Anita Lüthi is seeking to understand how neurones interact during sleep. Below is an interview with the recently appointed Associate Professor in the Department of Fundamental Neuroscience (UNIL) and President of the Swiss Physiological Society.
She stands before a room crammed with people: it is not, however, something to unnerve the energetic Anita Lüthi, Associate Professor at UNIL, who gave her inaugural lecture on 11 September 2015. In the auditorium of the Department of Fundamental Neuroscience (DNF), like an island in a sea of white coats, her sister, mother-in-law, husband and son, clutching his smartphone, are there to support her. Speaking excellent French with a slight German accent, the neurobiologist presents her research work on sleep. The accompanying slides, which she herself has produced, are designed to illustrate the complex experiments she conducts in the lab and to make them more accessible to the general public. “They still took me half a day!” she jokes when we meet a few days later in her office. It reflects something of her liking for transmitting and sharing knowledge, which is not always obvious when your passion is for microscopically small elements such as synapses and ion channels.
“Sleep remains an extremely popular subject; everyone has their own sometimes painful experiences and expectations, often dictated by a defined culture. We have normative ideas of the way we should sleep. Our lives are organised in such a way that we rest exclusively at night, which is not necessarily the case by the way. The Japanese, for example, practise inemuri, a siesta during the day which can be taken wherever, even in the workplace,” explains the professor, who admits, with some humour, that pacing her day in such a way would suit her very nicely.
She is subsequently asked if her vocation is linked to personal experience. The question prompts a smile: “I certainly began to appreciate sleep when my son was born 13 years ago. But I had already been studying the subject for a long time.” We then follow the Bernese academic on an energetic tour (she is sporting trainers) of her various DNF labs. On each door is posted a mosaic of team photos, six researchers in total. In addition to studying the cellular mechanisms of sleep, Anita Lüthi is also responsible for the smooth running of the animal facility. And that is not all: as well as being a biologist, she is also member of the committee of the Swiss Society for Neuroscience and chairs the Swiss Physiological Society, a role which saw her organising the annual general meeting three days before her inaugural lecture. “Things are a bit crazy at the moment. I have nine funding applications to write,” acknowledges the scientist who, in the words of Jean-Pierre Hornung, Director of DNF, “plays a great part in extending the department’s sphere of influence beyond these walls.”
Among the flowers
Anita Lüthi also loves music, it being part of her family background: “It brings us together.” A distinguished flautist, the professor remembers the concerts of her childhood, playing alongside her father (pianist), uncle (violinist) and cousin, now a violoncellist with the Berne orchestra. “We lived next-door to each other in Roggwil and holidayed together at our house in Ticino. We practised daily in preparation for our concerts. It all sounds extremely serious but I can assure you it was anything but!” jokes this lover of music.
Alongside her studies in biophysics at the University of Basel, Anita Lüthi also took a complete music studies course. At age 20, she won first prize in the national Swiss competition for young flautists. Then, during her postdoctoral residency at Yale, she played alongside the musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “Americans are unbelievable. As soon as you say you know how to play, they welcome you with open arms,” she recalls. Rigorous and precise in whatever she undertakes, the forty-year-old did not want to become a professional flautist for fear of developing professionally in too cloistered an environment. “By contrast, I knew that biology would give me access to a very wide repertoire of activities and that, with a little creativity, I could find a niche, find something that really appealed to me.” This passion for science, notably botany, was also passed on to her by her father and uncle. Even today, the researcher never goes walking without her Flora Helvetica App which enables her to identify and study Swiss flowers.
Work and family
Settled in Morges with her pre-teen son and her husband, a physicist at CERN, the professor considers she is lucky. “As a woman, it is important to highlight all the efforts made by UNIL to enable me to successfully carry out my research while flourishing in my private life.” Her son, who is attending a private school close to Lausanne University Hospital, sometimes comes to join her in her office to do his homework. “Now he’s the one who deals with all connectivity matters in the room,” she comments with amusement. “He has something of a penchant for scientific activities, but nevertheless he said to me one day: ‘I’m choosing Greek at school because it’s something you don’t know.’ I found that amazing.” Today, he and his mother Anita Lüthi carry on the family’s musical tradition, playing in a duo for flute and clarinet.