What Can VHI Women’s Mini Marathon Do For You?

I have never been a runner. In my head, the word ‘marathon’ was linked to professional athletes and the Olympics or Athletics competitions. I could not imagine anyone doing a race as long as one gets guts. However, once I found the courage and motivation to explore my body’s limits. It was probably our team fundraising ‘Hell&Back’ challenge in 2019 that ignited that courage. We did many! Virtual VHI MiniMarathon, the Dublin Mountain Way in a Day, Cyclothone, to name a few.

Eventually, I decided to do it on my own in 2024. I booked the VHI Mini Marathon 2024 entry and started my training. Having many fitness apps at my disposal let me pick the right training plan. 10K sounded manageable. The fitness watch kept all my training records, so I got a very good understanding of my body potential and limits to do 10K.

On that sunny day, hundreds and hundreds of women were getting to the starting line. Each set their own ambition and target. I had three: 1) jogging from start to finish, 2) finishing within 1hr and 20 min, and 3) supporting the Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Foundation.

So, June 2nd was fast approaching, and I injured my calf during the Wicklow hike. However, giving up was not an option, but healing was required. So, I decided to stop running for a week and gradually get back on track.

The atmosphere was cheering and empowering, and the sun was bright and hot. The green ‘wave’ began their race at about 12:45. Running in a big company was easy. It is less doubtful if you are in a group of allies. Distance and time flew. I was sinking into the diversity and variety of running women and supporters along the road, enjoying every minute. Some took over me, and I took over some. I stuck to my training pace to ensure my power and energy were not draining quickly under the sun. My fitness watch counted the distance, heart bit and steps, showing that I was slightly slower on average than during my training. I decided not to break the limits and kept running, listening to my body. Somewhere at the back of my head, I hoped to speed up at the end, if any. Unfortunately for me, the final 1-2 km were up the hill, so the slop ate my efforts.

Being a researcher puts every experience in perspective. We tend to analyse the flow of any information, sometimes unconsciously, by asking questions and reflecting. One of the running advantages is that you see an accomplishment right now at the finish line. Your fitness watch provides all the data to plan and complete a given challenge with very good accuracy. It is not about luck. It is about your trust in your body and mind. You are in the driving seat! Delighted with my accomplishment!

So, what is next on my to-do list? Definitely another race, very likely Run in the Dark.

Written by Olga Piskareva

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

Walking the Wicklow Way, 87/129 km

Little did I know about hikers when I moved to Ireland in 2004. Who they are and how they get around. My knowledge was limited to Rosalind Franklin’s love of hiking. I could not even imagine that one day I’d try their shoes.

However, things have changed since then! Spiced by the COVID-19 pandemic and various fundraising activities inspired by my team, my daily walking transformed into regular one-day hiking here and there. Luckily, my spouse shares the same attitude. So, we decided to explore longer walks one day.

The first go was the Dublin Mountain Way (42 km) in a Day. We started in Glensmole-Tallagh on a dry and sunny morning and finished in Shankill in the dark and pouring rain with a short recharge at Johnny Foxes. We were delighted with ourselves and raised the bar.

So, last week, we attempted the Wicklow Way. After studying the route, accommodation options and our fitness, we agreed on three days of walking in the north-to-south direction and 2 nights of sleep in B&Bs. We also monitored the weather forecast to make the most of this adventure. So, May 10-12 were the best. However, accommodation became a quest. Nevertheless, luck was on our side, and we found two nice places: one was near Roundwood, and the second was in Glenmalure.

Early morning of May 10th, we cheerfully started our journey in Marley Park. The day was fab; the topics for a chat were endless. We were walking away from Dublin. My fitness watch counted the steps and kilometres. During the walk, we got a confirmation that our accommodation in Glenmaluer had been upgraded to a room with a shower. Happy days!

37 km later, we arrived at our first B&B. It was actually a fancy hostel where all the guests walked in socks, parking their heavy boots in the lobby. It was the night of aurora borealis, but we did not know about it. We were tired and fell asleep before 11 pm. The next morning, none of the guests shared any pics or insights. Apparently, everyone was knocked down by the long day in Wicklow.

May 11th. Fueled with a tasty Irish breakfast, we said “Goodbye” to our hosts and headed further. While walking slowly to warm up for a long day ahead, I noticed that my calf was strained and walking downhill had become unpleasant. Where did it happen? I had no idea. We reached Glendalough around noon.

The day was warm, the car parks were full, and everyone enjoyed the beauty of Glendalough and the sunshine. We stretched our legs and backs on greens. During our light lunch, we discussed our options: 1) evacuation home or 2) continuing and hoping for the best. I did not give up. But our walking pace considerably slowed down.

We covered another ~15 km from Glendalough to Glenmalure and landed in the Glenmalure Lodge – the healing station for all hikers, cyclers, and bikers alike. People gathered outside, and strangers had cheat-chat sharing their tricks and tips for a better hike. Something adventurous was in the air.

Our friendly host picked us up at the Lodge and drove to their B&B. We stayed late and hoped to catch a glimpse of aurora borealis. The sky was cloudy. We saw nothing. While disappointed, our bodies cried for long rest, and we did not resist.

May 12 was the last leg of our journey. My calf did not improve. We took the shortest option to finish in Aughrim. I doubled the dose of painkillers. Then, we moved tirelessly, enjoying the sunshine and the forest.

This part of the Wicklow Way was mostly foresty. The forest was magical and a bit surreal. We agreed that it is perfect for various fantasy and horror movies. My fitness watch signposted that its battery was low, but it continued to count the steps and kilometres.

Overall, our hike had a fair amount of ups and downs. Some climbs and descents were quite steep before Glendalough. Then, they became more gradual, working well for my injured calf.

The luck was again on our side in Aughrim. We saw a taxi – a rarity in this area. The cheerful driver dropped us at the bus stop in Arklow. In 15 min, we were on the way to Dublin, relaxing and enjoying the peaceful countryside from the bus seat.

Our tally was 87 km in 3 days, fully recharged mind but worn body. Would I do it again? Absolutely!

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

Congratulations to Dr Cat Murphy!

November 22, 2023 – Catherine was officially coined Dr Catherine Murphy. A Big Day for Catherine, her family and me.

Catherine joined our team in July 2019 to carry out a research project funded by Neuroblastoma UK. In this project, she aimed to use 3D culturing to engineer a novel experimental model and study the biology and immunology of neuroblastoma, an aggressive childhood cancer. There was the full spectrum of challenges and hard work spiced up with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 restrictions!

The PhD journey is never a straight line. It has a range of colours with 50+ shades for each. There are black alleys and hidden cul de sacs. Between July 2019 and June 2023, some days were sunny and bright, and some had 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.

Of note, she was behind our Twitter activities and blogging #AskCat, making our team visible! All these together have moulded into a new multi-skilled professional – Dr Catherine Murphy!

Well done to Catherine! Wish you the best of luck in your new adventure!

Knit-A-Thon 2023 Results

A wonderful day of knitting – Knit-A-Thon-2023 raised 913 euros. A massive thank you to everyone who stopped by and donated on the day and beyond. Every cent counts! The money was split evenly between our four chosen charities: The Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Research Foundation (CFNRF)Neuroblastoma UK (NBUK)Oscars Kids and Childhood Cancer Ireland (CCI). These charities were established and are run by parents, some of whom lost their children to cancer. They continue their children’s legacy, doing an amazing job of advocating for children with cancer and better funding for research and aftercare.

Knit-A-Thon 2023

And a special thank you to Ciara’s mam Aggie for the amazing handmade raffle prizes (chromosomes, antibodies, cup holders and many more) and a Master class on the day! We thank Jenny Duffy (RCSI Events and Communications Coordinator) for her time crocheting with us and for us!  Thanks to Anggie’s and Jenny’s skills, there were lots of mascots to win – and many of them collected already. We much appreciate the support from the RCSI Estates and Porters who looked after us on the day.

Go Raibh Maith Agat!!!

MANY THANKS FOR YOUR BIG HEARTS!!!

Knit-A-Thon 2023


We are the Cancer Bioengineering Group, and September is a very special month for us as it is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Childhood cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death in children after accidents. Our group researches childhood cancer neuroblastoma, a cancer of immature nerve cells. Despite intensive multimodal treatment, as many as 1 in 5 children with aggressive neuroblastoma do not respond, and up to 50% of children that do respond experience disease recurrence with many metastatic tumours resistant to many drugs and more aggressive tumour behaviour that all too frequently results in death.

This is what we want to change! We believe that every child deserves a future, and our team of postgraduate researchers led by Dr Olga Piskareva is dedicated to strengthening our knowledge of this disease and identifying new potential ways to tackle it, as well as taking part in fundraising activities so our group and others can continue with this research.  

On Tuesday, the 19th of September, we are running a Knit-A-Thon using gold and purple yarn to mark childhood cancer and neuroblastoma, respectively. Our patterns are inspired by Neuroblastoma UK and Mr Google, indeed.

This year, we honour 4 charities that are doing an amazing job of advocating for children with cancer and better funding for research and aftercare. Therefore, the donations we receive will be split equally among The Conor Foley Neuroblastoma Research Foundation (CFNRF), Neuroblastoma UK (NBUK), Oscars Kids and Childhood Cancer Ireland (CCI). If you would like to get involved in the Knit-A-Thon and help us raise vital funds for childhood cancers, come along on the day and make a donation to these wonderful charities.

On the day, RCSI 123 SSG will #GoGold in support of this cause. Please come by to see the RCSI building lit up and share your pictures on social media with the hashtag #ChildhoodCancerAwarenessMonth to raise awareness.

Ready, Steady, Go!

Every year we manage to raise an amazing 1500-2000 euros by organising a new challenge. We are eager to surpass that target this year. All donations no matter how small are appreciated at GoFundMe.

#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

Paris…Paris…

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