Since I joined neuroblastoma research, I have been puzzled by the fact that half of the children with neuroblastoma have the disease spread at the time of diagnosis. It is still a puzzle whether cells spread and primary tumour growth happen simultaneously or more adventurous cancer cells escape the primary tumour location later.
At a cancer conference, I met Prof Ewald who studies this process in breast cancer. I was fascinated by the approach and started to look for opportunities to join his lab. To tell the truth, very few exist for mid-stage career scientists! One of them is the Fulbright program.
One day, I opened my email saying that I received a Fulbright-HRB Health Impact Scholar Award to travel to Johns Hopkins University and adapt their 3D models to learn how neuroblastoma spreads. It was a life-changing experience both personally and professionally. The amount of experimental data collected over 4 months of work did not fit a 1TB memory stick! Indeed, this short journey was just a start of a new research inquiry.
On my return home, the greatest task that remained was to make sense of every single experiment. Cian Gavin took over and spent almost a year systematising, characterising it, and placing it into a context. It was meticulous work with very little known about invasion strategies in neuroblastoma. Now, we are happy to share our findings published on Cancers.
Where do we go now? Well, our next step is to understand the cellular players behind neuroblastoma invasion and how we can target them to stop neuroblastoma spread. It won’t be a short and sweet journey, but we are ready for it!
This fantastic and rewarding work was supported by Fulbright Commission Ireland, National Children’s Research Centre, Health Research Board, Science Foundation Ireland, the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute (Prof Ewald), Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for the COG Childhood Cancer Repository (Prof Reynolds) and the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute (Prof Reynolds).
Checking the calendar, it has been a month since my last post! That month was a transition time. Collecting all that accumulated, shipping self and stuff home, settling back and reinventing the life. Learning to drive on the left side, getting used to the narrow roads and ‘snow-flake’ junctions.
I never had a problem with driving on the right side in the US. Though, my entire driving experience as a driver has happened in Ireland driving on the left side of the road. Apparently, something that you absorb as a toddler, youngster, teenager and young adult never leaves you. It is written in your ‘hard-drive and operation system’ as a default option. So, now I have always to pay attention particularly when roads are empty…
What is my other big discovery? I was adopted by the big-big family and happily accepted this fact! I met 3 sisters and 3 brothers-in-law and a grandpa. Now, I miss our Sunday dinners and chit-chats…
The theme of the seminar was American Security: Integrating Multiple Perspectives. With the great support from North Carolina University, we stepped out our comfort zones and explored security topics through lenses of our cultural backgrounds and life experiences. Food Security, Energy Security and Environmental Security. Eighty-four Fulbrighters from almost 40 countries were sharing their stories on how these issues are dealt with in their home countries! We learnt to talk through being open-minded, find things in common and come to a balanced solution. This is not a-one-size-fits-all solution. We have more in common than we have thought. We have become friends and partners who build bridges and connect people and countries. The Fulbright Programme helped us to realise it!
A part of the activities was a site visit. I picked the Food Bank for the very simple reason – I have never heard about such a concept. My imagination fueled by perceptions drew a warehouse full of canned and dried food for a ‘rainy day’. How big was my surprise when I saw an absolutely different picture! Many dedicated people with the huge help of volunteers collect, sort, pack and distribute all type of food from vegetables to meat for people who can’t afford to buy it themselves. They collect fresh vegetables that do not meet perfection standards (called also number 2) from farmers. Giant sweet potatoes, ‘ugly’ squash or oranges – they all have the same nutrition value as their glamour looking brothers and sisters. Why #2 should be left in the field? So the Food Bank takes them in. The Bank also educates people on how to cook healthy meals from raw products.
On November 22, almost all Americans and visitors celebrated Thanksgiving. Roads and airports were overcrowded a day before. Turkeys, potatoes, corn and pumpkin tarts were consumed in astronomical amounts. The New York Times cherry picked 50 recipes from the 50 states. Yamee!!!! Have a look – I am voting for Alaska’s one!
So, how was my experience? As a native American – together with the family! I drove through big and small towns, beautiful autumn sunflower fields and forests covering a mile after a mile. When I thought that I was nearly there GPS updated my route with instructions to drive another 5-10 miles. So after an hour, I joined the big gathering in Grandpa’s house in northern Harford County, Maryland.
Many generations sat at the family table making it noisy, warm and live. Grandpa said the prayer. Turkey was served with many tasty sides. Some food combinations were entirely new for me… Having turkey with sweet strawberry jello was unusual. Or with cinnamon-sprinkled baked apples. Both were delicious on their own right! Two recipes I pencilled down for my family – a broccoli salad and a strawberry jello though will use them differently. If the broccoli salad perfectly fits into my vision of appetisers, the jello is for the desserts collection.
After the main men were watching sports, children were surfing the Internet, and the women cleaned the dishes and put cakes, tarts and torts on the table. Chitchat spiced with jokes and old days funny stories were all day long. What else would you wish for?
Sharing this day with this American family recalled childhood memories when I was stepping into my Granny’s arms in a warm kitchen smelled with baked pies and pastries from chilly and wet outdoors.
Americans see Thanksgiving as a day of feasting, football and family. Why not? Traditions are not bad at all. In the modern busy life, family dinners link us together letting stop the moment, smile at each other and thank for being here and now. By the end of the day, the family matters more than any anything else. Isn’t it?
Coming to live and work for a short period ignites opposite feelings. Should I see all the places recommended by Tripadvisor or do it at my pace as it happens? What if I miss something worthy? Perhaps, your own intuition balances somehow both.
I have discovered and loved two buildings in Baltimore. One is the building of Barnes & Noble bookstore in Inner Harbour and the other is Mount Vernon Place Church. Both have a great history behind and give a very warm feeling when you are inside.
Barnes & Noble bookstore is located in the former Power Plant. The features are easily spotted. From outside, the building looks like a Plant for modern social activities. Ugly slightly, isn’t it? Though, it is a different feeling when you enter the bookstore. The Plant scaffolds, chimneys and pipes are nicely crafted into a warm welcoming environment. Even lights are dimmed as back then. Rambling through the bookshelves and feeling the magic of the place and unread stories on them. You can pick up a book, sit where you are and enjoy the reading. Maybe it is the feeling of my childhood full of books and hours of reading?
Mount Vernon Place Church is next to the Washington Monument and recalls old Catholic Cathedrals in a Victorian Gothic Style. Built in 1872, the Church is actually the United Methodist Church from the very beginning. It is beautiful inside as well as outside. The stained glass and carvings have Nature themes. A big rose window in the rear of the church was inspired by the one in Notre Dame. It has an interesting history which you can read here. I discovered this place by chance and am glad that this chance came from my host family. I saw the interior not only the Church but also Asbury House. The mansion was a home to the first bishop of the Methodist Church in America – Francis Asbury (1745-1816). Have a look at the pictures, the furniture is well preserved, the staircase is similar to the one you can see in Slane Castle. Its light design makes it looks flying. Indeed, not everyone could use it at that times. Servants had a plain version at the back of the house, so none could have seen them moving in and out. Lots of blue and carved wood in the rooms. Incredibly beautiful.
What is a must-see in Ireland? Right: visit Guinness brewery at St. James’s Gate and have a pint of right Guinness. It is one of the most recognised and famous beer brands. Rumours say Dublin is the only place where Guinness tastes Guinness. Traditions, traditions and traditions. Though the one we like most Guinness Draught is a relatively new addition – it was introduced almost 200 years after the brewery establishment in 1759 by Arthur Guinness.
So, what if you like tastes ‘outside the box’? Then Guinness brewery in Baltimore is for you. Respecting the Father, they do completely different stuff. Imagine, 16 different tastes, including the one we know! You can have a guided tour of the brewery, hear the great story and do a beer tasting. Have you tried one? Not, the one in the pub or with the friends at BBQ. It is a special way to feel the bouquet of flavours and taste the difference. There is a difference between the beer drunk straight from the bottle and from the glass. Because you can smell it as simple as that.
During our guided tour, we rambled inside the experimental brewery, learn the basics of beer production, tasted 4 types of beer: Guinness Blonde, Oatmeal Pale Ale, Guinness Draught and Guinness Milk Stout. Three were absolutely new for me. I liked Oatmeal Pale Ale, found Milk Stout a bit dessert style, Blonde – too citrusy. Do not forget, another 12 you can taste at the bar in a special set! However, to enjoy the most you have to bring your friends. All is much better with the right company!
Can you control the time? I can’t and know none who can. It flies, when things around you work out, and drags on when not. The time flies for me here in Baltimore. It feels so intense sometimes and then slightly slows down. I take pictures almost of everything: the path’s signposts when rambling in the network of Johns Hopkins Buildings, the first frosty morning, joyful deer at the backyard of my host family house, outdated clothes in the shop…
In the past, I had a similar journey to Ireland. It was 3 months research placement during my PhD. Did I like it – oh, yes I did! I travelled a lot, felt romantic and changed my life on my return home. But I did not run a diary or tag my way on Facebook. I have learnt the lesson: do it even more intense as you can’t travel back in time and write down your experience. It may be funny or educational to read in a couple of years! I become addicted to it though not always have time to do it.
I like the people who I am working with. They are a fantastic bunch of self-motivators and open-minded personalities. They are workaholics either naturally like me or because of the exciting projects they do like I do. Who knows, but very likely because of both. Isn’t it a dream to have an exciting project and great people around you? The luck like this gives you wings.
The host family – is my other great luck! This luck was crafted as a parallel story when none knew how the Fulbright application and an American enthusiast learning Russian may intersect. You would not believe, but parallel lines can be non-parallel sometimes! His journey to my home city in Russia paved the way to the opportunity to stay at his aunt’s house.
Every day 50 min drive to and from Hopkins opens up the other side of the local lifestyle and infrastructure. What are the rush hours? How many drivers are signalling before taking a turn? How do they call the shopping trolley? How parking system works?
Experiencing life as an American working in Baltimore.
Reading my posts, it looks like I am more enjoying the cultural part and almost forgot the main reason I crossed the Atlantic with the Fulbright wings.
The first month in the lab was more a warming up. Where is my desk? Where is the cell culture rooms? How do they run it? How different is it? So, many microscopes – am I capable of imaging? And so on and so forth…
My typical day starts at 8-8.30 am and finishes once all is done. It may be 6pm or 10pm. Once the experiment is set up, I have to monitor cells every 24 hours for 5-7 days with no weekends or days off. The monitoring includes imaging. Lots of imaging. Every condition has 20-30 single cells to follow up. Each cell gets its own GPS tag manually to be able to image exactly the same cell as it grows and becomes a group of hundreds by multiplication. For example, I am running 8 different cell lines in 3 experimental conditions. So, 20-30 cells per all 24 combinations give us 480-720 individual cells to follow up. The imaging takes ~5 hours every day. After 5 days, I will have 2400 – 3600 pics of cells to analyse. It will be fun! I may need lots of Guinness to fly through that numbers.
At the next step, I will select some of the conditions for video recording to trace cell fate from a single neuroblastoma cell to a metastatic niche consisting of hundreds of them. This video will show me how it all happens minute after minute.
The first month flew in a flash. Vibrant and exciting. What did surprise me? Well… No public transport in Baltimore as we got used to in Dublin. Driver friendly environment. I like street indications at the junctions. Helps a lot in navigation. Clear and straight to the point. You can drive anywhere, you find a parking spot within 1-2 minutes, though the fee can be very high if in town. Around Johns Hopkins Hospital street parking is just 1 USD per hour, though limited to max 2 hours. You can turn on ‘red’ if no danger posses. As it always happens some drivers read this rule on demand and turn on ‘red’ even the additional road sign prohibits it. Many jammed/bumped cars in use.
Ok. Baseball. I and some man from my host family went to see a match of the local team Baltimore Orioles vs Chicago White Sox. I like their positive team colours – orange. It was sweet to get a free orange hoodie at the game and eat a standard size ice cream cone – enough to feed 2-3 people. Their stadium is a big museum of Orioles success. Nice to rambler around. The team is not doing well in the current season. They lost 0:2. Many players are traded in and out. Did I gain all insights of the game? Hmmm… But, wish the team and the fans best of luck in the next season!
What about the American Church? Yep, I did it, too! I attended the worship service in Glen Mar Church – a United Methodist congregation. Wikipedia says that the United Methodist Church (UMC) is a mainline Protestant denomination and a major part of Methodism. Did not hear about it much, but I am staying with the family who is not just active members of the UMC, but the head of the family is a recently retired pastor. So, I went there for his last service. It is very different to Catholic or Orthodox and the feeling that you get entirely different. Pastor and church members interact actively and not passively. It feels more like a family or person consulting and support environment rather than a dogmatic lectureship.
However, my main highlight is NASA. And it deserves a separate story.
This is how my journey began. On Tuesday, I received an invite from the Children’s Medical Research Foundation to attend the Annual Summer Gala Dinner at the Water Club in Manhattan on Thursday the same week. Are two days enough to plan your trip? Perhaps it depends on many things, I had no reservations. The only one uncertainty was car parking logistics.
Those, who are familiar with Baltimore history and current life, know that your car is your Castle. After the Internet search and chats with my host family, the plan was to get a bus to NY which provides a designated car park.
Three hours on the bus flew in a flash. Wide roads with trees on both sides did remind me of some motorways in Russia. Gigantic tolls – almost 12 lanes in both directions. An impressive tunnel under the Hudson River connects the mainland with Manhatten. One can see a borderline dividing the tunnel into New Jersey and New York parts on about halfway.
What was my first impression of NY once I got off the bus? Many snapshots instantly jumped in linking with Hollywood movies that pictured NY. Mostly from ‘Sex and the City’. A traffic jam here and there. Crazy Taxi and car drivers. Brainless pedestrians. Everyone on the run. Madness. I did enjoy it as a tourist. Would I cope with it on everyday bases? A very big question!
Unfortunately, thanks to the hurricane Florence, not much sightseeing was on offer. All tall buildings were hidden with clouds. Tourists were queuing for hop-on-off.
I had 2 hours before the bus to Baltimore. My choice was Times Square. A classical picture – huge screens are talking to you offering pleasure and entertainment. Come in, relax and enjoy!
Strolling around Cafe shops, theaters, food vans. Looking at tourists and locals. Feeling and absorbing… Short, but sweet.