Agata Nyga explains how she looks at understanding how cell mechanics work, combining both wet laboratory experiments with computational analysis.
24 September is World Cancer Research Day, which raises awareness of the important and lifesaving work done by researchers. As part of this the EACR asked a variety of members to share a day in their life as a cancer researcher.
Name: Agata Nyga
Place of work: Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain
Job title: Postdoctoral Researcher
How long have you worked there: 2 years
I’m a morning person and I usually wake up around 6.30am. When I did my research in London, I used to go for morning yoga (sometimes at 6.45am!) before heading to work. In Spain, things start later in the day, so I spend my morning with a fresh coffee and reading scientific news. I reach my institute around 9am, and I go over the things I need to do and design my experimental set up.
My research is focused on studying the mechanical properties of normal cells undergoing oncogenesis, and it combines both laboratory (wet) experiments and computational analysis. Experiments usually start in the morning. There is a lot of prepping involved, like preparing all reagents, including gels on which the cells grow. For the cells to attach to the gel, I also incubate in overnight with special proteins. The next day, I can seed the cells on top of them to prepare for the real experiment! This involves using fluorescent microscope and long imaging (3 days or so) of the cells transitioning from normal to cancerous.
Afternoons are for group meetings. Our team is divided between two institutions, in Barcelona where I am based with PhD student and master/bachelor students, and in Eindhoven where our Group Leader is based, so we became experts in Skyping. Meetings provide a platform for discussion about different projects, trying to give guidance to the students, while remembering what the challenges in cancer research we are facing. Working with students is very stimulating, when they start, I train them in different techniques making sure they are happy and ready to work alone.
After the meetings, I spend the afternoon either performing other experiments, like measuring the amount of different proteins inside the cells or staining cellular components to visualise their morphology or localisation, or at the computer. In the end, I can’t hide in lab too long. Since moving to Barcelona, I’ve trained in using computational tools to process images and analyse various cellular functions. One of the key techniques I’m using to study cell mechanics, is traction force microscopy. Using the images from my real-live imaging I can quantify how cells exert forces on the substrate they grow on. This technique was the reason for me to move to Barcelona (beach and sun was also a great bonus). Now after 2 years of programming, I enjoy the time on the computer. I am amazed by how many new things we can learn.
After the day at work, I head for a yoga class to relax and destress. I’ve discovered yoga during my PhD, and it helped me be stronger and more determined in achieving my scientific goals. I always recommend it to the students and scientists I meet! There are many challenges that a young researcher faces. I spend my evening writing applications for future fellowships. However, it is not easy, as usually you have to apply one year in advance, without finishing your current project yet.
I’m ready to move towards my next career stage in cancer research. I hope that in 2020, I will secure funding towards an independent position, where I can combine my current knowledge and expertise to work with patients’ samples in identifying biomechanical markers in cancer progression. One thing I learnt as a researcher, is that curiosity is contagious. Be open and share your scientific drive with others. Try not to isolate yourself and work more with people in different fields. That’s when the great discoveries happen!
How can you get involved with World Cancer Research Day?
1. Sign the World Declaration for Cancer Research
2. On 24 September share a snapshot on social media from a day in your life as a cancer researcher: use #WorldCancerResearchDay
Click here to see more posts about a ‘Day in the Life’ of other cancer researchers.
About Agata’s research:
When normal cells within our body become cancerous, they undergo various changes. The gene expression is altered, leading to abnormal function, like not being able to stop growing. However, cells have also mechanical properties. They can exert forces and sense the mechanical response from the microenvironment. My research focuses on understanding how the cell mechanics change when it becomes cancerous, and whether we can exploit healthy cell mechanics to preserve tissue integrity and prevent cancerous transformation.