“I was very lucky to be ‘stuck’ in Sweden during the global pandemic”: reports from two EACR Travel Fellows

EACR Travel Fellowships are co-sponsored by Worldwide Cancer Research and provide funds up to €3,000 to early-career cancer researchers.

Below, you can read about the experiences of two of our Travel Fellows whose trips were affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. If you are interested in reading about the experiences of previous Travel Fellows, you can find more articles here.

Metoboroghene MowoeMetoboroghene Mowoe, PhD Student

Home institute: University of Cape Town, South Africa
Host institute: Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
Dates of visit: 03 March 2020 – 02 October 2020
Other funding organisations supporting trip: Andrea Fine Foundation & UCT Travel Fellowship

Research: Although rare, pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers. This is because it is often caught too late due to vague or absent symptoms. Finding a diagnosis for the disease early is crucial. Autoantibodies are immune proteins that are produced by the body at the start of the disease, before symptoms arise, and remain in the system even after they are no longer effective. The purpose of my study is to determine which autoantibodies, identified in the blood, are unique to pancreatic cancer. Therefore, they can be used to detect the disease at early stages to reduce mortality and inform treatment plans.

Metoboroghene’s 16 week Travel Fellowship visit was due to finish at the end of May. However, the travel restrictions and subsequent cancellation of flights as a result of the pandemic meant she ended up staying in Sweden until October. Metoboroghene was able to continue working throughout this time and still managed to conduct two of the three experiments planned as part of her project. Despite the pandemic preventing regional travel, Metoboroghene’s original lab project ‘blossomed into a larger study that was more fruitful than […] originally planned’.

Summary of trip:

I applied for the EACR Travel Fellowship following an invitation to Karolinska Institutet by Prof Matthias Löhr. I met him at the International Association for Pancreatology (IAP) conference where I gave an oral presentation of my research to date.

This trip has been very beneficial to my career

During my visit, I spent the majority of my time at the Samir El-Andaloussi Lab (a collaborator with Prof Löhr). Here, I isolated exosomes, using the established size exclusion method, from my samples to be shipped back to SouthAfrica for microarray analysis to determine if the autoantibodies isolated from exosomes were enriched and to determine autoantibody profiles for pancreatic cancer patients versus healthy and diseased controls. I also learned to conduct nanotracking analysis on my exosome isolates. Furthermore, I was taught flow cytometry. I used this knowledge to develop a bead based method for exosome isolation. We will compare them to other established methods to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Metoboroghene Mowoe
Metoboroghene conducting a flow cytometry experiment

The work and experiences in the lab

I really enjoyed the host lab in which I was placed during this visit. It was very different from my own lab in that they had a very established and healthy work-life balance and were still able to produce a lot of work. I was grateful for this as I was able to incorporate this into my own life. Hopefully, this can continue when I am home. I also loved the sense of collaboration, not only with people outside the lab, but also within the lab.

No project was ever fully completed by one person. This allowed them to achieve their goals much faster and more effectively. This is a concept that I hope to bring back to my lab and that I hope will be incorporated by my fellow lab colleagues as science should be a collaborative experience. It introduced a sense of camaraderie and dare I say family that is very rare to see in a scientific lab setting.

A lot of the work I conducted including my knowledge of exosome isolation techniques and flow cytometry is knowledge that I will be bringing back to my lab to teach people, some who have already made their interest known. In this way, I will contribute to the expansion of knowledge within our lab and the institute.

Importantly, I have made lifelong friends and have had precious experiences and memories that I would not trade for anything.

Collaborations and positive benefits

During my stay in the Sweden, I set up several collaborations and not just with my host lab. I also created one with a microarray lab headed by Prof Peter Nilsson at Science for Life Laboratories (SciLifeLab) at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. This will go on for several years for the foreseeable future.

This trip has been very beneficial to my career. I have been exposed to a new field in science that has expanded my horizons for research on pancreatic cancer. It will also open up more doors in terms of ideas, funding, and collaborations that will be able to fulfill my research goals.

Metoroboghene Mowoe
Metoroboghene conducting an NTA analysis

Culture, experiences, memories & the future

I was fortunate to be in Sweden during the famous Midsummer celebration. We were able to celebrate it despite the pandemic that was sweeping the globe at the time.  This was the highlight of my stay. The celebration involved a lot of toasting and singing of Swedish songs, with a barbeque where I ate pickled herring for the first time. There was also fresh strawberries with whipped cream, and I ate salmon to my hearts’ desire. We played several games including kubb and pingpong, often getting playfully competitive. We stayed up through the night into the next day to fully experience the longest day of the Swedish summer where the sun went down at 11:30 pm and it was light again by 2am.

I really enjoyed my research visit to Stockholm and was very lucky to be “stuck” in Sweden during the global pandemic. I was able to continue working, but I was also able to experience living in a country completely different to what I am used to. Everyone in Sweden is nice and helpful, a trait that was constant and present in every Swede I came across, no matter the situation. I loved their healthy lifestyles and their work-life balance, which highlighted the importance they gave to family and friends. Importantly, I have made lifelong friends and have had precious experiences and memories that I would not trade for anything. I have also been offered a postdoc at Karolinska Institutet. This will enable me to return to Sweden, during non-pandemic times and expand my scientific horizons at one of the best Universities in the world.

Michela Sgarzi, PhD Student

Home institute: Amla Mater Studiorum, University of Bologna, Italy
Host institute: Gothenburg University, Sweden
Dates of visit: 28 January 2020 – 11 March 2020

Research: My research focuses on the role of a membrane receptor, namely ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) in colorectal cancer (CRC). Despite the fact that ALK is well-known in the field of cancer research, since it is rearranged in a number of tumour types, including lung cancer and neuroblastoma, its function as a driver of CRC tumorigenesis is still debated. My aim is to characterize a putative novel role for ALK as a driver gene in a specific subtype of colorectal cancer patients, the consensus molecular subtype 1. This could let to the implementation of new therapies targeting ALK in CRC.

Michela’s visit to Gothenburg was due to be 8 weeks long but unfortunately it was cut short by 15 days so Michela could return home before travel restrictions prevented her from doing so. The good news is that Michela was still partially able to meet the goals of her project despite the trip being cut short!

How did you choose the host lab?

This trip will represent an important achievement for my research experience

Prof. Ruth Palmer’s laboratory represents an excellence in the field of ALK biology. For instance, they were the first to characterize the activating ligands for ALK, namely ALKAL1/2. A visit would provide me and my origin lab the expertise about ALK signalling and activation that we needed to publish our first paper focusing on ALK.

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

In Prof. Palmer’s lab, I had the opportunity to employ ALK purified ligands directly on my CRC cell lines. I had the chance to employ cutting-edge technologies for signalling and proliferation studies. These techniques became instrumental for the publication of my work.

Did you take part in any interesting cultural activities?

I was impressed by the typical swedish coffee-break, called “Fika”. For example, every week one of the lab fellows is supposed to do a presentation about his/her work. At the same time, the presenter from the previous week is supposed to bring “Fika” to all the lab members. This is so everybody can have breakfast together during the meeting. I found this a very useful practice for team building. I also think I will suggest something similar in my home lab.

My trip to Prof. Palmer’s lab was the starting point for a profitable collaboration with my home lab.

How has the trip inspired you in your research?

Prof. Palmer’s lab is extremely international, with people from all over the world working together and a thousand of projects contemporarily open. I really appreciated the dedication they have for science, as well as the exchange of opinions that is an everyday occurrence. It will be my aim to treasure from this experience. In the future I will try to always include my lab mates in my project in order to have a continuous feedback about my ideas.

Does your lab plan to do any future collaboration/publication etc. with the host lab?

My trip to Prof. Palmer’s lab was the starting point for a profitable collaboration with my home lab. Indeed, Prof. Palmer will keep on support us with her expertise during the publication of our paper, and with future projects about ALK biology.

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

This visit was my first experience abroad. Due to the early-stage of my career, this trip will represent an important achievement for my research experience. I hope to have the chance to keep on traveling to different laboratories, since I think it represents the most useful way to exchange ideas and to grow up as a researcher.