Emma Schymanski is on the hunt for unknowns. The young Australian researcher has established a group at the University of Luxembourg that aims to track down unknown chemicals and identify them to assess their effects on health and the environment. Having come to Luxembourg as a fellow of the Luxembourg National Research Fund's ATTRACT programme, she has found herself in an ideal environment to establish her research in the long term and enjoys the many perks that living in Luxembourg has to offer.
Emma Schymanski moved to Luxembourg in 2017. The Australian arrived shortly after her husband, German biologist Stan Schymanski, who came to Luxembourg as an ATTRACT fellow. This programme, sponsored by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) seeks to attract brilliant young scientists to Luxembourg and help them prosper. While Stan focuses on the interaction between plants and their surroundings at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), Emma directs her efforts at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) towards identifying unknown chemicals, analysing their effects on health and the environment, and establishing databases and resources to help spread this information.
How did you decide that identifying unknown chemicals was going to be your field of research?
I actually used to work as an environmental consultant on very complex contaminated sites, doing chemical assessments. On this one site, we knew that the sample we had taken was highly contaminated, but when we got the results back from the lab, all of the values were under the limits. Even after we asked for a re-analysis, these results were confirmed. At that moment, we knew we could not capture the full story. One part of this problem is that a lot of the information on chemicals has been restricted.
This is where your second field of research comes in: cheminformatics, getting the information out there.
For me, cheminformatics goes hand in hand with the search for unknown chemicals. We need to perform our research to actually find the chemicals and connect them to the effects, but it's also about getting information about chemicals out there, so that we and others can also find them. I have coordinated the NORMAN Suspect List Exchange since 2015, which was designed to get relatively small lists of chemicals containing environmental expert knowledge onto one open platform, to share with other researchers.
We are also collaborating heavily with PubChem, the largest open chemical database, among others, as they have millions of users and can offer better formats and more features than we can on our own. Using their data structures, we are able to communicate this expert knowledge in formats and sizes that e.g. regulators, scientists or the general public can work with.
How many chemicals are we actually talking about?
A lot of numbers about ‘chemical space’ are circulating. Scientists estimated in 2006 that there were about 70,000 chemicals in household use. The largest open databases now have over 110 million chemicals in them, and the largest registry is close to hitting the 200 million mark. Then there are also the virtual chemical libraries that contain billions of structures.
As we are in contact with many of them every day, there are certainly a number of effects that are possible, aren't there?
Some chemicals induce acute effects, like being poisoned. However, there are also many that cause what we call chronic effects due to accumulation over time. They estimate that 99% of all population already have PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in their bloodstream. These chemicals are persistent and don't break down easily. With PFAS, we are now beginning to see that they can have many chronic effects. The challenge with complex mixtures is to disentangle the effects, to find out which chemical is producing which effect.
Emma Schymanski graduated in 2003 with a B.Sc. in Chemistry and a B.E. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Western Australia.
In 2011, she finished her PhD at the UFZ-Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, followed by a postdoctoral position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag).
In 2017, she joined her husband, Stan Schymanski, in Luxembourg and has been a fellow of the Luxembourg National Research Fund's ATTRACT programme since 2018.
Emma Schymanski is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Luxembourg, where she leads a group on Environmental Cheminformatics at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine.
Would you call that your biggest achievement to date?
There have been many achievements, big and small. We are currently revising an article with 97 authors about the NORMAN Suspect List Exchange, a huge collaborative effort. I think that considering the resources that we had to do this, it is an incredible achievement and is really helping make a difference. I also have a paper from 2014 that has been cited over 1,700 times. If you go to a conference, people there will mention the 'Schymanski levels', like I have become a household name from one paper.
What are the challenges that you are facing?
First: accessing information. Also, finding funding for the maintenance what we do. In research, it's often easier to get money for a funky new database or cool new resources or the latest and greatest research, than to get a funding to maintain the curation and the infrastructure that you already have.
You are an ATTRACT fellow. Does the FNR help you with these two challenges?
FNR is very strong on open science, which is where their funding scheme was really important for me. The funding I benefit from is for an individual researcher to start a group. The 2 million grant I received leaves room for maintenance and developments along with the novel research. This balance within our research is very important to me.
Actually, how did you end up choosing Luxembourg to further your research and development?
My husband Stan Schymanski knew Laurent Pfister from LIST, and it was Laurent who actually mentioned the ATTRACT fellowship. My husband applied first and then, once it was clear that it was a serious possibility, I came and met people on campus, including Rudi Balling, the then head of the LCSB. It turned out that LCSB was exactly where I wanted to go, as they have strong bioinformatics core with an open science focus, along with the biomedical research.
ATTRACT - bringing junior researchers to Luxembourg
The ATTRACT programme is designed for promising junior researchers not yet established in Luxembourg and who demonstrate the potential to become leaders in their field of research. The programme spans 5 years, during which fellows have the opportunity to set up their own research team and develop their own research line, within the framework of the host institution's research agenda.
ATTRACT fellows are offered individual coaching and a career track towards a tenured position.
The financial contribution by the FNR can be up to 1.5 million euros for Starting Investigators (Postdoc & Junior Researcher level) or 2 million euros for Consolidating Investigators (Established Researcher level).
As a young scientist you are not held back by the way it 'has been'. Instead, we are able to help define what it could be.
What were the main reasons why you chose Luxembourg over the alternative?
The reasons were both family and research related. Being together on one campus was very important to us. It was also very important for me to move beyond environmental science and into biomedical. I needed both perspectives to develop my resarch and this is why I am grateful that I managed to convince Rudi that I indeed fitted into LCSB.
What also convinced me was the career plan that came as part of the ATTRACT programme. The career plan is negotiated as part of the fellowship and then towards the end of the 5 years, you are assessed for promotion and permanency depending on how well you have achieved these goals. ATTRACT is not just about staying for 5 years and then leaving, it’s about establishing a situation in which you want to stay. ATTRACT launches you and provides the setting for you to be able to keep going further in Luxembourg.
I even have a scientific advisory board and funding for coaching, plus a reduction in teaching requirements, which enables me to really focus on my research and establishing the group. I felt I was always in the shadow of the group leaders at Eawag. Once I came here, I started to receive invitations from everywhere, because suddenly I was someone in my own right.
Is there anything in particular that you enjoy about working in Luxembourg?
They say that Luxembourg is the heart of Europe, and for me it really has been. I have worked in European research ever since I came to Europe in 2007, but I’ve been rather German-centric in where I was located. So, coming here was also an opportunity to get closer to other countries like France, Belgium and the Netherlands. For me, this has been very important, especially since European contacts are so central to my own research.
The other thing is the facilities here. It's a brand new campus with a very strong focus on open science and biomedical topics. These were key reasons for coming here. Obviously, the strategic decision of the country to put a lot of money into research is a plus and it shows in the facilities, especially on bioinformatics, where you really have to be on top of the latest and greatest.
The university was also a huge advantage for me. It's a young university, it's agile. As a young scientist you are not held back by the way it 'has been'. Instead, we are able to help define what it could be. Having these resources, having this willingness to look forward is key.
I also like the family aspect: several of my staff are young mothers who are skilling up after having kids and it is great to support them in (re)joining the workforce again and see them (and my other staff members) develop.
Which parts of life in Luxembourg did you have to adapt to most?
For me it was the French aspect of the culture here, which was something that I had underestimated. I thought, being fluent in German, I would be able to adapt a lot quicker. But the reality is, in daily life you still do need a lot of French.
Apart from the work side? Within my first couple of years here, I already have had lunch with the Minister of Finance. As band member of the Bieleser Musek, we played in front of the Grand Duke for National Day, and a few weeks ago we were conducted by Jean-Claude Juncker. Can you imagine that happening in any other country?
Which parts of living in Luxembourg do you enjoy the most?
I did not expect such a lively music scene in Luxembourg. We took our son to try an instrument and then were connected with the president of Bieleser Musek. He recruited me into the band, as they needed trombone players. They welcomed me with open arms, even though I hadn't played in a long time. My son plays trumpet at the Conservatoire and also in Bieleser Musek, so we now play side by side.
The hiking is also great. We hike in Mullerthal, but also in the Minett region. The orchids in Schifflange and the area around there are amazing. We also love kayaking, on the Sauer, in Esch-sur-Sûre and also across the border, on the Semois in Belgium.
How would you describe Luxembourgers in three words?
First, I would definitely say multilingual. Then, culturally rich – Luxembourgers have adopted a lot from the cultures that came into the country but still very definitely have their own culture. And finally, welcoming, which has been part of my experience in Luxembourg. Luxembourgers are very welcoming and helping us to integrate, this has been fantastic.
What is on your to-do list for the next five years?
Scientifically speaking: consolidation. I want to stabilise our research activities and keep making the changes that we want to make, so that people have access to chemical information easier. We have made good progress, although we are not there yet. We will continue to work on the unknowns, instead of just helping people find the knowns, which is effectively what we are doing now. I would also like to continue to work with the Water Management Agency (AGE) to establish non-targeted monitoring in Luxembourg. It would be nice to see non-target monitoring used routinely in 5 years, which should be achievable. Then we can tackle even more challenging topics in the years beyond!
Emma Schymanski, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us!
This interview was edited for the purposes of this article.