Sonia Leonardelli

EACR Travel Fellowships are co-sponsored by Worldwide Cancer Research and provide funds up to €3,000 to early-career cancer researchers. For more information on how to apply for Travel Fellowships, you can visit the EACR website.

Name: Sonia Leonardelli
Title: PhD student
Home Institution: University Hospital Essen, Essen, Germany
Host Institution: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Dates of visit: 29 October – 21 December 2018

Research: The immune system is usually able to discriminate between healthy and cancer cells and will attack the cancer cells with the intention of destroying them. The immune system of cancer patients is sometimes tricked into recognizing melanoma as not dangerous or not foreign. One of the most promising cancer treatments that has arrived on the market in the past few years is immunotherapy, which stimulates the body’s own immune system to be activated and fight cancer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for everybody. What I am trying to understand is what changes occur in the tumours during treatment to make them invisible to the immune system.

Sonia Leonardelli
Sonia and her supervisor, Mamunur Rashid

Why did you decide to apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship?

The EACR Travel Fellowship is a prestigious award that  offers a unique opportunity for a PhD student to visit another lab and institution, strengthening collaboration and learning new techniques. I found this to be essential for my own PhD and research.

Why did you choose the host lab?

I got to know Dr. David Adams through the Marie-Curie PhD program which I am part of and sponsors my PhD. Dr. Adams showed interest in my project, which involves NGS analysis of melanoma samples to understand resistance mechanisms involved in immunotherapy. Dr Adams kindly offered his expertise and his lab members’ help in order to perform the bioinformatic analysis of my samples and hopefully get some important results in the field of melanoma research.

Can you summarise what you learned on your visit?

I joined Team 113 in the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to analyse WES and RNA-seq data that were generated before my arrival. Thanks to regular help from my colleagues, I was able to learn the basics of bioinformatic work in R, which is a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics. We would then discuss the analysis and decide the best way to analyse the samples and produce data that could potentially lead to a publication and more wet lab work for further validation.

Sonia Leonardelli
Sonia and her colleagues (from left to right): Sofia Chen (PhD student), Dr Holly Robertson (Postdoc), Aravind Sankar (PhD student), Sonia Leonardelli (PhD student), Put Ying Chan (PhD student) and Dr Andrea Manrique (Postdoc)

What were you able to do that you could not have achieved in your home lab?

My home lab is entirely focused on wet-lab research. Therefore, there was no one who could help and supervise me during the analysis of WES and RNA-sequencing. Thanks to Dr. Adams’ lab, I found support and guidance for a task that was indispensable to my PhD thesis.

Did you take part in any interesting local/cultural activities?

Whilst living in Cambridge, I visited many of the city’s most famous colleges, such as King’s College, Trinity College and St. John’s College, whose alumni include famous researchers and Nobel Prize winners.

Sonia Leonardelli
Sonia visiting the Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College

Did you have a personal mentor or anyone who particularly helped you?

Mamunur Rashid was my supervisor during my stay in Dr. Adams’ lab. He is a senior bioinformatician and was very helpful whenever I needed help or someone to talk to about the analysis I was performing. The long discussions with him over a cup of hot tea were always stimulating, inspiring and extremely helpful.

How has this visit been beneficial to your research and/or your career?

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge is one of the most famous institutes in Europe, and my visit has greatly inspired me. I was able to learn some basic bioinformatics, which will be helpful further down the line in my career. Nowadays, scientists who have expertise in both wet and dry lab work are in demand, given the ability to understand both the biological and the informatic worlds.

How has the trip inspired you in your research?

I was inspired to learn more and more about bioinformatics. I discovered that I like analysing data and performing computer work. I know I would really like to carry on and further develop this new skill for my career.

Interested in applying?EACR Travel Fellowships

If you are interested in applying to the Travel Fellowship scheme, please click the EACR Travel Fellowships logo for more information.