Feeling ENLIGHT-TENED

Feeling ENLIGHT-TENED

The Babraham Institute is proud to have received three European Innovative Training Network (ITN) awards in recent years.  The networks, funded by Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA), bring together universities, research centres and companies from different countries worldwide to train a new generation of researchers.  The funding not only boosts scientific excellence and business innovation, it also enhances researchers’ career prospects through developing their skills in entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation. In this blog, PhD student, Marisa Stebegg from the ENLIGHT-TEN (European Network Linking Informatics and Genomics of Helper T cells comprising TEN beneficiaries) program, explains her project and role in the ITN program and the knowledge exchange carried out to date:

More than a year has passed since the ENLIGHT-TEN PhD program was officially launched at the kick-off meeting in October 2015. A lot has happened since: All 13 PhD students have now started with their PhD projects in the fascinating research field between T cell biology and big data analysis. In June 2016, all ENLIGHT-TEN members were finally united for the first time and discussed the state-of-knowledge in T helper cell biology and in October later that year, the first Annual Network Meeting was held in Rade, Germany.

The ENLIGHT-TEN program brings PhD students from all over the world (not only Europe, but also Australia and Mexico among others) together, uniting them in their search to uncover helper T cell biology using bioinformatics tools. It is a busy few years, because this ITN is not only a training scheme, it is also a mobility program reinforcing scientific exchange between people from all over the world. That mobility begins when we  start our PhD, as all students are required to move to a new country to carry out their research and then the whole ENLIGHT-TEN network meets twice a year in different cities all over Europe to discuss new data and exchange ideas. On top of that, each of the students spends 2-6 months abroad on scientific placements in affiliated labs or industrial partners during their PhDs.

I embarked on this scientific as well as cultural adventure in March 2016, when I moved to Cambridge to join the ENLIGHT-TEN program. Here, I am currently trying to elucidate age-related changes in gut immunity and T cell biology as part of Michelle Linterman’s group at the Babraham Institute. The ENLIGHT-TEN network provides the perfect framework for this. For me, the huge benefit of a training network such as ENLIGHT-TEN is that it brings together experts from all over Europe who collaborate closely, generating a huge pool of knowledge. It is a privilege to have access to the combined technological and scientific expertise of the 12 research labs that form the ENLIGHT-TEN framework. The yearly Summer Schools and Annual Network Meetings provide the perfect opportunity to enable scientific knowledge exchange between all ENLIGHT-TEN members.

The advantages of the ENLIGHT-TEN program are not only of scientific nature, though. After our first meeting in Turku, I realised that I had made amazing friends in my fellow PhD students. We are students with an informatics or biological background from many different countries, speaking many different languages, but we all share the same experiences: moving to a new country for our PhD, struggling to get our first good data, going to conferences. We can share our experience, laugh about it and we also help each other out. We are all learning from each other. At the end of last year, for instance, I moved to Denmark for two months as part of the ENLIGHT-TEN program. Here, I learned how to analyse RNA-sequencing data from the bioinformatics experts in our training network. At the time, Nigatu – the ENLIGHT-TEN student based in Aarhus in Denmark – helped me find a room and gave me a tour of the city when I arrived. It was great having this support, to have someone to share my PhD experience with! This experience is of course reciprocated and since two other ENLIGHT-TEN students are currently visiting Cambridge for their placements, I make sure that we meet up to catch up and chat about our research.

The ENLIGHT-TEN program does not only reinforce interactions between scientists, it also puts a focus on promoting public engagement and knowledge exchange. In this regard, we run a Twitter account together (@ENLIGHT-TEN). In addition, we manage a Facebook page and we also create short videos explaining our research for our “Enlight TEN” YouTube channel.     

Next, we will have our second Summer School at the EBI from June 12th-16th - I am already looking forward to being reunited with the other ENLIGHT-TEN students again. While the first meeting in Turku focused on world leading research in T helper cell biology, the second summer school will cover data resources and bioinformatics tools for immunologists, making the link between informatics and genomics of helper T cells. And there is more coming up: We will have another Network Meeting in Vienna in October this year. Next year, our summer school will focus on career choices and opportunities and we are also planning to organise a conference at the end of our PhDs to present our data and to meet one final time. It won’t get boring, that’s for sure. We will keep travelling Europe, bridging borders (which is all the more important in times of Brexit and Trump) and trying to advance helper T cell biology together.