured my heart and my mind.  In my third year at Palermo University I took Anthropology as a subject and I just fell in love with it.”

Picone’s current position as a research assistant at the Department of Genetics at Stellenbosch University requires her to develop a bioinformatics pipeline that can transcribe the data of the South African abalone. This includes generating outputs to define the genetic profile of wild and cultured populations of South African abalone.

Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that makes use of computer programs to better understand biological data. The software used in the field of bioinformatics extract information from genetic data that researchers can use to better understand how animals are related to each other in the evolutionary process. Bioinformatics also assist scientists to study diseases and find cures for them.

Picone’s work centres around the the generic approaches to biology, evolution and comparative genomics. She aims to combine computational approaches, and molecular biology to enhance our understanding and ability to modify the disease state.

“So, I’m not the type of scientist that spends the whole day in the laboratory, I sit in front of the computer most of the day and look at data.”

Being scientists has profoundly impacted the way in which Picone views life. “The most meaningful learning experience for me as a scientist was learning that I could accomplish anything. I learnt that things can change in a person and life changes and that it is okay. You grow up and see things differently. I learnt that being humble in the academic field, which is very competitive, is vitally important and that you should never give up on your dream.”

Picone’s work has been published in more than 7 peer reviewed journals such as the Journal of Mamilian Evolution and the Journal of Zoolological Systematics and Evolutionary Research but she says having her work published in Nature has been one of the highlights of her career.

“Seeing your work published in Nature is one of the most rewarding and amazing feelings! All those early morning and late nights suddenly make sense when you can see the fruit of your labour and when your peers also acknowledge your work.”

Her work that was published in Nature was part of collaboration with scientists from the University of Cape Town and dealt with the comparative analysis of the genome of the African coelacanth to better understand the tetrapod evolution.

“I am not afraid of any project. I can work on anything, from the abalone to the human. I am not intimidated to start something from scratch or to work hard.”

Picone’s sincere passion for science is evident while she explains that when she closes her eyes and thinks about science all she sees is the double helix of the DNA structure. “Science is all around us and in us. You cannot escape or deny it.”

– To read more on Picone’s research you can follow this link http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Barbara_Picone

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