Featured scientist profiles

March - April 2019: Ioanna Mylonaki

This month ISRMN spoke with Dr Ioanna Mylonaki.


  1. What first drew you to science research and what has been your journey so far?

I had always been driven from innate curiosity to understand systems around me. My love for discovery, initially drove me to study pharmaceutical science at the University of Athens, Greece. Later I realised I could join a community of researchers eager to bring scientific discovery to patients and improve their life quality. That is when I decided to do a PhD in pharmaceutical technology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. I developed a perivascular formulation for the prevention of intimal hyperplasia following vascular by-pass surgery. I was given the opportunity to join a project from its naissance; and perform the formulation development, the in vitro studies and latter test it on two animal models. The most intriguing part of this project is that it was driven by a need of clinicians, who provided their clinical expertise to develop a product that would really benefit patients undergoing bypass surgeries. This project has taken the route of becoming a spin-off company of the University of Geneva and is currently expanded in its business perspective to secure funding that would allow for its testing in a clinical setting.

  1. What research do you do and what do you think the impact is?

I am currently a postdoc fellow of the Swiss National Science Foundation, at the bioengineering department of Imperial College London, working at the group of Molly Stevens. My scientific interests revolve around the efficient delivery of small molecules, genes and cells for Advanced Therapies (gene and cell therapies). I am fascinated by the recent advancements on cell and gene therapy and intrigued by the bottlenecks of how to deliver such entities. Indeed, despite the major advancements of pharmaceutical research towards biological therapeutics, little has been achieved for the delivery of these systems. I am set to transpose the observations that biologists make in a cell culture environment to the complexity of in vivo systems where toxicity, distribution, immune response, pharmacokinetics/pharmacodynamics can become important barriers for the success of the therapy.

  1. What are your next steps?

For the next few years, I aim at developing systems for the delivery of cells in the heart, that would induce cardiac regeneration following myocardial infraction. I want to bridge the gap between biological research, biomaterials and clinical application to bring safe and efficient solutions for cardiovascular regeneration. I intend to fully embrace the ‘luxury’ of being in an academic environment, that allows for blue-skies research and exploration of high-risk-high-reward research. And especially for translational academic researchers that cannot compete with the resources of big pharma, it is crucial to explore innovation routes that are too risky for the industry.

I also intend to dive into the entrepreneurial ecosystem and understand ways to translate positive scientific outcomes to efficient Advanced Therapies. Very often, scientists focus in their lab work and fail to apprehend the bigger picture of scientific research. I would like to deeply understand what the unsolved medical conditions are, what needs to be improved in the patients, and most importantly what are the economic extensions behind this that would allow for the necessary research expenditure.

  1. What was your most fun or inspirational time in the lab?

By the end of my PhD I had to analyse hundreds of histological slides of different organs and several stainings. We had designed a blinded-experimentin which not me nor my colleagues knew what condition we were testing. We were working for months on the in vivo study and later it took us several weeks to analyse the slides. Once all the data was analysed, we were finally able to reveal the groups. It was a great relief and joy to find out that our scientific assumption was proved. It really made me feel that the effort was worth it.

  1. What was your biggest career or scientific disappointment and how did you overcome it?

My biggest scientific disappointment came when I realised how much irreproducible research is being published. Even in very high impact factor journals! I was in shock when I read the famous Amgen study citing that only 11% of scientific findings were confirmed, out of 53 preclinical cancer papers analysed (Nature 483, 2012).  And this is translated in $28b a year spent on irreproducible biomedical research (PLOS biology, 13-6, 2015). Ever since I am particularly meticulous when describing my experiment protocols and incite my students to do the same. I have also engaged to efforts such as protocols.io or experoment.com that aim to increase research reproducibility.

  1. What has been your favourite outreach activity and what made it stand out

I was once invited to give an interview at the Swiss press on the outcome of my research. It was great fun to express very complex concepts in simple language for the wide audience. I obviously shared the communication with friends and family. Interestingly, their feedback made me realize that the society does not fully apprehend the importance of scientific research. This encouraged me to get involved in a growing number of outreach activities and consider the time spent on this truly imperative.

August - September 2018: Dr Kirsten McEwen

This month ISRMN spoke with Dr Kirsten McEwen. Find out more about research in Kirsten's lab here.

1)    What was your journey through science so far?Kirsten

It started with one genetics class in high school that captured me. Although I didn’t take biology in my final school years and instead focused on maths, chemistry and physics, I took a gamble and did a Biomedical Science Bachelors. It paid off, I love molecular biology and was awarded a scholarship to undertake my PhD with Anne Ferguson-Smith at the University of Cambridge. Here I took my first step integrating experimental and computational approaches and discovered an epigenetic signature of genomic imprinting. During my post-doc with Petra Hajkova at the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences I expanded beyond imprinting to look at epigenetics and gene regulation more globally. I was next awarded the Imperial College Research Fellowship to build my own research programme.

2)    What research do you do and what do you think the impact is?

My research programme has a core focus on cellular heterogeneity, which is emerging as a key determinant of health and disease. We know that all cells are not equal: diversity exists even between cells of a single cell type. The proposed functions of heterogeneity are broad and include controlling cell fate decisions, disease risk, cancer metastasis and drug resistance. Very little is actually understood regarding these processes and my goal is to identify the mechanisms and consequences of heterogeneity to ultimately learn how to improve disease outcomes.

Recent work identifies drivers of heterogeneity in pluripotent stem cells with potential implications for cancer. We show that kinase inhibitors – which are currently in clinical use to treat various cancer types – can induce heterogeneity. This may increase the risk of drug resistance and metastasis so we’re now testing if this does indeed happen in cancer cells, an exciting step toward more translational research.

 3)    What are your next steps?

Immediate next steps are to get the reviews finished for two papers I’ve just submitted (check them out on BioRxiv). I have two other projects I’m hoping to submit before I’m off for maternity leave, then I’ll be learning how to balance motherhood and an academic career!

4)    What was your most fun or inspirational time in the lab/science?

The opportunity to direct my own research programme has been incredibly fun, inspirational and rewarding for me. Coming up with fresh ideas and testing these out is what drives me. I also really enjoy supervising and seeing my team members develop towards becoming independent scientists.

5)    What was your biggest career or scientific disappointment and how did you overcome it?

I’m passionate about my work, which means I take both the ups and downs very personally. Coping with disappointments – and in academia these are many and varied – is essential. I remind myself to keep some perspective, get advice from many sources and appreciate what you learn at each step.

6)    Have you participated of any outreach or public engagement activities recently?

I was selected for a Rising Stars public communication course during my PhD which gave me invaluable tools and experience. Since then I’ve participated in science festivals and museum exhibitions, given outreach seminars, undertaken Wikipedia edit-a-thons and been interviewed about the implications of stem cell research.

7)    If you were to go back and start your PhD over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Network. I’m shy at heart and it has taken time to build up my networking skills. Remember that scientists are curious and most genuinely want to hear about your research. Learn how to advocate for yourself, ask for help when you need it and if you spot a potential collaboration, get in touch to discuss opportunities.

June - July 2018: Dr Claire Higgins

This month ISRMN caught up with Dr Claire Higgins. Find out more about research in Claire's lab here.

1)    What was your journey through science so far?

Claire HigginsFor my undergraduate degree I studied Natural Science at Durham University in the UK.  There was no research project associated with this and so I got a summer job as a research technician at the Sanger Institute.  I quickly realised that I enjoyed working in a laboratory, and hence I applied for a PhD in the lab of my favourite lecturer.  When I was partaking in my PhD I still hadn’t quite figured out my ‘career plan’ but a natural next step was to do a postdoc.  I only applied in the USA as I wanted to experience a different research culture, and moved to Columbia University in New York in December 2007 to take up a position there.  I went initially for a 2 year stint, but about a year in I realised that I definitely wanted a career in academia.  I therefore starting applying for fellowships, and received one which gave me funding and kept me in my postdoctoral research lab for 6 years.  After this, I applied for faculty positions throughout Europe and thankfully got a position in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial.  I joined the faculty here as a Lecturer in 2014.

2)    What research do you do and what do you think the impact is?

My lab works on tissue regeneration, using human skin and hair follicles as a model system.  We try to regenerate skin after injury, specifically traumatic injury, so it is appropriate for its new function.  For example, with skin repair you get a scar which is devoid of follicles, nerves and blood vessels.  Essentially it is a living bandage but not a functional tissue.  We work with the belief that initiating hair follicle growth in scar tissue will spur on the recreation of developmental processes, and in turn promote angiogenesis, neurogenesis, and reestablishment of a functional skin.  Likewise, sometimes skin does regenerate but it is no longer suitable for its new function.  An example here would be skin on the residual limb of an amputee…it covers the limb which is all well and good, but it cannot bear load as efficiently as foot skin, and will ulcerate when patients try to walk with a prosthesis attached.

 3)    What are your next steps?

My lab mainly works with human tissue with the end goal of having translational research.  Currently, I am applying for funding to initiate a cell therapy trial to reprogramme skin on an amputated limb to become load bearing. It is a huge career aspiration of mine to run a clinical trial.

4)    What was your most fun or inspirational time in the lab/science?

I cannot really pinpoint a specific time. I really love my job and I enjoy being creative, getting to ask questions and trying to solve problems.  I chose a career in science as I really enjoyed it.  I think so long as you pursue a career because it makes you happy, you will find inspiration in many places. 

5)    What was your biggest career or scientific disappointment and how did you overcome it?

I feel there are disappointments in science that I have as a faculty member which were present, but not as apparent, when I was a postdoc.  These include both grant rejections, and manuscript rejections.  With grant rejections I’m a bit like Tigger, and I bounce back…or submit another grant.  I find paper rejections harder to deal with as you can’t bounce back in the same way as you have to submit your work to another journal.  I feel that editors will often give a more established researcher the ‘benefit of the doubt’ and send a paper for review while for early career scientists getting past the editor is often the biggest hurdle.  

6)    Have you participated of any outreach or public engagement activities recently?

I spoke at Pint of Science last month, but I actually don’t drink pints….of beer.  I love red wine, port, and champagne.  I’d order a pint of champagne if possible ;-).  It was the second time that I’ve spoken at a Pint of Science event, and I’ve also spoken at an event called NerdNite.  That one is just for nerdy people; not necessarily scientists but anyone with a passion for something.  They are great fun as you have to tailor your talk to your audience. 

March - April 2018: Dr Harry Leitch

Find out more about Harry Leitch's research.

  1. What was your journey through science so far? 

HGLI’ve had a bit of a complex route. I started off by studying medicine at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. I took a year out in 2006 to compete at the my first Commonwealth Games, and when I returned I decided to spend the summer in a lab – mainly so I could hang around Cambridge and be there for all my friends graduating. Until then I had no inclination that I was interested in basic science or research, and I’d always hated undergraduate practical classes. However, from almost the moment I started I felt completely at home in the lab, and the research environment. I loved the creativity, and coming to work each day to solve a problem or conundrum, however small – and in those days they were very small problems (why didn’t my restriction digest or PCR work…). I was lucky to work with Bill Colledge and he taught me everything – how to pipette, mini-preps, tissue culture. Although his lab was by that time focussed on reproductive endocrinology he has a long history in the ES cell and knockout mouse field, having been a postdoc with Martin Evans. It was reading around this topic which was really the catalyst for my ongoing interest in pluripotency and stem cell biology.

I ended up spending over a year in Bill’s lab, including my 3rd year project, and after this it was a no-brainer to apply to the MB/PhD programme at the clinical school – luckily, I was accepted. So, after a year of medical school, I started a PhD joint supervised by Azim Surani and Austin Smith, and I was also lucky to work closely with Jenny Nichols – three fantastic PIs. I combined the interests of the two labs by studying pluripotency in primordial germ cells (PGCs) – with a thesis entitled ‘Pluripotency and the germline’. My core interests haven’t changed too much over the years – when I started my lab I made a huge departure and called it ‘Germline and Pluripotency’(!). I managed to finish my PhD in two and half years, which bought me time to do a postdoc before returning for my final two years of medical school (although I eked out at least another year’s-worth of postdoc in evenings and weekends during this time).

After finally graduating from medicine in 2014 (having started in 2003), I worked as a junior doctor in Cambridge for a year before being attracted down to London by an innovative academic foundation year created by the MRC London Institute for Medical Sciences (LMS). This is part of their broader clinician-scientist programme – called the Chain-Florey Scheme -  which has been pioneered by the Director Mandy Fisher. This gave me some invaluable dedicated time back in the lab during which I hooked up with my long-time friend and collaborator Petra Hajkova. Working alongside Petra’s lab and benefiting from her excellent mentorship I was able to secure independent funding and have recently established my own group at the LMS. Clinically, I’ve specialised in paediatrics and continue to combine my research with specialist training – which keeps me busy and out of trouble! 

  1. What research do you do and what do you think the impact is? 

Perhaps unusually for a clinician my research interests are in basic biology. Broadly speaking they span stem cell biology, pluripotency, germline development, epigenetics and reproduction. Most of my work focusses on the mammalian germline cycle. This provides a common thread to my research which allows me to think about a wide range of questions – such as studying how pluripotency is established and controlled in pluripotent stem cells and the embryo, characterising how germ cells are established and develop during embryogenesis, establishing culture conditions for germ cells, and researching the epigenetic changes in the germline. I enjoy working both in vitro – establishing simple systems to answer complex questions - and in vivo, where the real magic happens. The majority of the impact of my research is in answering fundamental biological questions, but I think these are fairly big questions about where we come from and what information we pass onto the next generation – things we just need to understand. However, this fundamental knowledge undoubtedly is important for a range of applications. For instance, in regenerative medicine approaches, we hope to inform work to safely and efficiently direct stem cells to make useful cell types. Also, the culture systems we are developing for germ cells and the information we are learning about their fundamental biology (including their epigenome) may well be of direct relevance for attempts at in vitro gametogenesis – making sperm and eggs in the dish. This could have a significant impact on reproductive medicine and fertility treatments. However, my strong belief is that if you do interesting, creative research on important questions then there will be impacts and spin-offs that you never even thought of – in fact, I think evidence suggests this is the way things tend to happen.

  1. What are your next steps? 

I guess the next few years are all about making progress with the projects we’ve started and, hopefully, building up a successful independent research program. I’m really excited about the projects we have in the lab, but understandably anxious that they come to fruition. Luckily, I’ve just recruited some fantastic people and building a strong team is also something that I’m passionate about. Clinically, I have a fair amount of training to do and I need to think about carving out a niche in which I can make a valuable clinical contribution, in addition to managing the lab. Imperial College, Imperial NHS Trust and the MRC LMS have been very supportive so far - and there may be some exciting possibilities in the future. The flip side is, it could all be a massive disaster… but I guess that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

  1. What was your most fun or inspirational time in the lab/science? 

I’m a strong believer that each new step forwards should be more exciting than the previous one, and I’m really enjoying where I am right now. Being a group head is a fantastic opportunity. Of course, it’s also absolutely terrifying... and everything they say about the admin overload is 100% correct. However, it’s what I signed up for, and so I can’t complain too much. I hope in 5 years’ time things will be even more fun and inspirational. If not, there’s always bar work… 

  1. What was your biggest career or scientific disappointment and how did you overcome it? 

Oh god. There are far too many to mention. I sometimes think research is about staying positive while stumbling from one colossal disaster to another – something I learned a lot about from my sporting background. I competed in three Commonwealth Games, and came 4th twice – so never got the medal I was after. That’s proper disappointment! Like almost everyone in science there’s been positions I didn’t get that I wanted, experiments and projects that failed, and bad reviews or feedback I’ve taken pretty personally. However, there’s almost always a smattering of good news to keep you going and of course the good times balance out the disappointments. For this reason, I think it’s important to celebrate victories – however small. If you can’t enjoy the good times, then why put up with all the crap! I’m probably a bit junior to be dishing out sage advice but I’ve always thought if you’re passionate about what you do and have self-assuredness that you’re doing the right thing, then things work themselves out eventually. It’s also really important that you surround yourself with people who give you high quality and honest advice, so you can question what you’re doing and update your plans if necessary. There’s plenty of bad advice out there which should be ignored at all costs. Having humility and open-mindedness is really important, but at some points you have be stubborn too. 

  1. What is your cocktail of choice?   

Good question! I think the most important thing is the bartender. If someone can mix a good drink then I tend to stick with the classics – boozy as hell and something that will hit you for six. Hard to argue with a proper Martini, Old Fashioned or Manhattan. 

November - December 2017: Dr Susanne Sattler

Dr Susanne SattlerFind out more about Dr Sattler's research

What was your journey through science so far?

I obtained my PhD from the Medical University in Vienna, Austria, and then took up my first postdoctoral position at Imperial College. My PhD project was to characterize a family of newly identified pattern recognition receptors, traditionally considered part of the immune system, but we found them on endothelial cells. This was my first step towards the realisation that there is more to the immune system than defense from infectious diseases. During my first postdoctoral project, I worked on regulatory immune cells and their potential therapeutic benefit in autoimmune disease and in 2012, I joined Nadia Rosenthal and Sian Harding at the NHLI to explore the role of the immune system in heart regeneration.

What research do you do and what do you think the impact is?

Our research focuses on what happens to the immune system after a myocardial infarct. One in five heart attack patients go on to develop heart failure. There is no cure and prognosis is very poor. There is increasing evidence that the immune response to the initial damage has an important role to play in the development of heart failure and understanding what exactly happens will be the first step to a potential new therapeutic target.

I currently lead a BHF-funded project investigating how the adaptive immune system influences regenerative responses after myocardial infarct and what impact it has on the progression to heart failure. This overarching project bridges immunology, regenerative medicine and cardiovascular biology and includes imaging, biomaterial and genetic approaches.

I’m lucky to work with a fabulous team of enthusiastic researchers, students and multi-disciplinary collaborators to tackle a few crucial questions in cardiac regenerative medicine; Does a myocardial infarct induce anti-heart autoimmunity and does this indeed have a clinically relevant impact on recovery? Can we modulate the immune response to prevent this reaction and boost regeneration? Can we predict development of heart disease in autoimmune patients based on genetic factors or biomarkers?

Understanding the still vastly underappreciated impact of the immune response to tissue damage will allow us to eventually modulate it in a way to boost its profound regenerative capacity while avoiding excessive inflammation and fibrosis and subsequent development to heart failure. Importantly, I strongly believe that an immune-modulatory component will be an essential part of regenerative therapies to ensure cell- or biomaterial-based strategies can fulfill their full potential without being hampered by ongoing and persistent inflammation and tissue damage. There have in fact been a range of clinical trials so far on immuno-modulatory interventions in heart attack patients, but severe limitations in design and measured readouts mean that is still impossible to give a sensible answer to effectiveness of these treatments.

What are your next steps?

We still have a lot to understand and a long way to go until we will be able to design efficient interventions targeting the immune system for regenerative medicine, because the immune response is stupendously complex and context dependent. We hope to be able to contribute a few pieces to the puzzle.

What was your most fun or inspirational time in the lab/science?

I have thoroughly enjoyed the last few years working in Sian Harding’s Cardiovascular Section of the NHLI, and a very close collaboration with Nadia Rosenthal and Muneer Hasham at The Jackson Laboratories in the US. Sian Harding’s Section is a beautiful example of how – despite increasing pressure and competitiveness of the overall scientific environment - a group of scientists of a variety of specialties can work together in an open, friendly and truly supportive environment. I have several collaborative projects bridging specialties and groups and I never have problems finding enthusiastic collaborators for my most risky ideas. I’m convinced that academic research should be about pooling brain capacity and being able to openly share and discuss ideas, and in my current position I always feel confident to do that.

What was your biggest career or scientific disappointment and how did you overcome it?

I am to the day still haunted by my PhD project. One of the aims was to find a ligand for a newly identified receptor. Being incredibly short of funding, we were very resourceful in getting our hands on a variety of potential ligands, but couldn’t afford a more systematic approach. Needless to say, we did not identify the ligand, nor has anybody since, but I keep checking the literature hoping that eventually somebody will solve the mystery.

Career disappointments on the other hand, are something rather universal for most early stage researchers at this point in time. Faculty positions in research institutions have the status of rainbow unicorns, and at the same time finding external funding for personal support gets very hard at a certain level of experience. The key is not to allow this constant threat to invade daily thinking. ‘Enjoy it while it lasts’ has been my personal mantra for many years.

Have you participated in any outreach or public engagement activities recently?

Yes, it’s fun! It’s hard to find the time, but I always thought it was worth it, no matter if I was knitting microglia or teaching a class of primary school kids what science really is about. I went to be a judge at a school science fair and to a profession-speed dating session. I regularly have work experience students in the lab. It’s little effort and may have a huge impact on the student’s future. When I was a child, somebody at some point must have inspired me to go to university and study Biology. Now I get up happy and motivated every day, because I have an interesting job I love. Everybody deserves this chance!

September - October 2017: Dr Michail Klontzas

Find out more about Dr Michail Klontsaz' research

What was your journey through science so far?

I am a graduate of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Crete in Greece. During my undergraduate studies, I was lucky enough to participate in basic and clinical research projects related to haematology and musculoskeletal MRI. My exposure to haematological research under the supervision of Prof. H. Papadaki stimulated my interest in stem cells and translational medicine, whereas working on musculoskeletal imaging with Prof. A. Karantanas helped me discover my love for the musculoskeletal system. Therefore, after obtaining my medical degree, I decided to combine both interests and pursue a PhD in stem cells and musculoskeletal tissue engineering. Currently, I am lucky to be following my dream of conducting a PhD as a Marie Curie funded PhD student, under the supervision of Prof. Athanasios Mantalaris in the Biological Systems Engineering Lab of Imperial College.

What research do you do and what do you think the impact is?

My PhD research focuses on stem cell bioprocessing and specifically on the osteogenic differentiation of umbilical cord blood mesenchymal stem cells (UCB MSCs) for bone tissue engineering purposes. In my project, which involves both experimental and computational work, I study the metabolism of stem cells when differentiated towards the osteogenic lineage, in an attempt to optimize the production of artificial bone grafts. I feel extremely lucky that I work in a multidisciplinary lab which has managed to successfully integrate in vitro with in silico experimentation. This has given me the chance to utilise state-of-the-art experimental methods such as metabolomics and state-of-the-art mathematical modelling towards the development of engineered bone grafts. Due to the recent constant increase in cord blood banking, UCB MSCs have the potential of being used for the off-the-shelf production of artificial bone grafts with a great impact on the efficiency of treatments that require the use of bone grafts such as fracture fixation, bone tumour resection, revision joint arthroplasty etc. The process of manufacturing of such grafts should be well studied, optimized and tightly regulated in terms of quality in order to guarantee the best outcome for our patients. Towards this direction, our work has already shown that metabolism is an indicator of the degree of osteogenic differentiation and that culture protocols with differential osteogenic efficiency have different metabolic repercussions that could be used to assess the quality of UCB MSC differentiation. Moreover, being a member of SyMBioSys (an EU-funded consortium on modelling of biological systems - www.h2020symbiosys.eu) I have the chance to collaborate and exchange data and ideas with brilliant researchers from several countries that all work on projects meant to open new pathways on dynamic model development.

What are your next steps?

After finishing my PhD, I will continue with my medical training to become an orthopaedic surgeon. In my future career, I am planning to combine clinical practice with research for the benefit of patients.

What was your most fun or inspirational time in the lab/science?

It is nearly impossible to identify one time that was the most fun because I really enjoy every single moment in the lab. However, if I have to point out one specific event, I would say that it was when my first PhD paper was invited to make the cover of the scientific journal Stem Cells & Development which is something that would not have been achieved without the invaluable support of my colleagues and especially my supervisor Prof. Mantalaris.

What was your biggest career or scientific disappointment and how did you overcome it?

My attitude is that I always try to convert any disappointment into knowledge for future use. Any difficulty we face should make us wiser and this is the reason that I try to quickly forget any disappointment and move on, equipped with extra troubleshooting skills to overcome future problems.

Have you participated in any outreach or public engagement activities recently?

Our lab has participated in several public engagement activities over the years. The most important of them is Imperial Festival which is an excellent opportunity to show the public the amazing work that Imperial’s scientists do.

July - August 2017: Delfim Duarte

Find out more about Delfim Duarte


I graduated in Medicine at the University of Porto in Portugal. As an undergrad, I studied angiogenesis and inflammation in Raquel Soares’ lab. During medical school, I was selected for a summer placement in Tom Kirchhausen’s lab (Harvard Medical School) and there I used a single-molecule approach to study the GTPase dynamin during clathrin-mediated endocytosis. I then carried out a Master’s project on platelet and endothelial cell microparticles in asthma patients. As a consequence of these experiences, I became very interested in cancer, vascular biology, cell-to-cell communication, and microscopy. I saw Haematology as a discipline where I could study these topics and have an impact as both a doctor and as a research scientist. After starting the specialty of Haematology in the Portuguese Institute of Oncology, in Porto, I was given the opportunity to pursue a PhD in basic/translational haematology. I was selected for the GABBA PhD program (gabba.up.pt) and joined Cristina Lo Celso’s lab at Imperial College in 2014. 

In my project I’m asking how leukaemia cells behave in vivo and how do they interact with the bone marrow microenvironment. This is relevant because the microenvironment, or niche, supports the maintenance of healthy blood cells that are lost in patients with leukaemia. Also, an open question in the field is whether the leukaemia itself depends or not on the niche to grow and survive. These questions are particularly important in acute leukaemias, which have very poor prognosis. Cristina, my supervisor, developed a method of intravital imaging of the mouse bone marrow to study the microenvironment. Using this technique, together with Edwin Hawkins, we were able to show that a type of T cell leukaemia does not depend on specific niches to grow and escape chemotherapy. An interesting observation was that the leukaemia is very motile and that its migration is dependent on specific molecular signals that can be targeted by new therapies. More recently I observed that another type of leukaemia, acute myeloid leukaemia, changes and eventually destroys the vascular microenvironment that is essential for the maintenance of healthy blood stem cells. 
Next year I'm going back to Porto in Portugal to continue my clinical training in Haematology. I'll continue my research work in the affiliated institute i3S. i3S is a new research institute that brings together groups working on cell and molecular biology, cancer and bioengineering. I'll move to a group studying iron biology. Iron is an essential element for healthy haematopoiesis and it has a fine-tuned systemic regulation. I'll be asking what is the relevance of iron in the microenvironment and how it affects stem cells, blood vessels and leukaemia. I'll approach this by using mouse models and imaging, together with patient samples.  
In my opinion, the best in science is that you can make a “discovery” any time, often unexpectedly. That’s truly inspirational and fun. As someone who loves imaging, I appreciate very much the power of microscopy to generate totally new observations that then obviate new questions you didn’t think of before. The whole process is exciting! There’s also the people. In science, you have lots of diversity and meet people that are sort of outliers in society. It’s a special ecosystem that makes you think in a different way and learn more and more.
For me, the biggest challenge has always been trying to assess how meaningful and relevant are the “eureka” moments or ideas I often have. I try to be disciplined with myself so that I can distinguish things worth pursuing from red herrings. I think it’s something every scientist relates to. I find that discussing with your peers is very helpful and that you improve as you get more experience. Sometimes it can be hard to dismiss something that in your head makes total sense. The challenge is to go through this process without losing creativity.
I’ve participated in public outreach activities over the years. It's important for a scientist to learn how to communicate their science so I’ve tried to develop such communication skills. A good example of a project I’ve participated in and that promotes the scientific education of children is “Native Scientist”. The project exists in several countries, UK included, and I recommend all researchers to participate in it.

April - June 2017: Dr Gabor Foldes

Find out more about Dr Gabor Foldes' research


I graduated from Semmelweis University, Budapest in 1998, where four years later I also got my PhD. I trained in Medicine and then specialised in Internal Medicine and Cardiology ten years ago. So I am a medic by training but since my university years, I have also been involved in research in various cardiovascular areas that interest me. In the middle of my Cardiology rotation back in 2006 I was awarded a fellowship by the Novartis Foundation and spent five months in Professor Ken Chien’s laboratory at Harvard. This was my first opportunity to get involved with stem cells. Our aim there was to grow multipotent islet-positive heart progenitors from mouse embryonic stem cells. When sometimes we went in the ‘wrong’ direction with the differentiation and found beating heart muscle cells under the microscope, everybody in the lab was so disappointed! Such a bad protocol, complained everybody. It has now been more than nine years since I started working with Professor Sian Harding at the National Heart and Lung Institute. Our group has also been focusing on the differentiation and characterisation of cardiovascular derivatives of human pluripotent stem cells. Our aim now is, in fact, the complete opposite: generating those beating cells, no matter what. The more beating, the better!


What I’m most interested in, probably because of my clinical background, is the translation of human pluripotent stem cells from heart disease models in a dish, to real cardiac repair. As well as driving various heart muscle cell projects, for some time I have also been leading new projects on stem cell-derived vascular cells. In 2010 I was also appointed as Associate Professor at my other institution, the Heart and Vascular Centre, Semmelweis University in Hungary.  That position allows me to leverage the specialist in vivo imaging expertise of my colleagues there. Being involved in this type of joint effort, and having that extra support, has been very helpful when trying to exploit such a complex technology.


My hope is that, by using these endothelial cell constructs, we’ll be able to generate something that resembles the native vessels. I think vascular scaffolds as a supporting microenvironment can be well used to support tissue repair or even replacement. When talking to my clinical colleagues, it often comes up that a new engineering design of a responsive, living conduit similar to a native vessel would be very much welcomed. Given the substantial clinical challenges of vascular disease, I think it is crucial to develop something which is suitable for application in tissue-engineered vessels and with favourable properties of strength, surface, anti-inflammation and long-term durability. I also see these ideas receiving a lot of support in-house and from many of our collaborators around Europe. All these collaborations would substantiate the potential of these cells in therapy and may even promote their further development as a first-in-man implantation.


Stem cell research generates a great deal of interest, and many people want to hear or talk about it. Everybody has questions for us, or just sharing some secret hopes that various diseases in their family could be cured with a bit of stem cell cocktail. Not surprisingly, I have received numerous invites and had the opportunity to present this work around the world. I am most proud of my stem cell image which was showcased in front of the London Eye, where a never-ending line of tourists tried to take selfies with it for days. I also have fond memories of the award for my high content imaging work being presented at the top of Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. These moments keep you going.


I fully agree with some recently published editorials in Nature and other journals that young scientists are facing a tougher and much more competitive workplace than many of our senior colleagues did at the same stages of their own careers. Unfortunately, we cannot underestimate the burden of grant preparations: a colossal amount of our time - measured at least in months - spent on each application. With suc­cess rates for most grants being very low recently, many times these ideas, even the ones we found particularly strong, are going down the sink. The bottom line is that even if we carry out exceptional science, we might still experience a bad combination of limited resources and increased pressure. While we’re aware that a stem cell project is rarely without any risk, it would be great to see bolder decisions and less risk aversion around grant decisions.


Over the years many high school students and young undergraduates visited our lab to look around; some even to spend a summer (one advantage of bad London weather) with us. Most of the time they are very switched on, and their short visits are often followed by further work in the lab. One of them even participated with success at various innovation contests for young scientists such as Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair last autumn.

January - March 2017: Dr Paola Campagnolo

Find out more about Dr Paolo Campagnolo's research


I graduated in Biotechnology at the University of Padua (Italy) with an experimental thesis on gene and cell therapy in 2005, when this was a relatively new topic. I then moved to Bristol (UK) for my PhD, working on the isolation of a novel progenitor population from human saphenous vein leftovers from cardiac patients. This turned out to be a pretty interesting population of cells, able to promote vascularization of ischemic tissues both in peripheral limbs and infarcted hearts. Following this, I worked at King’s College London on the use of tissue engineering to prepare vascular grafts for coronary bypasses. In these projects, I worked on the differentiation of stem cells to be seeded on decellularized blood vessels in a bioreactor to produce synthetic vessels resembling the natural structures. This experience encouraged me to decide to focus my research on the interaction between cells and biomaterials. I therefore joined Imperial College London, working in the Materials Department in the lab of Prof Stevens, one of the best labs in this field. At Imperial I collaborated with a number of very talented material scientists, as a result we devised a new synthetic material for vascular grafts and developed a nanomaterial-based system for in vivo gene therapy. More recently, I have been appointed as a lecturer at the University of Surrey, where I am working to establish my own research group.


My main research topic is the use of endogenous/adult stem cells for tissue engineering applications and in particular for the development of bypass/graft substitutes (large vessels). So far the cell population I have isolated during my PhD is approaching human clinical trial phase, thanks to my initial work and to the valuable contribution of so many other talented and determined people. My more recent work on tissue engineering and nanomaterial-based gene therapy is still under development, but I hope one day it will become clinically relevant.


In September I started at the University of Surrey as a lecturer in Molecular Cardiovascular Biology. In my new appointment, alongside some teaching duties, I will be setting up my research group (and lab). My research interests focus on the use of biomaterials and stem cells to produce a model of the vascular wall and the use of a bioreactor to mimic the pathophysiological conditions experienced by the vascular cells in vivo. The model will allow the study of cell-cell interactions and leukocyte extravasation in normal and pathological conditions. Establishing an in-vitro model of the vasculature enables the study of several diseases and their vascular complications, such as diabetes and viral infections.


I really enjoyed co-organising the meetings of the ISRMN, it has given me the amazing opportunity to interact and network with many interesting and valuable colleagues by challenging my natural awkwardness. It has made me also more aware of the organisational hurdles and the amazing feeling of accomplishment that comes with putting together a successful meeting. Of course, the interaction with Dina and Marta has been very constructive and taught me to value different approaches and inspired flexibility and passion for science.


During my PhD, I used to spend a lot of time in the lab, almost never sitting at my desk (a luxury that I don’t have anymore) and my mood used to depend a lot on my results, although lately, I have learned that your mental health depends on being more detached. I still remember the day I burst into my PhD supervisor’s office (yes, literally…he is a very understanding man) shouting: I have got some cells!!! They grow like embryoid bodies. And he said: No way! If it’s true we will call them ‘Paoloids’ (we are both called Paola/o). I think his support during my rather difficult PhD and his enthusiasm not only made me work super hard but also showed me what real passion for science is.


Imperial is a great institution with amazing resources and facilities that are surely unparalleled. But most of all I will miss the people I met here. I had the chance to work with great minds and this was at the same time humbling and encouraging.


Overall, I would say that is important for young scientists to learn that failure and patience are two inevitable facts of the scientific life. This is not to say it’s sad or not worth the effort; it is to say that everyone experiences the same setbacks as you and these difficulties are only stepping stones which will form your character and create the correct attitude to develop your career. I want to say this because many valuable scientists (and especially many women, including me) tend to feel alone in their path to success and give up thinking other people have it easy.