#DineWithRonja: Wedding cake struggles

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.

I started out neat enough, with a clear space and ingredients all lined up neatly…

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.

…But chaos soon took over. If you look closely, you can even make out the initials of the happy couple in the strawberries.

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.

And yet this was all that was left of it by the time I made it to the desert buffer.

Written by Ronja Struck

How I became interested in science?

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.

Asthma Society of Ireland Statistics

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!

My scientist origins 2015 – messing with St Paul’s most popular skeleton Mr. Bones in a Leaving Cert. chemistry class, the test-tube shot glasses my friends bought me for my 18th birthday, and the lab coat I bought for my undergrad degree (quite clearly not designed for short people)

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!

So, did I manage to keep sane?

Absolutely not.

If you read my last blog post in May, you’ll know that I made a list of my five top tips for keeping sane while thesis writing (read here). Well, today, I’m here to tell you that despite my best efforts, the “so close to the end” pressure and lunacy did eventually get me.

As I’ve said before, writing a thesis is hard. Not knowing when you’ll be done is hard. Setting deadlines to work towards, which subsequently fall through, is hard. And I actually now think it’s unreasonable to believe that there’s a 5-step formula to prevent this from taking a toll on your mental state.

I submitted my PhD thesis on the 15th of June – I won’t tell you how many months later than my original goal this is. But I submitted it nonetheless. The weeks leading up to this submission were tough as I started to feel the burn-out and longed to be done. I think the tips I shared before can help during this time, but I won’t tell you that they made my stress and desire to be finished disappear.

These feelings lifted the day before my submission, my last day of minor edits and final checks when I got up to watch the sunrise. I sat watching the sun rising over the sea and tried to embrace where I was in the present rather than thinking about where I could have been had I submitted sooner or where I’ll be in a few months when I close my PhD chapter. I started to feel some relief as I could see the light at the end of the tunnel just as clearly as I could see the sun rising. I listened to Billy Joel Vienna on the way home – “Slow down, you’re doing fine” – reinforcing all these feelings.

My “light at the end of the tunnel” – the sun rising over the sea in Dun Laoghaire

That day I wrote my thesis acknowledgements, where I thanked everyone who helped me through my PhD. I focused particularly on those who helped me in my not-so-sane moments over the thesis-writing period, my family and close colleagues/friends.

I still believe that the tips from my last post – maintaining social contacts, exercising, getting outdoors, having some fun and planning ahead – can help you navigate the thesis process. But I take back what I said about them keeping you sane. Because sometimes, the task at hand is just too big for one person to tackle without going off the rails a bit. It’s a balance between self-care, asking for help when needed, and simply riding out the waves.

For anyone who’s writing up and is feeling a lack of sanity, I hope you can find your own ways to ride out the waves, and I hope your light at the end of the tunnel becomes visible soon. I can assure you the post-submission honeymoon period is definitely something to look forward to!

Thesis submission celebrations at the Swan Bar – an RCSI tradition

Written by Catherine Murphy

My Fancy May

Hi again, it’s Lin! Last April (the end of April 2023), I was back in China, then started my 2 years of life at Soochow University (SU). Before I popped into the lab, I had a short holiday (In May). Therefore, I travelled to some cities in China.

The top 1 of my favorite cities is my hometown – Yantai (a coastal city in Shandong Province). I went straight back to Yantai after I left Dublin. I haven’t seen my family for two years since I went to Ireland. I missed them soooo much.  I visited my grandparents, my uncle, my aunt, and my cousin, I had a happy time with them.  If you want to travel to Yantai, I suggest coming here every May and June. The cherry is ripe every May and June. Therefore, at this time every tear, you can not only eat a lot of cherries, but you can also go to the farm to enjoy the joy of picking cherries.

After 2 weeks of family time, I went to Hong Kong to visit my friends. My friend showed me around Hong Kong. If you like to climb mountains and enjoy the natural scenery in the mountains, I suggest going to Ngong Ping 360 and the Peak. You can try the cable car in Ngong Ping 360 and the Peak Tram in the Peak. You will have a different experience and enjoy your time. If you like shopping, you will love Hong Kong. There are some expensive shops and also some cheap ones. There is something for everyone in Hong Kong.

After traveling from Hong Kong, I returned to Suzhou, where my college is located. Soochow is famous for its Chinese classical gardens. My favorite place in Soochow is not the garden but Shantang Street. I always go there with my friends at night time. Blowing the wind and enjoying the night lights, Shantang Street is particularly charming.

Due to limited time (I need to be back in the lab as soon as possible), there are many places I did not go to, such as Yunnan, Tibet, and Gansu. If you want to travel to China, I hope my experience can give you some advice.

Written by Lin Ma


I’m Ellen, and I am a 3rd year PhD student in the Cancer Bioengineering Group. Last week I attended and presented at my first international conference, ISCT (International Society for Cell & Gene Therapy), in Paris. I spent five days in Paris with three of them at the conference where scientists, researchers and pharma professionals came from far and wide. There was a strong focus on collaboration between industry teams and academics, and it gave me a lot to think about when it comes to my own PhD and career journey as a whole.

As a soon-to-be final-year student, the next step in my career has been on my mind. Starting out, I was very sure I wanted to progress within academia and follow the “traditional” researcher route. Industry always seemed so far removed from the basic sciences, and specifically biology research roles are hard to come by in Ireland. Having the opportunity to travel to Paris and meet with such a wide range of professionals really opened my eyes to the possibility of a career in the industry. It was reassuring to see that even after leaving academia, there is a cross-over and lots of collaboration. Industry or academia? The fork in the road when it comes to this career choice is becoming lesser and lesser.

While I was in Paris, I had a lot of time to ponder the fantastic science and research that I discussed at the talks (Did you know? One adult human heart produces enough energy in one lifetime to power an 18-wheeler to the moon and back). Additionally, I could also see first-hand that the positive aspects that we associate with academia (presenting research, freedom of research topics and the conference wine receptions, of course) are also readily available as a non-academic based scientist. In fact, there is a career that has the “goodness of both”. So many academics discussed start-ups and spin-out companies developed off the back of their academic research, and there were even talks that discussed the how, what, when and where of transitioning between the two settings.

I’m so grateful that I could attend this conference. I presented my research (a project very much blended between academia and industry), got to chat to like-minded people and came home with a wealth of new knowledge. This knowledge will not only enrich my PhD project but will stand for me as my career moves from student to fully-fledged scientist. The topic of post-PhD job hunting often comes with a knot in the stomach, but seeing the exciting opportunities that are available out there has me much more excited than stressed about this next step. And now to finish this PhD so that I can take that next step 🙂

My trip became possible thanks to the Company of Biologist travel grant and support from the RCSI Department of Anatomy and Regenerative Medicine.

Written by Ellen King

Back to my roots – Biomolecular science careers and alumni event at TUD

Hi again, Ciara here!  Last week (May 2023), I was asked back to the college I completed my undergraduate degree at the technological university of Dublin (TUD). They held their first Bio-molecular Science Careers and Alumni event. This event entailed previous graduates returning to the college to enjoy an evening of talks from graduates of other years showing their journey since graduation.  I was lucky enough to be amongst the panel of speakers to hopefully inspire this year’s graduates about all the possibilities available after graduation. It was also great to be back and connecting with familiar faces of classmates, lecturers and TUD staff. I had a fantastic time reminiscing about my time in college. I was lucky to be one of the residents of the old DIT Kevin St (now located at TUD Grangegorman). My course was very hands-on, accumulating 30 hours of lab work a week along with lectures. Although it was intense, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in DIT (now TUD).

My presentation on the evening was aimed at students thinking about research as their next step. I told them all about my career journey since 2017, from graduating college, moving to industry and coming back to academia to complete my PhD.

So, for my blog post this week, I would like to leave you with my top tips I shared with them for starting out on a PhD journey.

  1. Pick a topic you have a genuine interest in – don’t just take an opportunity because you don’t think it will come around again.
  2. There will always be funding available. You have to look in the right places and be persistent in your search.
  3. Get to know your supervisor (PI) before starting; you spend 4 years building a relationship with them.
  4. Ask questions to current PhD students; you can never ask too many questions before beginning.
  5. Work as a research assistant (RA) with a research group while searching for funding and before committing to a full-time 4 year-PhD. It helps get a feel if research is the right place for you.
  6. Enjoy the extended college years!

Written by Ciara Gallagher


We all collect trophies and tokens to bring home during holidays. So, do I. Teas and spices are a zeal for me. For Christmas 2022, we stayed in Lanzarote, and I was determined to find something special in this part of Spain: a taste, a spice or a dish. With a careful touch by César Manrique’s vision, the volcano-shaped countryside inspires and recharges.

The time was festive, prompting me to make a featured dish. It would have been a roasted Turkey or Ham in Dublin, but what could I do on holidays? I came very quickly to an idea to cook Paella in our self-catering house. I tasted it several times but have yet to cook it myself. Why not? Although Paella is widely recognised as one of the most popular and renowned Spanish dishes, it’s important to note that the term “paella” (or more accurately, “la paella”) actually refers to the cooking pan used to prepare the dish rather than the dish itself.

Ingredients, including a Paella spices’ mix sachet, were easy to buy in the supermarket. All I needed was a recipe. Indeed, it is not a problem nowadays – just Google it! So, I cooked a Seafood Paella for our family Christmas Dinner. Yummy!

In February 2023, I attended a conference in Barcelona and chatted with my Spanish colleagues about Paella over lunch. What was a big surprise for me is that the authentic version has chicken but not seafood. Spanish still debate, indeed, how faithful Paella should taste. Modern Paella certainly, has many variations. For example, peas and chorizo. Having only chicken makes Paella close to Plov, Pilaf or Pilau – an Asian dish with rice, vegetables, spices and meat, which I do often anyway. This is one of my family’s favourite dishes. Now, I can do it a Spanish style. So, here is a chicken Paella recipe with optional ingredients for every taste. Enjoy!


2 tbsp olive oil [sunflower oil can also be used],
1 onion
1 tsp each hot smoked paprika, saffron or turmeric [to give yellow colour], dried thyme, grided black and red pepper, salt,
300g paella or risotto rice [1.5 standard size glass]
300g carrots [2-3 of average size]
5-6 cloves of garlic
1.2 kg chicken [it can be just tights or wings, or both]


Step 1: Cut chicken is small pieces, grate carrots, and chop onions.

Step 2: Heat the olive oil in a large wok or casserole pot. Add the chicken and cook for 20-25 min.

Step 3: Add the chopped onion and grated carrots and soften for 5 mins.

Step 4: Add the smoked paprika, thyme and paella rice, and stir for 1-2 min.

Step 5: Add 3 glasses of water [so water covers rise excessively]. Season and cook, covered, for about 15 mins, stirring now and again until the rice is almost tender and still surrounded with some liquid.

Optional: A casserole pan is handy for chicken Paella as the chicken needs more space and longer cooking time than e.g. seafood. Chopped tomatoes [200g] can be added in step 4. Chicken can be replaced with the seafood mix [400g] but should be added when rice is cooked. Then rice should be cooked in chicken broth (750-800 ml). Chorizo can be added in Step 5. Squeeze over the lemon juice, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with the lemon wedges.

Enjoy cooking and dining!

Keeping Sane While Thesis-Writing

The question on everyone’s lips: “how’s thesis-writing going?” The question that has plagued me the last few months from well-meaning colleagues, friends and family. I can confirm that writing a PhD thesis can very much leave you feeling like SpongeBob, or Ross from friends – I’m fineeee!

It’s never going to be an easy task, and there’s always going to be moments where you feel like pulling your hair out with stress or booking a one-way flight to another country and never turning back – but I haven’t given in to those invasive thoughts yet! And I have found a few ways to keep myself from spiralling as I attack the monster that is the PhD thesis:

  1. Don’t give in to isolation

I get it, the temptation to lock yourself in a room with your laptop and completely block out the outside world until the thesis is done. But if you’re anything like me, this is a recipe for hitting a serious wall. After transitioning from being in the lab surrounded by my colleagues to being in a quiet room with just my thesis, I learned pretty quickly that if I didn’t take time out to have lunch or a coffee with my friends, I’d be a very sad gal by the end of the day – not conducive to good writing. So don’t let the stress turn you into a hermit, your mental health will thank you for it.

  1. Move your body

This is a keep-sane mechanism that I neglected when the stress hit in my final year of my undergrad. I fell into the trap of thinking I didn’t have time to exercise – the wrong mindset!! I now recognize that by taking time out for a yoga class or to put my earphones in and throw some weight around RCSI gym, I’m giving myself the mental break I need to then have much more successful writing sessions afterwards. Not to mention keeping the endorphins high to balance out the thesis-induced cortisol production. So whatever your preferred form of exercise is – schedule it in and do it!

  1. Get outdoors

Another textbook keep-sane tip, but for a good reason! I know for a fact the days I get over to Stephen’s Green for a coffee walk or to eat lunch outside, I generally have a better mood for the day. And a happy gal is a productive gal. The serotonin boost from feeling the sun on your skin or seeing some gorge flowers or a cute squirrel is fairly unmatched. This can also be easily combined with Tips #1 and #2 at the weekends by planning a nice hike with friends to have the chats, move your bodies, see some views and, of course, get an obligatory coffee and sweet treat afterwards. I’ve found it to be an ideal weekend activity to get me out and feel like I’ve done something nice without tiring myself out too much to be able to get some work done afterwards. We’re so blessed in Dublin with parks, mountains and the seaside, not to be taken for granted!

  1. Schedule in some silliness

I know a lot of people who vow to stay on their best behaviour while they are thesis writing, saying no to social events involving a sneaky drink or two. But I have learned that for me, this is not the best approach, and scheduling in some occasional silliness is the best motivator to keep me going. You truly can’t beat the feeling of sending a draft off on a Friday evening, followed by heading out somewhere fun with your friends. Be that a karaoke night, a few drinks in the evening sunshine, or a night away somewhere, these moments of fun are important for keeping sane. It’s also important to remember that while it feels like your PhD is the center of the universe, it’s not a reason to miss out on life events happening in the meantime – your sister’s hen party, your friend’s birthday, or whatever else is happening outside of your PhD bubble. Finishing your PhD, like life in general, is about balance, moments of fun and silliness to balance out the serious stuff.

  1. Think ahead

My last tip for keeping sane while thesis-writing is to think ahead of what life might be like when you’re done. This does NOT mean stressing about applying for jobs or looking for new housing, or worrying about finances post-PhD, but just playing with ideas in your head of how you envision your life after you’ve earned the coveted Dr. title. Do you want to take a break from science, travel, or spend time with family? The world is quite literally your oyster. For a good chunk of my thesis-writing I avoided thinking ahead because it overwhelmed me, there’s often no definitive deadline to a PhD thesis, so it is difficult to plan ahead, and if you set yourself a deadline that you don’t meet, it can feel like a failure. But I’ve come to realise that by flexibly planning the end and what comes next, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes easier to see.

So they’re the five top methods I’ve been using to keep me sane in the final sprints of my PhD. My final word of wisdom is this – be compassionate with yourself. Writing a PhD thesis is not easy, and it does take time (sometimes more time than you had anticipated), so try not to beat yourself up if your progress isn’t where you thought it would be. You will finish, and it’s better to be in a mentally good place when you do so you can enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and celebrations that come with it.

Happy (hopefully sane) writing!

Written by Catherine Murphy

Hello everyone! I’m Federica!

Hello everyone! I’m Federica, the new PhD student who joined the group 😃

I’m amazed that it’s been almost a month since it happened, and I couldn’t be happier!

I was born and raised in Palermo, a beautiful city in Sicily (Italy), but I always felt that it was not my place. So, I tried to combine my passion for cancer biology and my desire to live abroad by exploring the Erasmus Mobility Programme. I was awarded this scholarship twice, but both times I couldn’t avail of this opportunity. In March 2022, I got my Master’s degree and said to myself, “It’s time; this is my chance to go and build the future that I want”. And here I am. 😄

New adventures

I moved to Dublin in June 2022 and loved this city’s vibes! I met wonderful people from all over the world with which I spent really fun and carefree moments. 

These are only a few of that magic moments:

– I saw a deer for the first time in my life – I was soooo happy!

Deers in the Phoenex park
New drink experience

– I tried the “mate”, a traditional South American caffeine-rich infused herbal drink. As you can guess, I didn’t like it 😂 (sorry, my Argentinian friends).

– I got used to the outstanding colours of Ireland.

Obviously, I also had hard days. My English is still not perfect, but it’s getting better every day!  I remember the first day I arrived in Dublin when I was looking for a cup, but I asked for a cupboard in three different supermarkets 😂. People looked at me, probably thinking: “Why is she looking for furniture in a grocery store? Should I say something to her?” I realized that I had asked for the wrong thing only during the night, when I was in bed, thinking about that first crazy day. 

New colours

To be honest, I had a lot of really hard days, days when I felt that I wouldn’t be able to deal with other problems. But I never thought of giving up and returning to Italy. Every difficulty, every good or bad thing, is part of this wonderful experience, and I’m so excited and proud of myself for all the improvement I’ve been making, step by step.

I couldn’t make a better choice because I found my place in this super nice and great team in the Bioengineering Group 🙃

 I look forward to better knowing all my new teammates and sharing with them my journey as PhD student!

Written by Federica Cottone

Hey there, this is Alysia!

Hey there, this is Alysia! I recently joined the Cancer Bioengineering team as a first-year PhD student. At the beginning of 2022, I was selected as a Fulbright-RCSI StAR Programme student. I spent the summer in anticipation of what to expect from my new home. I had never travelled outside of America before! However, moving to Dublin has been a great new adventure with tons of amazing experiences and new friendships. One of the first things I did when I got here was going to cafes all over town to get to know the area. Also, to indulge in the foodie scene of Dublin. I also did some great walking tours, joined a tag rugby team, got cosy with the pub culture, and found some unique thrifting shops. Dublin has a lot of charm and hidden gems wedged in between the cobblestone streets. As an American in Dublin, I thought I would have a really hard time adjusting. However, everyone has been so friendly and helpful! I’ve been able to catch on to some of the local dialogue and sometimes catch myself about to say, “it’ll be grand!”

Feeling lucky!

One of my favourite things I’ve done since being in Dublin is exploring the surrounding area through hiking. I’m from Colorado in the U.S., so the mountains here are quite a bit different. However, I can greatly appreciate the hiking culture that everyone seems to enjoy. I’ve been able to go on hikes with colleagues and friends alike in new stunning locations. My first introduction to Irish hiking was along the Howth cliff walk. Not only was the wind strong enough to fly me back to America, but the rain was “lashing”, and the temperature was absolutely, “Baltic”. I was soaked to the bone but could not be happier about getting outside and finding a social hobby that would help me adjust to my new home.

Hiking along the Howth cliff walk, 2023

It’s only been a few months into my four-year journey in Ireland, but I’m looking forward to so many opportunities. Being so close to the rest of Europe, I’ve already travelled to Paris, London, and Barcelona. I was even in Brussels and Luxembourg for a Fulbright Seminar visiting the EU and NATO! I plan on travelling around Europe some more, exploring the coasts of Ireland, and of course, sampling all the new cuisine! I really lucked out with a great team here in the Bioengineering Group. We have conferences here in Ireland as well as internationally, which helps me explore. I can’t believe I’m here in Dublin doing cancer research. Being selected for Fulbright is an incredible opportunity for me to fall in love with Dublin while doing a PhD program.

Alysia, Ronja and Lin, Barcelona, February 2023

Written by Alysia Scott