Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Boryana Petrova

Close up of Boryana Petrova smiling at camera, outside near tree

Whitehead Institute postdoctoral researcher Boryana Petrova


Image: Courtesy of Boryana Petrova

Boryana Petrova is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Sebastian Lourido’s lab researching parasite metabolism. She has also worked in Whitehead Institute Member Terry Orr-Weaver’s lab. Petrova is an active participant in many Whitehead outreach programs including the seminar series for high school teachers and the middle school summer program Expedition: Bio, for which she helped to build the curriculum. She is also a member of the Whitehead Postdoc Association and a recipient of the Harvey Lodish Service Award. We sat down with her to learn a bit more about her and her experiences in the lab.


How did you get started in this field?

I am from Bulgaria, and went to Germany at 18 where I got my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a scientist per se, but I liked science subjects. In my earlier years as a researcher I was captivated by cell division. I can still remember the first time I saw a mitotic spindle through a microscope! When I came to the U.S. five years ago, I joined Terry’s lab in part to see how research is done in the U.S. She also gave me the chance to mature and expand my pursuits. I learned so much in Terry’s lab.

What are you investigating?

Sebastian’s lab works with Toxoplasma gondii, a single cell parasite infecting a quarter of the U.S. population. At risk are pregnant women who can pass the infection to their child leading to severe congenital defects or miscarriage. Toxo is a close cousin of Plasmodium, a different single-cell parasite, which causes malaria. This relatedness enables researchers to dissect aspects of intricate biology in the more experimentally approachable Toxo and apply it to Plasmodium.

Even though Toxo might look like a huge jump from my research in Terry’s lab (she works with fruit flies), I am merely continuing on the same path. I am looking into aspects of the parasite metabolism, which cross-talk with chemical vulnerabilities currently exploited to treat malaria. This will allow me to refine and broaden my skillset, preparing me for a future independent career path.

What part of your research is the most fun to do?

Right now I am super enjoying “playing” with the mass spectrometer. I am like a kid fiddling with a complex puzzle. I find it absolutely mind blowing that a mass spectrometer is so exact that it can “see” differences in isotopic composition between molecules and at the same time so versatile that you can analyze a sample from a different world—literally.

I also enjoy some boring things, like repeated procedures I don’t need my brain to do. It is like you are in a Zen mode. I can think about something fun or listen to a podcast. But what I appreciate the most is being surrounded by incredible people. I get a kick out of talking science with the team of people I work with, learn stuff at lunch breaks, and also laugh a ton.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The hardest thing for me is to stay focused. So many things are interesting. Experiments (and life) take you in all these different directions. And some of those are easier to do than others but often not as important or meaningful. It takes a lot of practice and will to direct yourself. 

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve ever had in the lab?

We say “surprisingly” a lot in papers but I am not sure there is something truly surprising in the majority of research. Also, I think the scientific mindset is so different in that it is normal when the result is not what you expect. I guess a surprise is when something works from the first time, which has not happened to me.

What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy about them?

I do shinkendo, which is a Japanese martial art, zumba, bird watching, and learning Japanese. I think the thing I like the most about these and in particular shinkendo is that it is something else I can be good at, it trains my brain in many different ways that are complementary to thinking about science, and it definitely clears out my system of any stress or mood disequilibria.

Do you collect anything?

Binge watching and binge reading is the closest I get to a collector mode. I think I watched most of Altered Carbon in two very sleepless nights recently. And I had an Asimov period early in my postdoc, then a Murakami and then an Oliver Sacks one. Now I keep my Kindle purposefully uncharged so I can learn some Japanese.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

It is so hard to say. I might be in Europe doing science but in what kind of setting is impossible to say; things are too dynamic.



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