“The most inspiring thing was the collaborative attitude” – Paula Llabata, EACR Travel Fellow

Read the report from Paula Llabata on her visit to the Broad Institute in Boston, USA.

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.

Paula Llabata HiSeq
Paula Llabata with the HiSeq used to sequence ChIP-seq experiments

Name: Paula Llabata Babiano, PhD Student
Home Institution: Genes and Cancer group, Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute, Spain
Host Institution: Broad Institute, USA
Dates of visit: 02 September – 09 October 2018

Research: Recently, a new gene has been found to be mutated in lung cancer. This gene has been poorly studied and very little is known about its role. My thesis consists on elucidating the function of this gene in lung cancer cells. I analyse the downstream effects on the cell when this gene is not functional compared to when the gene is functional.

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

I chose the EACR Travel Fellowship mainly because of the flexibility in timing. In my case, the decision of going for a short visit was made during a Skype meeting with the host group and the visit needed to take place as soon as possible. The EACR Travel Fellowship allowed me to apply in an easy and fast way and get the funding in time to book my housing in Boston without the need to use my own money.

Why did you choose the host lab?

In the summer of 2016, my PhD supervisor Dr. Montse Sanchez-Cespedes went to Boston for a short visit and talked with Dr. Matthew Meyerson about the research projects that were on-going in our lab. They realised that one of the projects was overlapping so they decided to start collaboration. We have been working together and sharing data since then, and now we decided to submit a manuscript together. Therefore, I did not choose a lab to make a short visit, but my supervisor Dr. Sanchez-Cespedes knew that at some point of my PhD I wanted to have an experience in a different lab, so she suggested that I travel to and collaborate with the Meyerson lab. Through this collaboration, I was able to work at one of the best research centres in the world, the Broad Institute.

Paula Llabata with Meyerson lab members
Members of the Meyerson (lab left to right): Paula Llabata, Dr. Susan Bullman, Dr. Alison Taylor, Dr. Xiaoyang Zhang, Dr. Peter S Choi, Dr, TikvahK Hayes, Dr. Lior Golomb, Maya Gelbard and Dr. Tao Zou

Describe a ‘typical day’ on your visit

One of the best things about this visit was that there was not a ‘typical day’, as my schedule depended on the day of the week, the type of experiment and the seminars given at the institute. Normally, on Mondays, we had a lab meeting from 9:30 – 11:30 and after that we started lab work. On Tuesdays we attended ‘cancer program’ meetings from 9:30-11:00, which are joint lab meetings across all the cancer groups at the Broad Institute.

It was an enriching experience

If we did not have meetings in the morning, I would start at 9:00 am, with a quick organisational talk with Dr. Xiaoyang Zhang, my collaborator in the Meyerson lab, to split the tasks of the day. At lunch time, all the members ate together and we discussed different scientific and non-scientific topics. Since it is an international lab, it was an enriching experience because every topic was approached from different cultural points of view. In the afternoon we finished experiments and before leaving lab, Dr. Zhang and I discussed our results from that day.

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

Yes! I came to Boston at a very convenient time for outdoor activities because the weather was nice and warm. In the state of Massachusetts, it is common to go apple picking and to make a short trip to see the change of the foliage during the first days of autumn. I went apple picking with some of my lab mates. It basically consists on going to a farm and walking around different types of apple trees and picking the apples you like most to take home. On the way, people discussed the flavour, texture and colours of the fruits. After apple picking, we went to the farm to try some local made doughnuts made from apple and spices, which were also typical of the autumn season.

The farm we went to was nearby to Salem, which is a small town close to Boston, famous for its haunted houses and home of the Salem Witch Trials. It is very popular to go spend a day there during October and visit some of the haunted houses or Halloween thematic museums.

Paula Llabata apple picking
Paula Llabata and lab mates apple picking

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

Paula Llabata with Matthew Meyerson and Xiaoyang Zhang
Paula Llabata with Matthew Meyerson and Xiaoyang Zhang

The person who mentored me from the beginning was Dr. Zhang. He led me through experiments and we planned every step of the project together. Not only did we share professional opinions, but we also became friends. He introduced me to his family (wife and baby) and we spent some time together. We sometimes discussed what a scientific career entails and he gave me some advice for my future scientific career, based on his experiences.

I also have to mention other members of the Meyerson lab; Dr. Taylor, Dr. Hayes, Dr. Golomb and Dr. Bullman, who also provided good advice for the project and gave me a friendly welcome. All of us used to have lunch together every day and they became a personal and scientific inspiration for me.

How has the trip inspired you in your research?

The most inspiring thing I found in the lab was the collaborative attitude that people have, not only in Meyerson lab, but also in other departments. They all think ‘better together’ and establish a lot of collaborations for data analysis or sample collection. I observed that most of the times these collaborations are established in an informal environment when people talk about their research.

Everybody is given an

opportunity to succeed

I was also surprised that investigators are open to any ideas you may have and carefully listen to you because they believe all ideas are worth being heard, irrespective of where they come from (post-doc, grad student, technician, etc.), so I felt that everybody is given an opportunity to succeed.

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

Yes. Here I learned mainly about proteomics and chromatin-immunoprecipitation followed by sequencing (ChIP-seq). In the field of proteomics, I improved my skills in co-immunoprecipitation (co-IP) assays and learned how to perform a reciprocal co-IP. I also learned about ChIP-seq sample preparation and data analysis. Dr. Zhang introduced me to some basic concepts of bioinformatics and showed me some analyses that I can run by myself to obtain useful information from high throughput sequencing data.

The expertise I have acquired in ChIP-seq sample preparation and proteomic data analysis will be beneficial at my home laboratory since we aim to apply this technique to other proteins, beyond MGA, in various projects in the lab during the upcoming months.

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

One of the most exciting experiences for a researcher

Visiting Boston is one of the most exciting experiences for a researcher. Many of the top world research institutes are located there. As a member of the Broad institute, I was able to meet a great amount of excellent and well known scientists and attend talks and symposiums of a great variety of topics. By working in Meyerson lab, I met not only academic scientists, but also people in the pharmaceutical industry.

Since I still have not decided yet if I will follow an academic or industry career after graduating from PhD, talking to different scientific related workers helped me to acquire more information to make the decision in the future. Of course, I built a great contact network in the Boston area that will help me in my future job seeking.