Fani Koukouli's decision to pursue a career researching the workings of the brain and identifying new molecules to tackle diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer's did not happen by chance.
Fani grew up and began her studies in Greece, in the port city of Thessaloniki on the Aegean Sea. She remembers being fascinated by pictures of scientists in her primary school textbooks. But then an unexpected event changed the course of her life. At the age of 14, she joined her middle school class and their music teacher on a trip to a psychiatric clinic to sing Christmas carols to the patients. She initially found the experience somewhat daunting, but then the students were taken to see another room in the hospital where paintings and other artworks created by the patients were exhibited. After some feelings of apprehension, Fani began to be impressed by the talent on display, and she realized that, despite their condition, the patients all had unsuspected qualities – skill, creativity and sensitivity. This experience remains firmly etched in her memory. Her subsequent career choices were guided by an insatiable curiosity for science and a desire to improve her understanding of psychiatric illness in particular.
A PhD at the Institut Pasteur
The scientist completed a number of qualifications at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki – a Professional Doctorate in Pharmacy (DPharm) and a Master's in Neuroscience – and during her studies she joined a research team in the faculty to study prion diseases. She came to the Institut Pasteur in Paris through the Paris-Pasteur University Program; she was one of many candidates from all over the world to apply, and she was selected along with eight other young scientists. Fani then began her PhD in the Integrative Neurobiology of Cholinergic Systems Unit, directed by Uwe Maskos. She spent four years researching the role of nicotinic receptors in spontaneous neuronal activity in the healthy and diseased brain.
The young researcher's work earned her three awards in 2017. She obtained the Unafam Biomedical Science Research Award from the French Ministry of Health. She was then selected by L'Oréal-UNESCO to receive a prestigious "For Women in Science" Fellowship. This program is designed to encourage promising young female researchers to pursue a successful career in science, despite the obstacles and prejudices they may face. Lastly, she was awarded the "Gandy de la Chancellerie des Universités de Paris" prize.
During her post-doctoral studies, she proposed new therapeutic molecules for schizophrenia patients. Today, still as determined as ever, she is working in the same laboratory on strategies to tackle Alzheimer's disease. She is increasingly conscious of the fact that her research should be geared towards helping elucidate the mysteries of the brain, making new scientific breakthroughs, and above all improving human health.
Key dates in Fani Koukouli's career:
2012: arrival at the Institut Pasteur on the Paris-Pasteur University Program.
2016: Post-doctoral studies in the Integrative Neurobiology of Cholinergic Systems Unit, directed by Uwe Maskos.
2017: L'Oréal-UNESCO "For Women in Science" fellowship.