Class 2024: Congratulations to Ciara, Ellen and Rabia!

Massive congratulations on the official moulding of PhD and MSc by Research to our promising young scientists: Rabia Saleem, Dr Ciara Gallagher and Dr Ellen King! Great accomplishments!

Three different journeys, with two through the COVID-19 pandemic. The full range of ups and downs. Who said that the PhD is a straight line? It has never been. It is more like the Irish weather: some days are sunny and bright, and some have scattered showers, gale winds and stormy snow, with sunshine developing elsewhere. The journey was spiced up with publications, conferences, travels, days out and fundraising events with the team.

It is a proud moment for me as well. 🙂 Three PhD and one MSc by Research students graduated within the last 12 months.

Of note, Ellen was behind our Twitter activities in the past, making our team visible!

Wish you all the best of luck on your new adventure!

Olga Piskareva

Congratulations to a new Dr in the house: Dr Ellen King

Huge congrats to a newly minted Dr Ellen King!  She passed her PhD viva on April 9. This is a testimony to your dedication, strong will and hard work. May this PhD be the beginning of many more successful endeavours, Ellen!

We thank examiners Prof Sally-Ann Cryan (RCSI) and Prof Joanne Lysaght (TCD) for the time and expertise they provided.

We also thank the RCSI PhD Programme for their generous support!

From left to right: Prof Joanne Lysaght, Dr Ellen King, Dr Olga Piskareva & Prof Sally-Ann Cryan

How things work in science: Scaffolding

At the Cancer Bioengineering Group, we use different types of scaffolds to mimic the 3D structure of tumours outside the body. We use these scaffolds to test new therapeutics and understand the tumour microenvironment. But I bet you didn’t think we had this in common with spiders?

Spiders make their webs by producing silk from specialized glands in their abdomen. They release the silk through spinnerets located at the back of their abdomen, then use their legs to manipulate the silk strands into intricate patterns, depending on the species and purpose of the web.

The process of web building begins with a scaffold. The specialized glands that spiders use are called spinnerets, and they produce liquid silk proteins that solidify into a thread when they come into contact with air. Using their many legs, spiders can manipulate the threads by changing the speed and tension they enforce on the silk, thus controlling thickness, stickiness and strength. They first lay a framework of non-sticky threads, known as scaffolding. And layer by layer, different species of spiders will add their own artistic sticky silk design to the scaffold depending on their aim. Take the deadly redback spider for example, these guys have a utilitarian approach to web building relying on their webs mainly for shelter and capturing prey. As such, they don’t put much effort into producing irregular and messy homes. In comparison, the orb-weaving spider produces “Mona Lisa”-like designs, with complex geometric patterns and intricate designs. The differences in effort seem to come from the environments in which the webs are located, with the redbacks choosing more sheltered environments and thus not needing much strength to their webs. Whereas orb-weaving spiders are more adapted to a range of environments, from forests to grasslands to urban gardens. So, while the redback gets a lot of attention for their neurotoxic venom, they need to step up their artistic skills to match that of their orb-weaving colleagues.

The redback spider and its webs are reminiscent of an aggressive tumour, which is erratic, dangerous, and unpredictable. We want to find the “anti-venom” for such tumours so we can wipe them out for good.

Watch this amazing web-building timelapse by BBC Earth.

Written by Ellen King

Congratulations to Dr Ciara Gallagher!


Huge congrats to a newly minted Dr Ciara Gallagher!  She defended her PhD on March 8 – International Women’s Day. Your enthusiasm and perseverance are truly fascinating! May this be the stepping stone towards a brighter future, Ciara!

We thank examiners Dr Marie McIlroy (RCSI) and Prof Jan Škoda (Masaryk Uni) for the time and expertise they provided.

We also thank the Irish Research Council for their generous support!

Dr Ciara Murphy (Chair), Dr Olga Piskareva (Supervisor), Dr Ciara Gallagher, Prof Jan Skoda (examiner), Dr Marie McIlroy (Examiner)

Growing cancer cells in 3D

Hi there, Ciara here again, a final-year PhD student in our research group. I can’t believe September has rolled around again, meaning one thing: it’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (CCAM). In honour of this month, I would like to tell you a little bit about the childhood cancer we study in our lab and the research that I do to one day help save children from this disease. 

Neuroblastoma is an aggressive childhood cancer, with sadly only 20% of late-stage patients surviving after 5 years. Progressive disease and cancer relapse are common in neuroblastoma. This is due to standard treatment regimens not being adequate for treating high-risk patients. Current treatment also may cause a series of adverse reactions in patients. Therefore, my research focuses on developing a 3D model of high-risk neuroblastoma that models the cancer more accurately in a laboratory setting. This will act as a beneficial platform to test whether new therapies effectively fight the patients’ cancer cells, leading to better treatment options for children with neuroblastoma.  

Below is a picture of how we grow these cancerous cells on our 3D model and visualise them with fluorescent stains. When we can see them like this under a microscope, we can study how they move and grow to help us understand how to treat them. 

Here, we can see the cells growing on our 3D cancer model. This image is magnified by 200 times to be able to see the individual cancer cells. The green stain is the outside of our cancer cells, or we use the term, the cell membrane. The blue is the inside, or as some of you may know the term, the nucleus of the cell.   (It is amazing what we can see with the power of microscopes, right?) 

As you may know, every year, we support amazing charities by raising vital funds to keep the fight against childhood cancer going. Keep your eyes peeled on our Twitter for updates on what crazy activity we have committed to this year!!  

Written by Ciara Gallagher

Childhood Cancer Awareness Month 2023

Every September, we celebrate Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. This is a great opportunity to raise awareness about childhood cancer. Unfortunately, kids get cancer, too. While much research has been done to understand how cancer develops in adults, we still know very little about what exactly leads to cancer in children.

We are the Cancer BioEngineering Group led by Dr Olga Piskareva at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. Our research focuses on neuroblastoma, an aggressive childhood cancer of immature nerves. The group has 7 PhD students developing research projects around neuroblastoma biology. One postgraduate student successfully defended her work and was awarded a PhD last month.

We are a dynamic group proud to be engaged in research, science communication and patient involvement. We do that through different initiatives. Throughout September, we will share many of them and invite you to keep following us on social media. 

Team 2023

Our projects address topics related to neuroblastoma microenvironment, cell interactions, tumour resistance and the development of new therapies. To do that, we use 3D in vitro models, identify immunotherapeutic targets and evaluate extracellular vesicles.  

We are always happy to answer questions and interact with the public. Follow us on our social media channels and read our blog to learn more about us and our research.  

We are running a fundraising event, “A knit-a-thon,” on the 19th of September. Stay tuned!

Thanks for reading, and we go ahead with neuroblastoma research! 

Experiencing Elegance: A Graduation Ceremony at the University of Siena, Italy

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!

Written by Rabia Saleem

A newly minted Dr. Catherine Murphy

Huge congrats to a newly minted Dr Catherine Murphy! ✨ She successfully defended her PhD work yesterday. Hard work and dedication paid off. Well done, Catherine!

We thank examiners Drs Oran Kennedy and Niamh Buckley for their time and expertise provided.

We also thank Neuroblastoma UK for their generous support!

New Orlean’s Red Beans & Rice

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.

My first red beans and rice in New Orleans

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!

Recipe:

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

For serving:

  • Cooked long-grain white rice
  • Hot sauce

Instructions:

  1. Rinse beans and soak.
  2. Brown sausages in oil on both sides. Set aside.
  3. 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.
  4. To the slow cooker, add your cooked vegetables. Then add the red beans, black pepper, Slap Ya Mama, dried thyme, oregano, and bay leaves.
  5. Add the water and chicken broth.
  6. Set the slow cooker to high setting for 4 hours or low for 8 hours.
  7. When beans are ready, take out 1 ½ cups to mash and put back in pot.
  8. Remove the bay leaves and add the sausage back in. Cook until sausage is hot.
  9. Serve over a bowl of hot white rice with hot sauce, green onions, and parsley for garnish.

Notes:

  • 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.

Enjoy!!!

Written by Alysia Scott

Navigating Time and Tasks in the PhD Journey – The Struggles of Autonomy

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.

Navigating the realm of a PhD

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.

Written by Ronja Struck