A Postdoc's Story: Greece's Christina Karatzaferi Remembers UCSF

Photo of Christina Karatzaferi and friend

Christina Karatzaferi

[Editor’s Note: UCSF’s impact on the world is not always easy to quantify, particularly when rooted in personal experience. But it is safe to say that the changing rotation of 1,000 or so postdoctoral scholars, many of them foreign-born, who spend time in UCSF laboratories carry the UCSF spirit with them as they continue their careers in other locales. Christina Karatzaferi, PhD, a former postdoc in the lab of UCSF’s Roger Cooke, PhD, exemplifies that tradition. Now working in Greece, Karatzaferi tells a story that also personalizes the saga of science’s workforce warriors who pursue knowledge wherever it leads.]

My father is Greek and my mother, Rita-Maria, is Brazilian. I am one of six children. My dad studied chemical engineering in Italy, but he became a merchant, traveller and adventurer (he has crossed the Amazon jungle a number of times, has travelled throughout the Americas, and is still travelling nowadays). My mom studied with the nuns and was training to become a teacher. She dropped out of her studies when she got married. I was born in Venezuela, but our family moved to Athens when I was about 4, so I did all my schooling and growing up in Greece in the city of Kallithea (Athens in essence is a collection of many municipalities – Kallithea has a population of 300,000).

I had school trouble at the beginning, since I only spoke Spanish and was slow picking up Greek. However, the day came when I started making sense of it all, and from the moment I started reading Greek, I didn’t stop!

I would read everything (from cereal cartons to my grandpa’s encyclopaedias), anytime, anywhere. My mom and dad would kiss us goodnight and then my dad would sneak up on me and find me reading under the blankets with my flashlight! My mom would ask me to keep an eye on the broiling food and I would be so immersed in my readings that she would return to the kitchen to find me continuing to read while the food was burning in the stove and thick smoke made the kitchen look like a battlefield. (I especially loved Jules Verne’s stories, and by the age of 12, I had read all the books of the school library. This didn’t faze me; I just started re-reading my favourites.)

At around the same time, our older cousin started teaching my sister and me how to play basketball. He also posed simple math problems or questioned us in riddles. Our cousin’s first wife gave me a science book for kids when I was about 10. I loved it. My mom was devastated when she caught me doing experiments in the bathroom. She was worried: a) that I would get hurt, b) that I might hurt a member of the family, and c) that I was turning into a tomboy. Truth is, I was always very athletic. I eventually enrolled in a basketball club at a young age and ended up having a long professional playing career.

In university, I studied physical education and sport science, and graduated in 1993 from the University of Athens with a BSc (Hon) in sport science and a coaching specialization in basketball. My university years were very enlightening, especially the time spent in the exercise physiology lab or listening to the superb lectures delivered by Professor Klissouras (the first exercise physiologist in Greece and a pioneer in twin studies of exercise physiology). Still, I didn’t consider science as a career option. While a student, I had started working as a basketball coach with good results, albeit lousy pay.

Gaining my full credentials at graduation, I expected that my coaching career would soar. Instead, I hit the glass ceiling. Women basketball coaches were not exactly taken seriously then, and I am afraid may still not be in Greece. I had to rethink what my career aspirations were. I then realized that I missed the logic of my studies, the acquisition of new knowledge, the intellectual challenge, in the academic environment.

So, what if I pursued further education in science? I had the aptitude and had shown academic promise. To discuss what my options were, I visited my old department and had a meeting with Dr. Maria Maridaki (now an associate professor in exercise physiology at the University of Athens), who I heard had studied in the UK. It was the first time that I had a proper discussion with a career woman, who had studied abroad, and she gave me a new perspective. Adventure was calling me! Science... experimentation… academia. I felt that I could fit there, albeit only for a master’s (as I thought then).

I worked for another year to save up some money, my parents gave me a generous start-up sum and I got accepted to Loughborough University (UK) to study for a master’s degree in sport science.

After finishing my MSc thesis with Professor Clyde Williams, I looked for a PhD fellowship. The science bug had bitten me and there was no return. I ended up at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), doing experiments in muscle metabolism during sprinting – especially using single-muscle fibre techniques.

My time at MMU was very exciting. In that department, there was a total of 11 PhDs in all disciplines, and seven of them were Greek! After finishing my PhD at MMU, I got a position as a lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Edinburgh. The department had a more applied orientation and I got interested in ageing effects on muscle function. At the same time, I felt that I needed a research-dedicated environment (with less or no teaching and administration) if my research were to remain close to basic questions of muscle function. All these factors together led me to the decision to seek a position in the USA.

Why UCSF? The short answer: because of Roger Cooke and his seminal work in muscle biophysics. Cooke’s research was required reading in some of my master’s classes, and I could clearly see that the Cooke lab had a tradition in investigating factors affecting actomyosin interaction in an effort to decipher the mechanisms of muscle fatigue. I boldly emailed Professor Cooke my CV and reference letters, describing in a statement my previous work and explaining that I would like to learn more about how muscle mechanics are affected by fatigue.

I was very lucky that Professor Cooke had not yet found anyone willing to do single-fibre mechanics. So I was a good fit for him, given my prior experience with dissection and my background on muscle physiology and metabolism. On the other hand, my (total) lack of a biophysics background meant that I had many new things to learn, which in itself I viewed not as a problem, but rather made my move to San Francisco very exciting.

During my first few weeks at UCSF, I felt quite old-fashioned. In the UK, or at least in the UK 10 to 15 years ago, things in academia were more formal than in the USA. One would address others, especially older members of staff, with their title (Dr., Professor, Sir, etc.). They would use very polite language (“would you,” “could you,” etc.) and would say “thank you” and “please.” Men always held the door open for women and staff “dressed up” for work.

At UCSF, Roger asked me to call him Roger immediately. Grad students late for classes had no qualms about not holding the elevator doors open for anyone else. It was a cultural shock and it made me wonder if I were a prude. At the same time, I was elated that I could go to work in my jeans and T-shirt! San Francisco was an extremely friendly place, and UCSF itself was just the place for me to test my abilities in coming up with ideas, working in a competitive environment and specializing in an issue. I started experiments immediately, continuing first on a project started by a previous postdoc (now a professor in South Africa, Kathy Myburgh, with whom we later collaborated in that project).

I will never forget the first time I loaded a muscle fibre and observed its behavior. I was used to dissecting freeze-dried muscle fibres, doing the histochemistry or biochemistry of muscle (a more “passive” view of muscle). But watching a muscle fibre contracting was something else – I loved it! Moreover, because Roger is a very “hands-on” professor, I got involved in fixing stuff myself.

We would spend some time together mending a broken force transducer. It may sound odd, but these were some of the best moments in the lab. We would be fixing this part or the other, we would be talking of some basic engineering or physics concept, then we would have to leave the epoxy glue to set and walk down the 11 flights of stairs (at Parnassus) to the cafeteria. We would eat a sandwich and discuss more science, draw concepts on napkins, talk to other people (Roger was very good in introducing me around) and then we would walk the 11 flights of stairs up (while discussing muscle energy expenditure!) back to the lab. Hopefully, by then, the equipment would be ready to work and my work would continue.

My time at the Cooke lab was very productive and it definitely “follows” me now. More importantly, the whole experience there matured me as a scientist. I got to write grant applications, I was exposed to seminars on anything from writing grants to adding creativity in everyday scientific work. As for interaction and collaboration, which was greatly promoted after the biochemistry department moved to Mission Bay, I was able to participate in a great project that resulted in the publication of crystal structure and the functional characterization of the skeletal muscle troponin led by Maia Vinogradova and Robert Fletterick. How much better could scientific mingling could get?

Moreover, through my involvement in the women in science groups, I got to meet other women fellows, postdocs, researchers and grad students, get mentorship or offer mentorship, and had the opportunity to teach some classes at UC Berkeley Extension. All these experiences really mattered for my personal and career development.

When I moved back to Greece in 2004, it was to take a post as a lecturer in exercise physiology with both teaching and research and, yes, administrative work. Tenure track posts in Greece (Greece follows something like the four-tier UK system) don’t come easily, so I am happy that I have this post in a new department in an established university – the University of Thessaly. Unfortunately, basic research receives very low monetary support here (in terms of both government money and available competitive opportunities).

But I believe the tide is turning for the better. At the university, I found research-oriented colleagues and administrators who gave me the opportunity to collaborate in physiology-related projects while seeking funding to set up my lab. These include Professor Yiannis Koutedakis, my senior colleague Professor Ioannis Stefanidis and Georgios Sakkas, MD. I supervise postgraduate students. I am just concluding a project on using antioxidant supplements, and I collaborate closely in clinical studies with a group from the department of medicine concerning exercise rehabilitation in dialysis patients and how exercise improves the symptoms of various co-morbidities in this patient population. Publications from such work in Greece have just started coming out.

Recently, we won funding for a research institute in the area of exercise for health and rehabilitation (PerfoTech, one of the four institutes of the Center for Research Technology in Thessaly). I have just set up a muscle lab, which is probably the first of its kind in Greece, and we are open for business! As the institute’s physiology research coordinator, I am writing grant proposals (mainly directed to the EU Commission or to the Hellenic General Secretariat for Research and Technology), and I organize physiology-related research projects.

[I think about UCSF often.] I feel privileged to have spent about four years with such a curious and adventurous bunch of people interacting, collaborating or dressing up for a Dr. Seuss-themed Christmas party. I have left a piece of my heart in San Francisco, so any excuse will do for me to come back.

— Christina Karatzaferi

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Related Links

Institute of Human Performance and Rehabilitation (PerfoTech)
Centre for Research & Technology, Thessaly
University of Thessaly