Gils Roex is a PhD student at the University of Antwerp, Belgium who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at a lab in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA between 1 September 2022 and 28 February 2023.

The EACR has joined forces with Worldwide Cancer Research to provide Travel Fellowships of up to €3,000 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.

Gils Roex at the Koch Institute’s Flow Core facility

Name: Gils Roex
Job title: PhD student
Home institute: University of Antwerp, Beligum
Host institute: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
Dates of visit: 01 September 2022 – 28 February 2023
Research: Immunotherapy is a powerful new tool in the battle against cancer. “CAR therapy” equips a patient’s immune cells with a cancer-specific detector known as a CAR. The CAR empowers the immune cell to recognise and eliminate cancer cells. Due to its modular design, we can swap the CAR’s building components to alter its performance (like changing the engine or tyres in your own car). Unfortunately, few components are currently available to us and we don’t fully understand how they affect therapeutic outcomes. This research aims to discover new components from a large set of candidates and elucidate how they work.

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

An international research visit gives the opportunity to expand your skillset and personal network, and, additionally, provides exposure to diverse research topics, a different professional environment and new cultures. While those are all highly valuable assets for young researchers, it comes at additional costs that cannot always be easily covered. A colleague recommended the EACR Travel Fellowship as a respected source of financial support that values both the scientific merit and personal development goals of a research stay. Of course, when I was awarded the funding, I was excited and grateful for the opportunity that was given to me.

Why did you choose this host lab?

Historically, only a handful of new CAR components could be tested at a time, making it a costly and cumbersome process. Workflows that allowed for the simultaneous evaluation of large numbers of building components were needed. As of 2021, a few research groups had developed such workflow with capacities ranging from tens to thousands of candidates. The Birnbaum Lab at MIT was capable of screening up to 1 million components at a time, offering flexibility in the amount and combinations of components that could be tested. Thus far, they had only applied this workflow to a particular type of CAR domains called “intracellular signalling domains”. In contrast, I am currently investigating other types of CAR domains, making our work complementary. My request for a research visit to apply their workflow to these CAR domains was well received by prof. Michael Birnbaum and he happily agreed to host me in his lab.

Roex catching one of the final baseball games of the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park with flatmates Aske and Morgane.

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

The USA is home to several unique (at least to me) holidays and activities; let me highlight a couple of them. At the start of my stay, I got a first taste of American sports enthusiasm with a game of the Boston Red Sox with my flatmates Aske and Morgane. In October, my peaceful neighbourhood turned scary with pumpkins popping up everywhere and houses being decorated with the craziest items; most notably a 3 metre tall skeleton on a balcony. Stores were filled with peppermint and pumpkin flavoured snacks, which we gave away to the many trick-or-treating children stopping by our porch on Halloween. As November came by, the candy was replaced with turkeys in preparation of Thanksgiving. My colleagues and neighbours were the embodiment of Bostonian kindness as I received invitations for two “Friendsgiving” dinners in one weekend. Towards the end of my stay, I got to experience the Superbowl madness that engulfs the US. My colleagues organised a watch party with typical snacks (fried chicken?) and I loved the excitement over the plentiful custom commercials, the half-time show and the spectacular final plot twists of the game. However, as a European, I still believe soccer is the real football (sorry, American friends)!

Was the host institution very different from your own?

My impressions are limited to the Koch’s Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT as I spent all my time there. In my opinion, the largest difference with the University of Antwerp might be the resources that are available to researchers in terms of funding and equipment, but also the general access to industrial partners with the biotechnology hub that Boston is. I enjoyed the easy access to consumables and devices which allowed quick iteration of experiments. They also have an expansive network of organised core facilities with trained staff to assist in more complex data acquisition and analysis, further facilitating research. As a relatively young university, the University of Antwerp is still evolving, and we are moving towards similar convenient facilities.

The “CAR team” of the Birnbaum Lab always closely collaborated with each other. Left to right: Khloe, Caleb, Gils, Allie, Andrea, Michael (prof. Birnbaum)

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

There were several teams within the Birnbaum Lab. I was part of “Team CAR” together with Khloe, Caleb, Allie and Andrea. While all my colleagues within the team and the lab were (and still are) extremely kind and helpful with sharing their expertise, I would like to put Khloe in the spotlight. She supported me throughout the entire visit with compassion and enthusiasm, carving out time to go over experimental setup, data analysis and troubleshooting, even when she was extremely busy finalising large experiments of her own and writing her PhD dissertation (congratulations Dr. Khloe Gordon!).

How has your trip inspired you in your research?

The research visit taught me to “think bigger”, but also to execute on smaller steps along the way to a bigger goal instead of overthinking the ever changing path towards that goal. I also started to value listening to people outside of my field of expertise more often. Worst case you learn something cool about their work, best case it broadens your scientific view and inspires you with new techniques and approaches. The “work-in-progress” meetings organised by the Koch’s Institute Grad Student Association where PhD students presented their unfinished work and the problems they were facing to get feedback from other students in a very informal setting were perfect for this.

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.