Marina Pils – The tissue artist

Marina Pils knows how to prepare and visualise fine tissue structures. By creatively developing histological methods she helps scientists to investigate infectious diseases on tissue level.

If we could take a look under our skin, what would we see? Cells, of course. If you ask Marina Pils, she will answer: “Tissues. A living body is more than just a pile of cells. Cells organise themselves into functional units and often fitness of the unit, rather than fitness of particular cells, is what separates health from disease.” The veterinarian leads the “Mouse Pathology Platform” at the HZI and looks under the skin on a daily basis. Together with her team she develops histological methods to figure out the relationship between infectious diseases and changes in tissues.

“Histology is a scientific study of tissue structure and, based on that, of disease development”

Marina Pils, leader of the mouse pathology unit

Marina Pils studied veterinary medicine in Hannover and Lyon, France. Grown up on a small farm, her love for animals motivated her to become a veterinarian. Later, her passion for science made her continue her research career at the HZI. While working on her doctoral thesis she established histological stainings for her own project. Soon she started to help her color-blind colleague with the preparation and evaluation of samples. “Finally I ended up doing histological analyses for the whole department,” Pils says.

After completing her PhD project she worked as a researcher at Hannover Medical School. In 2009 she returned to the HZI as deputy head of the animal facility and implemented the CAT system: This software registers every laboratory mouse and is used regularly by everyone working with animals at the HZI.

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The major concern of histologists working in our service unit mouse pathology is helping other HZI researchers make this connection and work out the details of the relationship between histological changes at the tissue level and the infectious diseases they are studying.

When her first child was born, Marina Pils had to work out the balance between child-care, house chores and staying scientifically up-to-date. “Although I enjoyed the time with my daughter it was important to stay in touch with my colleagues and to keep solving research problems,” she says. Soon after returning from parental leave, she was offered a position as leader of the mouse pathology unit. In that position she now helps HZI researchers with establishing histological methods. “That’s what I always wanted to do,” she recalls.

Today Marina Pils and her husband have two children – and a horse: Twice a week Pils goes riding to get the fresh air she does not get in the lab. But the most challenging part of her work is not the lab air: It is to match scientific questions with technical possibilities. “It is a bit like in chess, you have to think a few steps ahead: which fixation technique will work with which staining and which evaluation strategy would fit best.” Although methods might be described in literature, they often have to be adapted to a specific question. After the strategy is developed, application requires hours of scrupulous work for sample preparation and evaluation by microscopy.

Pils shares that the most rewarding part of her work is when after all the hours in front of a microscope the result helps to answer the initial question. “When a car stops working,” she says, “one can easily fix it, because it was built by man and we know exactly how it works. When something breaks in the body it is not always clear how to fix it.” As to Marina Pils, the ultimate goal of natural scientists is to figure out mechanisms of pathology and ways to treat it. And the only way it can be done, she says, is through carefully designed experimental work.

Author: Tatyana Dubich

Published: September 2017


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