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Claudia Aloisi – Harnessing the beauty of chemistry

Prix Schläfli 2021 Chemistry

Her work could pave the way for new forms of cancer screening: Claudia Aloisi researched a new method for quantifying and determining DNA damage at ETH Zurich. She got the Prix Schläfli award in chemistry for this.

Prix Schläfli 2021: Claudia Aloisi
Image: ETH Zürich / Nicola Pitaro

"I have always been interested in science, wanting to know the 'how' and especially the 'why'." With this sentence, Claudia Aloisi explains why she does what she does. The Italian is sitting in her lab in Paris. These are the days of the third lockdown with nightly curfews, she wears mask even though she is alone. A rule is a rule.

"I fell in love with chemistry right away"

Like many others, Claudia Aloisi was interested in everything that crawls and flies as a child. "I grew up in Sicily, between the sea and Mount Etna," she says. In elementary school, biology was one of her favourite subjects. Later she discovered that biology cannot do without chemistry. When it came to choosing a course of study, she took the entrance exams for mathematics, physics and chemistry and passed all three. "Having to make a choice was terrifying," she recalls with a laugh. Obviously, she made the right choice with chemistry then: "I fell in love with chemistry right away". She threw herself into the subject - especially physical chemistry, which describes the properties of substances and their transformation using mathematical formulae. In Aloisi's words: "She explains why A happens and not B. I loved it," she says looking back.

After her bachelor's degree, however, she focused on organic chemistry, wrote a master's thesis in biotechnology at King's College in London and then came to ETH Zurich as a doctoral student, more precisely to Shana J. Sturla's interdisciplinary biochemistry laboratory for toxicology. The perfect match for Aloisi: "I am absolutely fascinated by the beauty of chemistry itself," she said. "But it was always important to me to find applications." In her dissertation, she developed tools to identify chemical changes in DNA that can lead to cancer. In the process, she and her team produced a molecule that specifically interacts with the cancer-causing DNA damage. This molecule can be detected and quantified by mass spectrometry.

Knowing where and in what numbers this molecule occurs could allow early detection and preventive treatment of potential cancers. Aloisi has now been awarded the Prix Schläfli for the publication of these findings. "I do not think of my work as revolutionary, so I was very surprised," says the young researcher "But what I love about this paper is the big picture. As researchers, we try to describe the relationship between cause and effect. But sometimes we do not have the tools to do that. My work has been precisely about finding those tools." According to her mentor Shana J. Sturla, Claudia Aloisi has "made a significant contribution to the field of biochemistry, particularly with respect to the use of synthetic nucleotides to amplify and detect DNA damage."

Committed to excellence in research

She is currently doing research in Paris on an EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organisation) grant. It expires next year, she will apply for another year and hopes to return to Switzerland after that. "I immediately felt more at home in Zurich than anywhere else," says the 30-year-old. Her greatest dream would be a professorship in Switzerland. A thoroughly realistic goal, given that Claudia Aloisi is, according to her mentor, not only "committed to excellent research", but also a "gifted communicator and mentor". In fact, her path so far has already been paved with all sorts of successes: She has received several awards and scholarships, supervised several master's theses - she even took one of her master's students on a research trip to South Korea.

Although her heart burns for science, Claudia Aloisi still hopes to spend a little less time alone in the lab again soon. She cannot wait to visit the Louvre again and go to the sea with her boyfriend – Italian and chemist. "I can swim for hours and forget everything." Physical fitness is as important to her as mental fitness. She does a lot of (running) sports and is a passionate cook. However, molecular gastronomy is not her thing even if her background suggests it.

Related topics

Prize-winners Prix Schläfli 2021 (from upper left): Gregor Weiss, Fabian Mahrt, Claudia Aloisi, Gabriel Dill

Prix Schläfli 2021 award for the four best dissertations in natural sciences

The body's own defence against urinary tract infections, a new method for quantifying and determining genetic damage, evidence in so-called Diophantine geometry and the question of how soot from combustion

Image: M. Feldmüller, G. J. Crescenzo, ETH Zürich / N. Pitaro, M. Bosshard