FEBS Summer Fellowships insights: to Prague and Madrid in 2021

FEBS Summer Fellowships help pre-doctoral students in the FEBS area carry out research work for their theses in a host lab in a different FEBS country. Here, two awardees from 2021 tell us about their Summer Fellowships experience. The call for 2022 Summer Fellowships applications is open till May 1st!
FEBS Summer Fellowships insights: to Prague and Madrid in 2021

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Alberto Martinez Serra
is a first-year PhD student working in Dublin at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, in biochemical and computational nanotechnology. In 2021 he was based at the University of Barcelona, Spain, and his 2021 FEBS Summer Fellowship was carried out in the Soft Matter group of Peter Košovan at Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic.
Photo: Alberto in front of  an interactive periodic table at the Faculty of Chemistry of Charles University in Prague.

Why did you apply for a FEBS Summer Fellowship?
Before finishing my MSc I had clear that I wanted to work in research. My Master studies ended in June but the PhD program started in October, so I had a big gap without work in between. After considering several possibilities, I decided that the best option was to apply for a FEBS Summer Fellowship.  I agreed the idea with my host supervisor Dr Košovan and his postdoc Dr Blanco, we applied and we got it!  In early July I was already in Prague.

What was it like settling into your new lab home and city?
The entire Soft Matter group helped me a lot in all aspects: housing, bureaucracy, showing me the city… Even with leisure! There was a very good environment in the faculty, which made me feel at home the first day I arrived. And about the city… How could I not like Prague? The pearl of central Europe. Such a beautiful place!

Did you achieve your research aims?
Working in research in the summer and furthermore during the pandemic made a perfect cocktail for uncertainty. I had to reschedule the work plan several times, but at the end of the period the main part of the work was done: the core code was built and we just needed to debug it, optimize it and start producing simulations for the project.

Did you experience any particular challenges?
It was not easy at all to fly in Covid times. The first trouble I encountered was even before arriving in Prague: the Czech government had just changed the regulations and antigen tests were no longer valid 48 h before the flight, but only 24 h. Luckily, there was a testing point at Barcelona’s airport and I could do the test before flying! While I was there, we faced problems with my vaccination: the European vaccine program was still not reciprocal between countries, and I had to fly twice to Barcelona in order to get the two doses.

What else did you learn or enjoy?
I learned many things related to daily life in programming: how to use shared repositories, how to collaborate and merge ideas and so on. Maybe the most valuable thing I learned was how to do proper science: thoroughly checking all steps to ensure that all was self-consistent. How you do things is essential to obtain good results. It is a lesson that I will never forget.

What would be your advice to someone embarking on a FEBS Summer Fellowship?
My advice is to enjoy the stay. It takes some time to get used to different buildings, laboratories and ways of working so do not panic if you have no results in the beginning: the important point is to get the transfer of knowledge. It does not matter if you finish the stay without definitive results, because you will be experienced enough to later complete the research aim.

What are your current and next aims?
Right now I am working to get experimental results matching the computational data I obtained in Prague, in order to demonstrate that the predicted peptide adsorption occurs not only in silico, but also in vitro. Next aims are difficult to define, but tracking the adsorption of more complex biomolecules present in different biological fluids onto distinct types of nanoparticles seems an interesting path to proceed with.

Merve Yilmaz is a second-year PhD student working at the Hacettepe University School of Medicine, Ankara, Turkey, on telomeres and telomerase in cancer development and on telomere-targeting treatments. The 2021 FEBS Summer Fellowship was carried out in the group of Maria A. Blasco at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), Madrid, Spain.

Why did you apply for a FEBS Summer Fellowship?
My supervisor suggested to apply as I needed to gain some experiences in a well-equipped laboratory like CNIO in the telomere/telomerase field. I have dreams of pursuing this field and thought the FEBS Summer Fellowship would be a great opportunity to collaborate with people for establishing novel methods, improve my research, and develop an advanced perspective on cancer treatment. I chose Maria A. Blasco’s lab since Maria is one of the best investigators in this field. It was the perfect choice for me since as a result of this time that I spent in CNIO, I gained not only multiple experiences in different methods but also fundamental knowledge that is important to carry out my experiments in my usual laboratory.

What was it like settling into your new lab home and city?
People in the host lab assisted me with literally everything so I could be quickly involved in the team. Moreover, they were super kind and helpful about not only scientific matters but also on becoming familiar with the Spanish culture and people. Although I knew little Spanish, they always spoke to me in English and I never had trouble communicating with them. They became like a family to me.

Did you achieve your research aims?
First of all, I had two aims: one of them was to learn novel telomere imagining and targeting techniques and the second was to improve my skills for protocols I will follow for my doctorate thesis, especially the TIF (Telomere Induced Foci) Assay. Further, since I will be the only one who will carry out telomere experiments in my institution, it was the cornerstone and main benefit for my thesis to grasp special imagining techniques for telomeric DNA damage. I successfully gained experience in a very short time as Maria’s team also followed the same protocol that we will. It was both surprising and encouraging at the same time. Hence, all this experience not only augmented my knowledge but also provided skills that would reduce my time spent optimizing the protocols in my lab. Now I’m carrying out the same experiments that I learned at CNIO and I can create time to do other experiments which will contribute to my results.

Did you experience any particular challenges?
On the contrary, thanks to all people in the CNIO, from the front desk to Maria and her team, I had amazing and genuine support, so I never encountered any difficulties. It was a fantastic experience having both wonderful colleagues and training at the same time since they also cared about my wellbeing. Everyone was so cheerful and enthusiastic about their specialties and that’s why I could easily learn diverse techniques from different departments. It was very fortunate to be there to enhance my abilities for my career progression.

Would you like to continue in science?
Most definitely I will! Since I was a kid, I have always felt a strong passion for science and wished to come up with novel solutions to the specific diseases that make people’s lives harder. After this spectacular experience and extraordinary three months in Madrid, thanks to FEBS Scholarship and CNIO team, in the near future I will take one step ahead and plan my postdoc. There are still many things to discover in cancer and the telomere field. Thus, I would like to establish my laboratory and team as a PI in the future to have a key role in exploring and devising new pathways or solutions to cancer.  

Top image of post: by TheOtherKev from Pixabay

For more information on FEBS Summer Fellowships and how to apply,  see the Fellowships section of the FEBS website.

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