Carlota Pagès Geli is a PhD student at VHIO, Spain who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at the Whitehead Institute at Boston, Cambridge in the US between September and December 2023.

The EACR is supported by Worldwide Cancer Research to provide Travel Fellowships of up to €3,500 to enable early-career cancer researchers to gain new skills through a short-term visit to a lab or research group in another country.

You can read about other Travel Fellows and their experiences here.

Name: Carlota Pagès Geli
Job title: PhD student
Home institute: Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology, Spain
Host institute: Whitehead Institute at Boston, Cambridge, US
Dates of visit: 01 September – 15 December 2023
Other funding organisations: BBVA International Secondment Internships Programme
Research: I focus on CNS lymphoma, a type of blood cancer affecting the brain. In simple terms, I’m working to discover new therapies that can activate our body’s immune system to recognise and target cancer cells in the brain. By enhancing the natural defences, we aim to develop more effective treatments for this specific type of cancer.

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

I had a strong desire and need to conduct a research stay at the Weiskopf lab to advance my thesis. Kipp Weiskopf has devoted his entire career to exploring ways to stimulate macrophages for attacking cancer cells, showing extensive expertise in this specialised research field. Moreover, my thesis is built upon his previous research, making his lab the ideal choice for my academic pursuits. However, Boston, being a relatively expensive city, posed financial challenges for me. The EACR, being a prestigious institution that I am honoured to receive a fellowship from, perfectly aligned with the support I required at that time, allowing me to pursue this opportunity.

Can you summarise the research you did?

My research was focused on the exploration of novel macrophage-directed immunotherapies targeting lymphoma cells. In a high-throughput experiment, we assessed over a hundred different antibodies designed to interact with the most prevalent proteins in immune cells. Throughout this extensive screening, we identified several immune checkpoints. Blocking these checkpoints proved instrumental in triggering macrophage activation, leading to the specific elimination of lymphoma cells. The study not only broadened our understanding of the intricate interplay between immune cells and lymphoma, but also unveiled promising avenues for the development of targeted immunotherapeutic strategies. These findings hold significant implications for advancing the field of cancer immunotherapy, offering potential breakthroughs in the quest for more effective and tailored treatments against lymphoma.

Describe a typical day on your visit.

Typically, my day began at 8:30am, heading to work on my bike. Collaborating closely with Juliano, a fellow technician with whom I shared a project, we started by planning our day and allocating tasks. Lunch with our PI provided an opportunity to discuss progress and strategise new experiments. In the afternoons, we delved into result analysis, reading, or completing extensive experiments. My lab day usually concluded around 7 pm.

Carlota during her visit

Was the host institution very different from your own?

The facilities at the Whitehead Institute were notably larger and more equipped compared to VHIO in Barcelona. The resources were more abundant, featuring advanced technology that significantly enhanced the research environment. Additionally, being part of the prestigious MIT, the institute provided a platform for weekly talks by renowned scientists. This exposure to insights from well-recognised experts was a particularly enriching aspect of my experience that I deeply appreciated.

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

In the host lab, I gained an expansive skill set and in-depth expertise in macrophage culturing, activation techniques, and co-culture experiments. The availability of cutting-edge technology and high-throughput assays allowed me to conduct more comprehensive and advanced experiments, providing a level of precision and efficiency that might not have been achievable in my home lab.

Have you brought back any specific knowledge or technique that has benefited your home lab?

Yes, definitely! I acquired valuable skills in isolating and culturing both human and mouse macrophages, which has proven to be immensely beneficial for my upcoming experiments. Additionally, gaining a deeper understanding of the biological interactions and crosstalk between macrophages and cancer cells has broadened my knowledge in a way that directly contributes to my research goals.

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

Kipp Weiskopf served as my mentor, whose advice on experiment planning and insights into result discussions were invaluable. I worked closely with a great team, particularly Juliano, a brilliant young scientist, that significantly contributed to our collective success, making the entire research experience enriching and collaborative.

“Having the chance to share ideas, engage in long talks, and brainstorm with top scientists in the field was really motivating. It inspired me to keep pushing forward in my research”

Did you take part in any interesting local activities?

During my time there, I immersed myself in local cultural activities, adding vibrant experiences to my stay. Halloween at Beacon Hill was a highlight, witnessing the festive trick-or-treating amid creatively adorned houses. Also, celebrating Thanksgiving with local friends provided a heartwarming insight into American traditions, as we shared dinner together. Moreover, I attended several hockey, basketball, and American football games; and the MIT vs Harvard sailing competition at the Charles River.

What was a personal highlight of your trip?

Beyond the scientific experiences and the wealth of new knowledge gained, a personal highlight of my trip was forming meaningful connections with people who I now consider friends.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to EACR for providing me with the opportunity to embark on this incredible experience. It not only significantly contributed to the progress of my thesis but has also played a pivotal role in advancing my scientific career. The support and exposure gained during this period have been invaluable, and I am truly thankful for this enriching opportunity.

Want to find out more?

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