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Cathy Jackson

Transatlantic Settler

cathy jacksonCathy Jackson’s office sits right in the heart of the Gif-sur-Yvette campus, and its simple and welcoming style gives us a first insight into her personality. She took up residence there last October to run the “Molecular regulation of intracellular trafficking” research unit of LEBS1. After having been awarded a chair of excellence by the National Research Agency, this eminent cell biologist has now embarked on a wide-ranging series of studies on small G proteins2 and their impact on cellular membranes. Her return to France, where she had completed her post-doc, is very promising so far...
She speaks warmly of her childhood in the western Canadian province of Alberta, where she showed a precocious interest in both mathematics and biology. She devoted her time to both subjects equally during most of her school years, before finally choosing molecular biology for her thesis: “Math was becoming a bit too abstract, and I wanted to focus on a subject closer to real life.” Her interest in France also started early when she took French lessons. We can only assume it was the influence of an ancestor of hers who emigrated to Canada after the Revolution...
It was in the United States that she earned her stripes as a researcher, moving from Canada to Seattle in 1984 to begin her Ph.D. studies. Her thesis advisor was Leland Hartwell, who had become one of the leading specialists in cellular biology (using yeast as a model system) and who was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Medicine. “He was truly an exceptional person, always finding time to discuss ideas with his students.” He took a keen interest in her topic, which was quite new: the molecular mechanisms involved in the communication between yeast cells during the exchange of genetic material or–to use the scientific term–during conjugation. Those five years were a period of both professional and personal happiness, since it was during that time that Jackson also met her future husband, a biochemist and fervent francophile. The couple arrived at the CEA in Saclay in 1990, where her husband had been offered a position. Jackson completed a postdoc there before obtaining a position herself. When she looks back on those years, she remembers “directing her own research quite quickly” as part of a very productive collaboration with biochemists working at Sophia-Antipolis in Nice. “For the first time, we were able to identify the activators of the Arf family of small G proteins. Small G proteins act as a sort of ‘switch’ to trigger, or not, chain reactions in the cell,” she explains. This brings about a morphological change in the membrane system regulating the cell’s secretory pathway, enabling the cell to release various molecules towards the outside–a way for the cell to communicate with other cells or defend itself against predators.
When she was offered a position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington in 2001, it seemed a perfect opportunity to apply her research work to animal cells... and discover in fact “the extent to which cell membrane trafficking systems in brewer’s yeast and in humans were similar.” She was quite happy with her new life on the other side of the Atlantic until the fateful day she was approached by Jacqueline Cherfils, director of the LEBS. This CNRS laboratory, specialized in structural biochemistry and the organization of cellular traffic, was keen to have Jackson on its staff. Cherfil convinced her to apply and the Department of Life Sciences offered her a job starting in 2006.
Her research areas are now more applied. She and her team are looking into the key role of G proteins in the replication of some viruses such as poliovirus, or in the regulation of adipocytes– the cells that stock fats–which could lead to a breakthrough in the fight against obesity.

Patricia Chairopoulos

Notes :

1. Laboratoire d'enzymologie et biochimie structurales (CNRS).

2. Small G proteins are a large family of proteins that act as molecular switches inside the cell in signaling pathways, at the end of which there are effector proteins.

Contacts :

Catherine Jackson
Lebs, Gif-sur-Yvette.


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