Alma in Science

At her office in Department of Computational Biology – Unil 2021

Alma pursued science with fearless passion, creativity, vision and dedication. Alma had an exceptionally sharp and creative mind, and an insatiable curiosity. She kept exploring new directions, working on everything from gene-regulatory circuits to microbial communities, to developmental processes. She was the embodiment of a true interdisciplinary scientist, combining state-of-the-art experiments with advanced computational approaches. The unifying theme of her work was to understand how interactions between individuals (be it fish, microorganisms or pancreatic cells) give rise to complex behaviour at higher levels of organization. She strived to derive simple, quantitative rules to explain the complexity that we see around us. Alma believed that science is a team effort: she was generous with her time, and always happy to discuss ideas and share resources. No matter where she went, she quickly connected with people, built formal and informal networks, and fostered collaborations and friendships.” (from: Obituary).

Alma Dal Co graduated in physics in 2012 from the University of Padua under the guidance of Professor Flavio Seno. Her thesis was dedicated to studying the spatial arrangement of proteins. In 2014, she obtained a master of science in Complexity Physics in Turin, supervised by Professors Michele Caselle and Matteo Osella. Her thesis focused on the expression of genes.

She completed her doctorate at EAWAG-ETH in Zurich in 2019, under the supervision of Professor Martin Ackermann. Her doctoral thesis centered on the spatial organization of bacterial communities. Subsequently, Alma conducted her postdoctoral research at Harvard under the guidance of Professor Michael Brenner, where she studied interactions within bacterial communities.

In 2021, Alma Dal Co secured a position as a professor at the Department of Computational Biology in Lausanne, directed by Professor Nicolas Salamin. She has been associated with the International Society for Microbial Ecology (ISME), served on the Board of the Systems Biology Section of Life Sciences Switzerland (LS2), and she was member of the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Microbiomes, directed by Professor Jan Roelof van der Meer

Dalcolab

The DalcoLab proved to be a brief yet profoundly impactful journey for each of its members. At the heart of Alma’s vision for the team there was the active pursuit of dialogue and brainstorming, leading to swift collaborations with brilliant minds to tackle substantial scientific inquiries. As a mentor, Alma was both inspiring and nurturing.

The two main directions of the scientific investigations pursued in the DalcoLab, microbial ecology and morphogenesis, were two facets of the same fascination of Alma for cell collectives and their complex organization in space. In a growing assembly of cells, be them bacteria in a colony or mammalian cells forming a tissue, the interplay between spatial and functional features becomes of paramount importance in determining the fate of the collective. Discovering some of the possible rules that govern these systems, both with experimental and computational approaches, was the focus of the research at the DalcoLab.

The main lab interest was in microbial ecology, and more specifically in how, in spatially structured microbial communities, local interactions shape the properties of the community. This line of research stemmed from Alma’s own PhD work in this field. Building on her discovery that nutrient exchange occurs at the micrometer scale, part of the lab’s research was aimed at understanding how local interactions can promote the microbial diversity observed in nature. Using computational simulations and mathematical modeling, the DalcoLab was investigating how cooperation and competition shape spatial organization of communities, and how, as a result, community properties emerge across space and time. Alma previously demonstrated that microscale nutrient gradients can affect bacterial growth in a structured environment, leading to a better tolerance to antibiotics. The lab was investigating how nutrients and toxins gradients generated by bacterial activity can in turn trigger heterogeneity in the production of virulence factors. Overall, the DalcoLab’s ongoing efforts were aimed at enhancing our understanding of the dynamic relationships between individual behaviors and collective dynamics both within the clonal populations and multi-species communities that govern microbial life on our planet.

In a distinct data-centric project, the goal was to adapt concepts and tools initially designed for analyzing spatial correlations within microbial communities for application in multicellular systems. Through collaboration with medical experts, Alma embarked on an exciting endeavor: constructing a biophysical model of insulin-secreting organoids. This initiative aimed to optimize tissue architectures and contribute significantly to the pursuit of groundbreaking cures for type 1 diabetes.

  • Visit to CERN with Padua University, 2011
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