This blog takes you to the exciting scene of my MSc graduation ceremony at the University of Siena, Italy, completed with the prestigious laurel wreath.
I graduated during COVID-19, but there was no graduation ceremony at that time. Years later, I was invited to attend an “Alumni conference” by the University of Siena, but the plan was still unclear. When we arrived in Siena, we came across that there was a convocation ceremony tomorrow. Hold on! What? Yes, after years of waiting, it was finally taking place on June 7, 2023.
The next morning, all the former students from 48 countries came together in the University’s Grand Piazza del Duomo, where all of the Professors and sponsors, robed in their academic attire, delivered speeches that inspired and reminded us of the responsibility that comes with education, which ended in the most captivating moment of adorning us with laurel wreaths stating that “Rating your thesis attributes by authority granted to me by director I confer you the Masters Diploma in Vaccinology and Drug Development, Congratulations!”. The weight of this academic success was alleviated by our family members’ joyful yells and applause.
Walking out of the ceremony, wreathed in laurel, walking through Siena’s streets with classmates I’ve never met in person, hearing these words “Complimenti! Felicitazioni!” from commoners, I came back to Dublin with an ethereal sensation of pride and belonging that will remain with me for life. Altogether, It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.
Here are some glimpses of the ceremony:
P.S.: But this was not the end. I embarked on a wet-lab MSc in RCSI Dublin. As I am typing these lines, my MSc by Research work has just been submitted for examination, marking another hallmark and opening a new chapter in my life, “the PhD journey”.The new chapter – the new challenges and opportunities!
As our festive season is around the corner, I decided to look at the delicious cuisine that all Asians must-have on this special occasion. “I’d like to share one of the most well-known South Asian classic recipes, Biryani,” which is especially famous in Pakistan. We enjoy it at weddings and festivals. It is a must-have dish when we invite guests to our place.
The aroma of biryani in abroad always reminds me of special times and joy in Pakistan. The nicest part about biryani is sharing it with family and friends. My grandmother passed down the family recipe for biryani to my mother, and I’m fortunate that I learned to make it from her.
1/2 kg of lamb or chicken
1 cup of cooking oil
1 tbs. Warmed spices
4 Fried Onions
1 tbsp. ginger-garlic paste
1/2 cup of yoghurt
1 tsp. Lemon juice
4-6 Green chillies
1 tbsp. red chilli powder
1 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 kg of Basmati rice
Take a stainless-steel pot, add a half cup of oil, and heat it over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 10–15 minutes. Add the ginger-garlic paste and cook it until everything turns golden brown. It almost seems like it’s going to burn, but this is okay.
Add lamb or chicken along with all other ingredients except saffron, lemon, and rice. Cook uncovered, stirring constantly, until the tomatoes are soft. Lower the heat to low. Add a half cup of water. Mix it well and simmer it until the meat becomes soft and tender. And this will be your
Meanwhile, boil the rice in another large pot and bring 4 quarts of water to a boil with 2 tablespoons of salt. Add washed basmati rice to boiling water. Boil it for 4 minutes, and then Drain it in a colander.
Mix lemon juice and saffron.
Gently Layer the basmati rice on top of the khurma. Sprinkle the saffron-lemon mixture over the rice. Cover the pot tightly and simmer it for 12–15 minutes or until the rice is tender. When it’s finished, give it a couple good stirs to spread the meat and spices. It does not have to be perfectly even.
Eight weeks ago, my journey into the intricate world of neuroblastoma began as I embarked on a remarkable research experience with the Cancer Bioengineering Group at RCSI. Guided by Dr. Olga Piskareva and supported by RCSI Research Summer School, this experience would transform my perspective on scientific exploration forever.
On my first day in the lab, excitement and nervousness mingled within me. But as I stepped into the bustling lab space, I was greeted with warm smiles and a sense of camaraderie among the researchers. The Cancer Bioengineering Group was known for its collaborative spirit, and it didn’t take long for me to feel like a valued member of the team.
The research work was a perfect blend of diversity and fascination, encompassing both desk assignments and hands-on lab experiments. The highlight of it all was the chance to work with the cutting-edge 3D bio-printing machine, Rastrum. Witnessing the process of 3D bio-printing and using it to seed the Kelly cell line in various matrices left me in awe of the potential this technology held for future cancer therapies.
Yet, this journey extended beyond the realm of research. It was about the people – the passionate researchers who inspired and supported one another, the dedicated support staff who kept the lab running smoothly, and most notably, Dr. Olga Piskareva and Alysia Scott. They were more than mentors; they became friends and confidants, guiding me through challenges with unwavering support and celebrating our achievements as a team.
As the eight weeks drew to a close, I couldn’t help but reflect on the immense growth I had experienced professionally and personally. The cancer bioengineering field has unveiled the possibilities of using engineering principles to combat a disease that has touched countless lives worldwide.
This journey instilled in me a profound sense of purpose – a drive to contribute to the fight against neuroblastoma and other devastating illnesses. With a heart full of gratitude, I bid farewell to the Cancer Bioengineering Group at RCSI, knowing that the friendships forged and the knowledge gained would forever shape my future endeavours in the world of cancer research.
In the end, it wasn’t merely an eight-week stint; it was a transformational odyssey that solidified my passion for scientific discovery and my determination to make a difference in the lives of those affected by cancer. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.
Written by Mohammad Alabdulrahman, MED Class of 2026
Everyone, many heys from New York! I just started my pediatric residency at SUNY Downstate, Brooklyn, and I love this place! The weather is bright and shiny – I always admire it, passing by hospital windows. I live in a wonderful place; it takes just 5 minutes to get to the clinic. New York is a grand city with so many things to do – I would definitely go out on one of these weekends. Oh, wait, I’m working 24h and then catching up on my lost sleep. Well, there is always another time… if I get enough energy to muster after work.
Really, it is a lot of work, coming to a new country and starting residency, but I enjoy it. I had the best possible start – I interned in the Nursery, overseeing the treatment of neonates in their first three days of lives. And taking care of the newborns is what sold Pediatrics to me in the first place. I also love continuity of care, meaning that I will follow the same children for the next 3 years, observing their health and helping them grow. And I can attest to how wonderful the feeling is when you see an infant you knew from his first hours of life thriving and developing.
I like being an intern but can’t wait for the second year when I will have a pediatric oncology rotation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, a leading world cancer for pediatric oncology treatment. Furthermore, it has teams working on treating patients with neuroblastoma and is where research and clinical trial take place. I aim to join one of the projects and continue the work that I started with Dr Olga Piskareva. She taught me to love research and inspired me to improve my skills and reach new highs. I miss my time working with Dr Piskareva and the neuroblastoma lab, both research and social parts, and I hope to see them all soon – at one of the neuroblastoma conferences. 🙂
While completing my Master’s degree at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, I found the top-notch post-grad comfort food I’ve taken with me ever since. After a day of work, the last thing I want to do is come home and cook an entire meal. Luckily, red beans and rice can be adapted to a slow cooker. Allowing me to throw all my ingredients in and come home to an amazing-smelling apartment with the most satisfying warm bowl waiting for me.
There’s something to the name “The Big Easy” that describes New Orleans because the people and the food take life a bit slower and enjoy every savoury bit together. My favourite memory in New Orleans is when my friends and I prepped a massive stock of red beans and rice for the week of Mardi Gras. This is an entire week of festivities and parade floats where the city quite literally shuts down since everyone participates. It was so comforting every night (or early morning) to come back from the parades and dish out the prepped meal that would fill you up, stick to your bones, and help you fall sound asleep with more than enough energy for the next days of parades.
Red beans and rice is a Cajun dish with Haitian influence and contains the “holy trinity” – bell pepper, onion, and celery. You can find this vegetable blend in the base of almost every Cajun meal, including etouffee, jambalaya, and gumbo. Red beans and rice are traditionally made with a stovetop pot set on a low boil all day. However, the ease of a slow cooker is made with the PhD student in mind as it also keeps well during the week. The most important piece is to get red beans and soak them for about 12 hours before cooking them. This will make the beans more digestible as well as more hearty. Andouille is a Cajun spiced sausage that might be at a speciality butcher shop. Another crucial ingredient, Slap Ya Mama (yes, you read that right), is only available in the U.S. Slap Ya Mama seasoning has its name because “every time a mama uses it, she receives a loving slap on the back and a kiss on the cheek for another great dish”. There are so many great memories I have from my time in New Orleans and I’m happy to share my favorite meal. I hope you are able to replicate this dish and taste the Southern Comfort that is very true for New Orleans.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Serves 6, Cook time is 4 –8 hours
450 grams of dried red kidney beans (New Orleans Camelia brand recommended)
450 grams Andouille sausage (or smoked), sliced ½ inch
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
4 ribs celery, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 bunch green onions, chopped and divided
3 cups chicken broth
3 cups water
1 tablespoon Slap Ya Mama seasoning
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 bay leaves
Handful of fresh parsley, chopped
Cooked long-grain white rice
Rinse beans and soak.
Brown sausages in oil on both sides. Set aside.
In the same pan, add garlic and onion, sauté for 2-3 minutes until transparent. Then add the bell pepper, celery, and half of the green onions. Sauté for 5 minutes.
To the slow cooker, add your cooked vegetables. Then add the red beans, black pepper, Slap Ya Mama, dried thyme, oregano, and bay leaves.
Add the water and chicken broth.
Set the slow cooker to high setting for 4 hours or low for 8 hours.
When beans are ready, take out 1 ½ cups to mash and put back in pot.
Remove the bay leaves and add the sausage back in. Cook until sausage is hot.
Serve over a bowl of hot white rice with hot sauce, green onions, and parsley for garnish.
In New Orleans, they also add a split-faced grilled sausage to the top.
This can be adapted to an Instant Pot (Pressure Cooker) as well. Just set the pressure to high for 60 minutes with a 15-minute natural release.
If the beans seem too thick, add more water.
This is a great dish that can be stored for a week or frozen for two months.
Embarking on a PhD is an exhilarating endeavour. It offers the freedom to structure one’s own time. But this autonomy can be a double-edged sword; while providing a sense of flexibility and leisure, it also presents challenges in managing time effectively, prioritising tasks, and maintaining a productive schedule. In the context of a PhD, self-discipline and efficient planning quickly become the guiding stars of success.
The absence of rigid working hours requires a strong sense of self-motivation and discipline to stay on track. Without proper time management, it’s easy to fall into the trap of leisurely indulgence, neglecting the essential tasks and milestones that shape the PhD journey. Never before did I appreciate nagging parents, teachers or just people to which you could outsource motivation and feedback as easily. In a PhD, you’re on your own. You’re the only one who truly cares that what you’re working on is getting done. Done well and done at the right time. There is your supervisor, of course, and maybe collaborators. But it is not their job to stand behind you and say have you done this yet or that yet. They don’t see how much work you do or don’t do in a day. No one tells you to get off your arse when you’ve just stared at a blank screen for 20 minutes, and no one tells you to give it a rest when a simple problem turns out to be far more time-consuming and exhausting than expected because things still need to be kept moving. In the end, you can only rely on yourself to tell you whether you have worked enough or not. No one else knows. That can be extremely motivating and similarly defeating when you feel like you’ve done nothing but work for a couple of weeks and the results still aren’t there, so it seems like it doesn’t make a difference.
To conquer the time management challenge, prioritisation becomes paramount. As a PhD student, the spectrum of tasks can quickly seem overwhelming. Between different avenues and tasks that would progress your project, keeping up with writing, creating figures for adjacent projects, producing posters and presentations for conferences, writing blog posts, and making videos for funders and meetings, there always are more things to do in a day than could possibly be crammed in on the most productive of days. Figuring out how to manage urgency and importance becomes crucial to staying afloat. Identifying the most critical tasks and allocating time accordingly ensures progress and prevents the accumulation of unfinished work.
Maintaining a reasonable schedule becomes a balancing act. Especially when you pepper a couple of meetings in the very early morning because your collaborators are in a different time zone. And yet creating and adhering to a schedule is the foundation of effective time management. Despite the constant changes and different requirements, I find it helps immensely to establish a routine to cultivate discipline and maintains an easy overview over the week to allow myself to check what has been achieved and how long it took, so I can gauge how much more I need to do or whether I get to relax and leave half an hour early another day. It is crucial to strike a balance between focused research, data analysis, writing, and personal well-being. Regularly reassessing and readjusting the schedule as priorities shift guarantees that all aspects of the PhD journey receive the attention they deserve.
Navigating the realm of a PhD requires a delicate dance between self-motivation and effective time management. While the allure of autonomy can be tempting, the importance of prioritising tasks and maintaining a schedule cannot be understated. By striking a balance between work and personal well-being, the PhD journey can be transformed into a harmonious symphony of progress and achievement. Well, that’s the idea anyway.
As you embark on your own PhD adventure, you realise every day that time is a precious resource, and effective management is the compass that guides you toward success.
Cancer is a disease which will have an impact on most people throughout their lifetimes, and there are few things that can bring people to agreement more than wanting a cure for this disease. But despite countless years of financial investments and researchers who dedicate their careers to cancer, we still don’t have a “cure”, and it can be difficult for non-scientists to fathom why.
One key concept to understand here is that cancer is not a single disease, does not have a single cause, and therefore cannot have a single cure. The differences between neuroblastoma and breast cancer are vast. And similarly, between patients with the same cancer type (e.g. two patients with breast cancer), the differences can be equally as big. Let’s for a minute, take an analogy of a large business company. (Disclaimer, I have never studied business in my life, so please humour me). The company is run by a CEO and board of directors and has many different departments with managers and teams of workers with specific roles. Suddenly, business is declining, and the company is not sure why. For one business, maybe this is down to someone in the Communications team spreading misinformation. For another, maybe a mistake has been made in the Finance team, which has had a knock-on effect on the other departments. Maybe Human Resources have not been properly reprimanding staff who have broken protocol. With hundreds of staff working in the company, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly where the problem has arisen, which has negatively impacted the company as a whole.
Human cells aren’t so different to a company. They have a central “nucleus” tasked with controlling the functioning of the cell as a whole (Board of Directors/Management). They have proteins which relay messages inside the cell, as well as outside with other surrounding cells (Communications). They have proteins which are responsible for detecting when something goes wrong, to correct or destroy whatever is acting out of place (Human Resources). Issues within any of the “departments” in a human cell can potentially lead to cancer, and just like our business model, it can be hard to trace where the problem arose, and it is often different between two cancers.
For decades cancer was treated with chemotherapy, famous for attacking the good healthy cells as well as the bad. The research focus has now shifted towards more targeted therapies. An example of this is Herceptin therapy for breast cancer. This therapy targets a specific protein called HER2. HER2 is a team within the Communications department in breast cells. It receives communications from outside the cell, which tells the cell it’s time to grow, and relays this message to the Nucleus, which instructs proteins involved in cell growth to start this process. However, in some breast cancers, there are too many members in the HER2 team, all relaying this message to the Nucleus, resulting in too much cell growth. Herceptin is a drug which specifically targets HER2 and prevents it from relaying this message, effectively preventing the cancer cells from growing. While this can be very efficient at preventing tumour growth in HER2+ breast cancer, HER2 is not the culprit in all breast cancers. It is estimated that only 1 in 5 breast cancers have too many members in the HER2 team (Irish Cancer Society), and so targeting this will be inefficient in treating 4 out of 5 breast cancers. Meanwhile, cells of other cancers, such as liver or thyroid cancer, may not even have a HER2 team.
Hopefully, it is becoming clear why one “cure” will likely never be a reality. All cancers are different, all have different causes, and different employees breaking protocol. So, a one-size-fits-all approach simply can’t work. Instead, we need to focus on finding common company malpractices for each cancer, such as HER2 in breast cancer, generate a repertoire of different targeted treatment options depending on the various causes of cancer, and treat each patient as an individual investigation to determine what employee/protein is acting out of line to cause their cancer, so we can specifically reprimand them.
What feels like ages ago now, my friend had asked me to bake the cake for her wedding. Sounds like a big ask at first. But I managed to talk myself off the ledge I climbed onto with the face every person pulled that I told of this plan. Simply by remembering that she is fully aware of who I am and never wanted a classic wedding cake but rather a little something to remind her of the good old days when we’d bake together. Her, following the recipe to a t and me, doing my darndest to find a way to make it our own, have a little fun with it and usually ending up making the cake a little worse than it would have been had I just stayed out of it. After plenty of back and forth, I decided on Fanta cake. With the wedding in the height of the strawberry season, what better than a sponge base with a little cornucopia of strawberries perched atop a vanilla cream dream? But the height of strawberry season also means scorching summer… It was a scorching hot day, with the sun beaming down mercilessly. As I meticulously assembled the cake, whispers of doubt crept in. Would the cream layer melt and cause the cake to run off in the heat?
But hey, the best part of this cake is the base, anyway. So I shoved away the doubts and got on with it: In a mixing bowl, I beat 4 eggs, 250g sugar and a pack of vanilla sugar until they reached a fluffy consistency. Then added 125ml of oil and 150ml of Fanta, creating a harmonious blend. Gradually, I mixed in 250ml of flour and 3 tsp of baking powder until all ingredients were well incorporated.
While that baked at 180°C for not quite 25 mins on a well-greased tray I started worrying about the problem child: the cream mixture. This is a funny one not just because it made me worry on the day, but it was also the reason I couldn’t really test bake here in Dublin because you can’t buy ‘schmand’ over here. I have since learned that schmand is simply sour cream with 20% instead of 10% fat and that crème fraiche is the same thing with 30% fat. So I could have saved myself a headache had I just mixed sour cream and crème fraiche and tested baking over here rather than the day before in a rush… anyway, I mixed together combine 600 ml of cream, 400 ml of sour cream, 2 packets of vanilla sugar, and 2 packets of dr oetker vanilla paradise cream, a no boil vanilla pudding. And only when the cake is cold, this gets spread all over it. Mine was still lukewarm, but it worked still.
And finally, don’t underestimate how long it takes to wash and arrange the strawberries. And how many do you need. The recipe says 1.5kg. But mine were so big that I needed to run back to the shops that morning to get more, even though I had more than 1.5kg of good strawberries left.. But I made it. Everything seemed doable yet. That’s when things turned tits up. The cake glaze didn’t work for me. First, it didn’t want to solidify, and then it just kept running off the cake. When spreading the vanilla cream, I tried to make a little barrier around the outside of the cake. And at first, that worked well enough. But the strawberries were so high that I needed to fill in more and more cake glaze that just kept seeping off the cake onto the counter and away. But that was going to have to be a tomorrow problem.
Quickly dressed friends already showed up to take me to the wedding. In an instant of sound thinking, I grabbed a spare tray and some ice packs to keep the cake cool on a scorching day and felt all the better for it when everyone else was overheating and with the cake on my lap, my thighs were positively frozen.
It even survived the ceremony in the car before we arrived at the venue, where it was finally placed in a fridge again before everyone got to try it and comment.
I think that may have been the first cake I ever made that no one told me how I could have improved on it after they tried it. Everyone seemed delighted, the strawberries were really juicy and flavourful, and even people who didn’t know I made the cake but thought it was part of the catering complimented it. Not sure that’s what my friend had in mind when tasking me with the cake, but she seemed delighted even though I didn’t deliver one of my classic disasters. Maybe there’s a point to recipes after all.
I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis following 4 years of cancer research, which came after a 4-year undergrad in Biomolecular Sciences. But how did I get here? What prompts an interest in science? Or in my case specifically, in biology. When I was younger, I had bad asthma – estimated to affect 1 in 5 children in Ireland at some point (Asthma Society of Ireland). I remember spending many a morning in the asthma clinic in Tallaght Hospital when I was in primary school, entertaining myself in the play area while patiently waiting my turn to see the doctor. Admittedly, I didn’t really know what asthma was back then – I just knew that it was the reason I often got out of breath while playing sports and had to carry my clunky inhaler with me everywhere I went from school to sleepovers.
This changed in Secondary School in one of my 1st year Biology classes. We were learning about organ systems, and I vividly remember reading a small paragraph in the respiratory system section describing an asthma attack as a tightening of the muscles around the airways leading to constriction. It was by no means a detailed description, but for the first time, it made me think about what was actually going on in my body when I got out of breath. This awakened an interest in me as to how the body works. I continued to enjoy science classes throughout school and picked both Biology and Chemistry as Leaving Cert subjects. This enjoyment even led my friends to buy me some test-tube shot glasses as part of my 18th birthday present – a gift that I still have 8 years later! I was delighted to get into a Biomolecular Sciences degree after the Leaving Cert, and it was during this degree that my interests focused on cancer biology and immunology, the key research areas of my PhD, which looked at immune cell interactions in childhood cancer neuroblastoma. As this project comes to a close, I can’t help but wonder what my next scientific endeavour will be – will I stay in cancer research or unlock a new area of interest? Only time will tell!
When you’ve been in science for so long, it can be easy to forget how it all began, so I challenge any scientists reading this to reflect on what sparked their interest and led them to where they are today and how we can support the interests of the up-and-coming scientists of the future!