Research stays abroad

Travel report from a research stay at the University College London – Magnus Nygård Osnes

August 2020. Author: Magnus Nygård Osnes. PhD student – Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

I was in London for a research stay that was supposed to have lasted from Feb 8. to May 8. Unfortunately, I was forced to leave early on March 12. due to the COVID pandemic. Despite the interruption, I benefited greatly from the experience and had a good collaboration with our partners there.

In London, I was warmly welcomed at the Darwin Building at University College London (UCL) by my hosts Lucy van Dorp and Francois Balloux. I was given a seat with the main group that is working the closest with Francois and Lucy and granted access to a working station and the vital coffee machine. The group included several PhD-students and postdocs working on phylodynamics on topics such as tuberculosis, human genetics, and even parasites on tropical frogs. With the group, I attended lectures at UCL on bacterial population dynamics, systems of phages and mobile genetic elements, and lectures on machine learning. It was a great experience to see the breadth of topics covered by the phylogenetic community at UCL.


UCL on the left and the character cards of the people in the Genetics department on the right

In my PhD-project, I am working on the pathogen ​Neisseria gonorrhoeae (Ngon).The purpose of the trip to London was to collaborate with Francois and Lucy on our project on a multi-locus sequence type (MLST) of Ngon that has been responsible for a high percentage of the treatment failure cases globally. While I was there, I performed phylogeographic analyses to describe the dispersal patterns of the MLST over time and mapped important evolutionary events such as the acquisition of antimicrobial resistance determinants on time dated phylogenies. Lastly, we used these results to study how the dispersal of the pathogen lineages correlated with known drug treatment regimes. The result is a paper showing how the success of different lineages of the MLST has correlated with the acquisition of important AMR determinants, and that establishment of the lineage in America facilitated its further global dissemination. The paper is submitted to a good journal with a fitting scope and is currently under review.

Another reason to go to London was to visit my co-supervisor Xavier Didelot at Warwick University, starting with the Royal Society meeting in London on March 25. This was too interrupted, due to the bans on social gatherings that took place around this time and recommendations to limit unnecessary travel.

All in all, despite the interruption by the pandemic, this was a great experience.

River canals near Camden and the tropical Rain forest inside of London Zoo on the right

I had a lot of progress on my projects while I was there and I would like to thank the National Graduate School in Infection Biology and Antimicrobials ​for the financial support that made this research stay possible!

Travel report from a research stay at Pennsylvania State University – Antal Martinecz

July 2020. Author: Antal Martinecz. Researcher, UiT.

I have spent the period between August 2019 and July 2020 at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in the US. This has been partially funded using travel grants from the IBA and NFIF PhD schools.

Penn State is located in a tiny university town called State College which is a remote place a couple hundred kilometers from the nearest big city. Even with my previous experience of living in a university town (Tromsø), many aspects of living there were unexpected and were often a pleasant surprise. Here, basically all services are aimed at people affiliated with the university. The extent of this is illustrated by the fact that even at local supermarkets such as Walmart, there is usually a large section where one can buy clothes and other things with the university’s or the university football team’s logo on it. 

A tree in a park

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Fall at the Bald Eagle State Park just next to Penn State.

My PhD is on the mathematical modeling of antibiotic treatments. Specifically, I am interested in approaches that allow us to learn more from clinical trials and therefore better guide the design of subsequent clinical trials. As a result, my work requires me to be familiar with and connect multiple fields of research (medicine, microbiology, mathematics, epidemiology). Therefore being part of the Centre of Infectious Disease Dynamics (CIDD) Penn State was hugely beneficial for my work. CIDD houses groups from different departments and faculties in order to facilitate better collaboration between us. The mixing of groups were further encouraged by intentionally seating people from different groups into the same offices. This has been a great experience, as it exposed me to ideas and researches to other related fields that helped me to gain some perspectives on my own research. Among other benefits, having these interactions taught me how to explain my research in a way that can be understood by other researchers that are not close to my field. Being able to do so made writing my PhD thesis and manuscripts so much easier. Finally, at CIDD we had regular department-wide meetings and presentations 2-3 times a week on various research-related topics either by invited speakers or PIs within the department. This allowed me to learn more about works within my field, as well as the types of problems there are and how they are solved in fields loosely related to mine.

In addition to having one of the best infectious disease departments in the US (among other great  departments), the university has the informal reputation of being one of the best party universities. This does not mean that there are constant wild parties, it simply means that the campus life is vibrant. There are many social events and other activities throughout the year catering to students and staff allowing everyone to have a satisfying social life in addition to their studies and work.

A picture containing outdoor, building, sitting, bench

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Festive Halloween decorations at the neighboring town.

Having a great community at the department also meant that I could make many new friends and form new connections. The department encouraged this further by organizing weekly coffee mornings  and other regular informal events where we could chat and get to know our colleagues outside the context of work.

This travel report would not be complete without mentioning COVID-19. The department and the university went into a lockdown from early March and as a result, I have spent my last four months within my apartment. It has been quite manageable as the university is surrounded by nature so I could always go for a run or a walk. Furthermore, online services such as food delivery, shopping and grocery delivery options are abundant. Therefore I could slowly assemble a home office and get back to work slowly and quickly regain a sense of normalcy in my life.

Finally, in the US, therapy  is also very common and readily available currently in the form of online sessions due to the pandemic. As a result, I have been able to weather the pandemic and lockdown without anxieties or adverse effects on my mental health. This even included being able to easily prepare for and defend my PhD remotely in the beginning of June.

Travel report from a three-week research internship in June of 2019 at IGTP Badelona, Spain

April 2020. Author: Niruja Sivakumar. Medical research student at NTNU.

Last summer I was lucky enough to spend three weeks at Germans Trias i Pujol Research Institute (IGTP) in Badelona, Spain where my co-supervisor Marte Dragset was completing her post-doc. We’ve been working on identifying and studying the mechanism of novel virulence genes in pathogenic mycobacteria to both get a better understanding of host-pathogen interactions and to discover possible future treatment targets. We had already identified and verified a handful of novel virulence genes in a clinical strain of Mycobacterium avium through mouse experiments based off a transposon mutant library created by Marte. One of them, a probable MFS transporter, was of special interest and we wanted to study it further in other mycobacterial strains. 

Mycobacteria are notoriously hard to genetically manipulate but with Marte’s expertise in bacterial virulence and the facilities provided at IGTP, a research institute accredited as a Centre of Excellence by the Spanish Government, we succeeded in creating a homologue mutant in Mycobacterium marinum through a specialized transduction method. During my stay there we were also able to perform in vivo infection experiments in common fruit fly since the Drosohpila melanogaster- and M. marinum infection model to study mycobacterial virulence was developed and implemented at IGTP.  

I am grateful for the support I received from IBA and for the opportunity which was valuable in several ways. It was exciting to collaborate with my co-supervisor and successfully get an end product to bring back home for future experiments. I got to learn about the different projects and methods used in her lab group and the experience provided valuable insight into how different approaches shapes a lab environment and how cultural, social and structural barriers plays into that.  As side from the scientific value I was lucky to explore beautiful Barcelona and I am filled with gratitude for the people I met and the hospitality I received. 

Sindre Ullmann is back from a one-week research visit to Cambridge, UK

December 2019. Author: Sindre Ullmann

PhD student from NTNU and IBA member Sindre Ullmann recently went to Cambridge for a research visit.

In the section under, you can read what Sindre has to say about the stay.

UK Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (photo: private)

As a result of conversations with Felix Randow about our two laboratories research projects it was discovered that the Randow group had developed a fluorescent probe which might have the potential to be very interesting applied in my project. They were so generous that they offered to share this probe with us and invited me to come and visit. This offer was to good to refuse as travelling to visit the UK Medical Research Council Laboratory (MRC) of Molecular Biology and getting hands on with the probe would be a rewarding and valuable experience moving forward in my project.

During my visit I got experience with using and imaging the probe. All the while I also got to see how a different research group approaches investigating host-pathogen interactions between the human immune system and pathogenic bacteria. Visiting the MRC also provided me with many new acquaintances as the people in the Randow group was very welcoming and including, something which led to both evening football playing, Christmas party and numerous communal lunch and coffee breaks.

Travelling back, I carry with me new insights, knowledge and hands on expertise with the fluorescent probe.

The support from The National Graduate School in Infection Biology and Antimicrobials allowed me to make time and budget-room in a busy PhD project to undertake this journey.

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JANINE LIEDTKE IS BACK FROM A THREE WEEK RESEARCH VISIT AT THE VRIJE UNIVERSITEIT IN BRUSSEL, BELGIUM

August 2019. Author: Janine Liedtke

IBA member (from The Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo) and recipient of the IBA travel grant for research stays abroad, Janine Liedtke, has spent three weeks in Belgium working on her PhD. This is what she had to say about it!

Vrije Universiteit, Brussels.

The aim of my PhD project is to investigate bacterial spore surface structures, known as “appendages”. The presence of appendages among many spore forming Bacillus and Clostridium species suggest that they have an important biological function. Despite the fact that several studies already have been on spore appendages, their genetic identity and role remain elusive because of their extreme resistance towards chemical as well as enzymatic treatments. We want to overcome these issues by using state-of-the-art techniques like the latest electron microscopy and mass spectrometric techniques. For these purpose, we work closely together with our national and international partners, since they can provide us with the latest techniques as well as with their expertise.

I have succeeded to develop a method that allows extraction of a high amount and nearly pure appendages. This has already lead to high quality TEM images of the structure of the fibres, which has not been reported yet. However, due to the high resistance and hydrophobic behaviour of the appendages, we faced several difficulties to degrade and solubilize the appendage structure for further mass spectroscopic analyses.

At the same time, our collaboration partner Prof. Ute Krengel (UiO), who became a part of my supervisor team, introduced us to Prof. Han Remaute from the VUB in Belgium. Prof. Remaute has extensive expertise on working with bacterial surface-associated amyloid fibres and he gave me the great opportunity to use state of the art electron microscopy techniques in his lab to study the structure of the appendages in further detail. We decided to have a first “short” visit to test if those techniques are suitable for determining the structure of the appendages. Luckily, it turned out that their technique can provide us with a high-resolution model of our structure. Additionally with the support of the group members Dr. Mike Sleutel and Dr. Jolyon K. Claridge, I was also able to conduct further chemical treatments of appendages to test their solubility and stability.

During my first visit, we made good progress in improving the resolution of the appendage structure and gained more information of the chemical properties of the appendages. At the same time, I got the chance to join a highly motivated group with who I discussed many new ideas and from who I learned another way to approach my project.

My research visit would not had been possible without the grant from the National Graduate School in Infection Biology and Antimicrobials (IBA) and I am very grateful for the support. I have been invited to a longer research visit in Prof. Han Remautes lab and a plan to go there to continue and finalize the work on the structure on the spore appendages.

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MY SIX MONTHS AT UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS MEDICAL SCHOOL, USA

July 2019. Author: Hera Kim

IBA student and recipient of the IBA travel grant for research stays abroad, Hera Kim, has spent six months in the US working on her PhD (she is currently enrolled at NTNU in Trondheim). This is what she had to say about it!

University of Massachusetts Medical School, June 2019.

In the period of January to June 2019, I conducted research at University of Massachusetts Medical School, USA as a visiting student researcher in Dr. Kate Fitzgerald’s lab. The purpose of this research visit was to continue the functional studies of my gene of interest and get trained in advanced in vitro and in vivo infection models that can be applied to my Ph.D. studies.

Immunometabolism, or interplay between immunity and metabolism, is a rapidly growing field in immunology. As many studies have clearly highlighted how crucial metabolism is and its remodeling during infection and inflammation, our research group, led by Prof. Richard K. Kandasamy is particularly interested in changes in metabolism and associated changes in metabolite levels regulating the immune response. We have identified novel differentially regulated metabolites in Toll-like receptors signaling pathway from our initial metabolomics screen and aim to identify the role of these novel metabolites in innate immune signaling. Just then, I got a great opportunity to go abroad to continue my functional studies.

Boston, MA, January 2019.

 The most important and interesting part of my stay was to get trained in in vivo infection models. Hands-on-training with in vivo model definitely improved my understanding of physiologic concepts and increased the confidence in handling the model and a number of related techniques. I was also highly encouraged to meet researchers from other labs and share research ideas with colleagues, which helped me to build the key networks and increased opportunities for collaboration and publication. Moreover, attending several departmental presentations and related activities allowed meto gain in-depth knowledge in molecular mechanisms controlling the inflammatory responses. Now I believe that these skills and experiences will allow me to complete a larger-scale project in Trondheim and I hope to share this knowledge with my colleagues. 

Overall, the stay has been productive on both a professional and personal front and I can highly recommend going for a research stay aboard to others. It is great for gaining research experience in a different environment, building your network, and broaden your perspective. 

Lastly, I would like to thank the IBA school for the financial support. This funding has allowed me to truly grow as a researcher in my profession. 

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My six months at Washington University, St. Louis and at Icahn School of Medicine, New York, USA

January 2019. Author: Anders Madsen.

IBA student and the recipient of the IBA travel grant for research stays abroad, Anders Madsen, has spent six months in the US working on his PhD (he is currently enrolled at The University of Bergen). This is what he had to say about it!

Anders at Washington University in St. Louis, September 2018

From July to December 2018 I conducted research in Dr. Ali Ellebedy’s lab at Washington University in St. Louis and in Professor Florian Krammer’s lab at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. As a medical research student at University of Bergen, my project aims at better understanding the antibody response to influenza. The purpose of this research visit was to address fundamental questions about the immune response to influenza by generating monoclonal antibodies from human B-cells. 

Manhattan, New York, November 2018

Although influenza is a harmless disease for most people, it accounts for around 300 000 to 600 000 deaths every year. A major goal in the field of influenza is to develop an efficient prophylactic vaccine that provides long-lasting protection against a broad range of influenza viruses. The current seasonal influenza vaccines do not have these traits. My research project in USA involved generating monoclonal antibodies against neuraminidase (NA), which is a protein located on the surface of the influenza virus. We found that the antibodies targeting NA could bind to a broad range of influenza viruses, and were able to protect mice from lethal influenza infection. Our findings will bring valuable insight into the NA-specific antibody response to influenza. We plan to publish our results in a high-ranking international journal, and hope that it will contribute to generate better vaccination strategies for influenza in the future. 

Anders at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, December 2018

What I bring back to Norway is an increased knowledge of immunology and influenza, and a broader view of research in general. I have learned many new laboratory techniques and experiments, which we plan to establish here at the Influenza Centre, University of Bergen. The research visit has strengthened the collaboration with the research groups in USA, and I have made lifelong friends. To be given the opportunity to learn from world leading influenza researchers has been an invaluable experience for me as a young scientist. I will always remember my six months in USA – not because of the country itself, or because it is the longest I’ve ever been away from home, or even because it was the most hardworking months of my life, but because of the inspiring people I worked with.

I am very thankful for the IBA travel grant, which made this research visit possible.