Iva Šantek is a PhD student at the Oncology Institute Ljubljana in Slovenia who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC State in the US between October and November 2023.

The EACR is supported by 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.

Name: Iva Šantek
Job title:
PhD student
Home institute: Oncology Institute Ljubljana in Slovenia
Host institute: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC State in the US
Dates of visit: 16 October – 22 November 2023
Other funding organisations: Sources from employer (Oncology Institute of Ljubljana) – from my PhD project and bilateral collaboration project with visiting laboratory (BI-US/22-24-070)
Research: Colon cancer ranks high in prevalence, and conventional treatments often prove ineffective. Tumour microenvironment (TME), particularly tumour blood vessels, plays a crucial role in cancer progression. While irradiation impacts both cancer cells and TME, the role of endothelial cells (ECs) in the anti-tumour response to radiotherapy is not well understood. Depending on timing and dosage, irradiation induces EC apoptosis or activation, potentially improving radiotherapy outcomes through vascular normalization and enhanced immune cell infiltration. In my research, I aim to delineate how tumour blood vessels respond to radiotherapy, exploring the link between irradiation-induced vascular changes, endothelial activation, and immune cell infiltration.

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

I applied for an EACR Travel Fellowship to leverage the unique opportunity it provides in terms of travel and accommodation funding. Securing this fellowship ensured financial support for joining the hosting lab, eliminating barriers that might otherwise hinder my participation. The EACR Travel Fellowship enabled me to focus on gaining new research experience, exchanging knowledge, and engaging with experts in my field, without carrying the financial burden. Furthermore, considering that I work in the field of oncology, I aimed to connect more with the EACR community, with a focus on improving future collaboration within the cancer research community.

“My visit strengthened the current collaborative relationship between our two labs and kickstarted a new line of research for both groups”

How did you choose the host lab?

The group of Asst. Prof. William Polacheck (UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina, US) is one of the world’s leading groups working on microfluidic models and organs-on-chip, with their work published in prestigious journals, including Nature and Nature Protocols. His group has established several vasculature-on-a-chip models and has extensive experience in using them in different experimental settings. On the other hand, my lab has no experience with vasculature-on-a-chip models. Therefore, visiting Asst. Prof. William Polacheck’s lab gave me a unique opportunity to quickly master the technique and apply it to the experimental conditions of my current research.

Currently, there is an ongoing bilateral collaboration project (BI-US/22-24-070) between my group and Asst. Prof. William Polacheck’s group, aiming to connect observations from three-dimensional biomimetic vascular models and in vivo tumour vasculature. My visit strengthened the current collaborative relationship between our two labs and kickstarted a new line of research for both groups, as my lab lacks expertise with vasculature-on-a-chip models, and the group of Assistant Professor William Polacheck lacks the expertise and equipment for radiotherapy.

In the hosting lab (microscopic room) with some of her colleagues: Dr. Mitesh Rathod, Elizabeth Doherty, YunZen Wu, and me

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

By joining the group of. Asst. Prof. William Polacheck, I had the opportunity to learn the manufacturing process of microfluidic devices, specifically focusing on a perfusable vasculature-on-a-chip model. My lab had no prior experience in manufacturing microfluidic devices; instead, we purchased commercially available ones. The knowledge I acquired during my visit has empowered us to initiate the production of vasculature-on-chips for my Ph.D. project. This will enable testing of various experimental settings, reduce costs, and save time. In my home lab, only one type of microfluidic device is utilised, and the method has not been fully established.

However, in the host lab, I had the chance to work on different devices, including single-vessel devices with flow systems. Additionally, I could observe the formation of perfusable microvascular networks, which was impossible in my home lab due to a lack of reagents and equipment. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to connect with experts in microfluidics. Their valuable suggestions have assisted me to work properly with microvasculature-on-a-chip devices, a challenge I faced in my own lab due to a lack of experience.

Iva watching an American football match

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

Although all of my colleagues were very kind, willing to help, and made me feel welcomed, I was primarily mentored by Dr. Wen Yih Aw. I can clearly say that I was happy to have her in the lab. She was always there for me and helped me perform the experiments, with a focus on understanding the problems I faced during the optimisation of the protocol. I am inspired by her critical thinking, knowledge, and experience, as well as her cheerfulness and positivity. Additionally, I would like to mention Dr. Sarah Shelton and Asst. Prof. William Polacheck, who selflessly shared their suggestions and motivation.

Did you take part in any local activities?

Thanks to this fellowship, not only did I have the great opportunity to join one of the world’s leading groups working on microfluidic models, but I was also fortunate enough to experience life in the US. Although being part of the University of North Carolina already felt like being in an American college movie, I enjoyed local activities such as visiting the North Carolina State Fair, watching American football matches, experiencing Halloween, and trying local food. Additionally, I had the chance to visit other US cities and meet people from all around the world, gaining familiarity with their cultures, which was another valuable experience.

Visiting North Carolina State Fair with colleagues and friends Elizabeth Doherty and Sarah Kubik

What was a personal highlight of your trip?

This trip was a precious experience for me for several reasons. Besides working on a new method that had not been used in my home lab, it provided me a unique opportunity to visit the US for the first time, learn about US culture, and explore cities. Spending time there helped me to know myself better and understand what I am capable of, and I am very thankful for achieving personal growth and development. Also, I met people who made me feel comfortable in a foreign country and who became my friends, which I consider the most valuable highlight of my trip.

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.