Germany travels

Germany travels

May was such a busy month that I’m still playing catch-up! (With blogging and everything else!) At the beginning of the month, I headed to Germany (Berlin-Mainz-Berlin) for a combo vacation and work trip.

Brandenburg Gate

Berlin is…big. After spending the equivalent of a week there, that’s still my takeaway.


I had always been interested in visiting Berlin because of all the World War II history there, and for the first 3 days of my trip, that’s what I filled my days with. I visited Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust memorial, the Berlin Wall, and numerous monuments around the city, including the plaza where books were burned on Kristallnacht. While it was interesting to see first-hand where all sorts of historical events took place, all of the memorials have a distinctive German perspective to them that makes them different, from an emotional perspective, from how the same events are treated elsewhere in the world. Purely from my view visiting these locations as a tourist, there seemed to consistently be a level of trying to de-emphasize Germany’s role in WWII, by (too) starkly contrasting modern Germany from Germany in the 1930s-40s. I understand the perspective but disagree with how it was portrayed.

There were, though, some things I did like about Germany. I had a great Sunday touring around with a friend who used to live there, and who traveled over for the weekend to visit! It’s great to get the local perspective on a new city. Besides visiting some popular locations like the Berlin Wall and the Reichstag building (German parlaiment), we created a bus tour around the city using public transit routes, and we went to an outdoor food/flea market/festival at a local park.

On top of the Reichstag building

And while most of the food in Germany wasn’t super, I did eat a LOT of wurst, especially currywurst; and sampled doner kebab as recommended by numerous friends; and after Googling “best schnitzel Berlin,” ate a delicious schnitzel with a side of beers! I also found real bagels! I knew they were notoriously impossible to find in Paris, and apparently that is no different anywhere in Europe. Whatever Europeans call bagels, it’s nothing like the chewy, soft things that exist back home. At Shakespeare and Sons in Berlin, I found the closest-to -home tasting bagel that I’ve eaten in 5 months! A simple egg bagel with chive cream cheese made my day.

Following my Berlin vacation, I took a 6 hour train ride to Mainz via Frankfurt to go to the first of three conferences in a row (!), this one called CIMT, all about cancer immunotherapy.


Mainz is the cutest little town ever! The buildings are a lovely shade of pink that matched the tree blossoms, and around around the town’s main square are all these little statues of elves! It’s capped off with a magical fountain comprised of figures of mythical creatures that somehow fits perfectly into its quaint backdrop.

There even was a rainbow when I visited…kind of perfect.

In the extra one day I had in Mainz and between sessions at the conference, I really loved getting to explore this little town. For example, on my first morning, I enjoyed a brunch buffet outdoors, overlooking the fountain and town square. 

At the edge of the town is a well-manicured waterfront along the Rhine, with walking paths, benches, and gardens. If you turn 180 degrees, you’re greeted with more pink houses or sleek modern architecture. You can’t lose with the views there!

And the food…well, still nothing special compared to what I am used to in France, or even Pittsburgh. Plus, the conference served us meals for the two days, which were nice because they were free, but they weren’t amazing either. What I did find and live was a little frozen yogurt bar called Mia Gelateria, that besides having yummy frozen yogurt had the option of topping your dessert with shots! Vanilla and Bailey’s for the win!  😉

After two nights in Mainz, I took the train back to Berlin for another conference. Neither the conference (on women in science – a topic for another post) nor the area of Berlin in which it was located were that great, unfortunately; I spent a lot of time skipping conference sessions after I realized that I fundamentally disagreed with the conference organizers on many issues, and instead enjoyed the fresh air around Freie Universitat Berlin, where the conference was located (and since there was nothing else to do nearby). On my last afternoon there, I did enjoy a walk around Alexanderplatz (back near the center of the city) for one last currywurst before heading back to Paris (for another conference)!

So, takeaways from this trip? One, don’t go to Germany for the food. Two, get a taste of both city and small-town life; they’re very different. Visit the cities for the history and towns for the old-world charm. And three, appreciate every travel experience for what it is – a new experience to take something away from; every new location won’t necessarily be a new favorite.

International mobility in STEM #1: Elena

International mobility in STEM #1: Elena

Since I’ve been abroad, I have had the opportunity to talk to other scientists who have moved internationally for research. It’s been extremely helpful to me to talk to them and hear their stories, as there are unique challenges to living & doing science in a foreign country. From time to time, I’m going to share those stories here on the blog. This is one of them.

LABMy name is Elena, I’m a neuroscientist, originally from Spain, but I have also lived, studied and worked in Greece, the UK and the US. In 2010, I graduated from my masters studies in Madrid, and initially I thought I could find a position to pursue a PhD in a neuroscience field somewhere in my home country. However, after a couple of months of applying to all programs available, interviewing and sending my resume to many institutions and labs, I came across a fantastic opportunity to apply to a Marie Curie program for PhD students, involving six different universities across Europe. The condition was that I had to apply to a destination different from my home country. This was very exciting, but given all the rejections I was getting in Spain – due to an alarming lack of funding, not a lack of training of my own – I was fairly discouraged. However, soon they contacted me from the University of Bristol, in England, to invite me for an interview. A few weeks later I got the good news, the position was mine! It was incredibly exciting and somehow scary. It wasn’t the first time I was moving abroad, but it was the first time that I didn’t have a concrete end date. Somehow I knew I was leaving my home for good, or at least, for a very long time. And it is seven years since then, and I’m still abroad, now working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Salk Institute, in San Diego, CA, where I study a very interesting cell type in our brains called astrocytes, tackling some new questions about how astrocytes aid nerve cells (i.e. neurons) to develop the right connections in the healthy brain.

Moving internationally has given me a perspective that I never had when living in my country. I have learned about many different cultures and met many people who, like me, had to face different challenges to chase their passion. I feel like I’ve grown as a person, and the intellectual stimulation I get from working in such enriched environments is priceless. I’m almost certain that the comfort provided by “being at home” wouldn’t have pushed me in the same way to improve my skills and make a better version of myself, in a professional and in a personal sense. Being abroad in leading institutions has provided me with the chance to meet and network with incredible scientists with whom I had the luck to have very interesting discussions and who gave me valuable career advice.

Naturally, living abroad hasn’t been always easy, and challenges have been a big part of the deal. For instance, English is not my mother tongue, so changing to a daily life in a language that is not mine was undoubtedly difficult. Unfortunately, I also had to face a few situations where my origins or native language were a reason for discrimination, but I was lucky to have the support of others, whichmade the situations less tragic. However, the hardest thing is to be far from my family. We’re a very small family and we’ve always counted on each other’s support. At the time I moved out Spain, my family was struck by a hard situation. I was tempted to give up and come back to be by their side, but with their endless support and strength, they asked me to continue to do what I loved and not to worry. And for that, I’m eternally grateful to them.

I don’t regret leaving Spain. I feel sorry for being so far away from the people I love, but it’s something I got used to. I may feel like going back to Spain in the future, but not quite yet. I’m proud I made that decision almost seven years ago now, and I truly believe I am still making the best out of it.

About Elena: I studied Biology in the University of Oviedo, my hometown in northern Spain. selfThe first time I moved abroad was within the Erasmus program, when in 2007 I went to Greece to do one academic year in the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. After that, I went back to Oviedo, to finish my undergrad. Immediately after my graduation I moved to Madrid to do my master’s degree in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biomedicine and gain experience working in different biochemistry labs in the research center CNIC and Universidad Complutense. In 2010, I moved to England to start my PhD in the University of Bristol, where I studied protein trafficking in neurons in response to stroke. I got my PhD in 2014 and after an intense search for a post-doctoral position I finally moved to San Diego, California to start working in the Salk Institute. I am also involved in several science education and communication projects, especially focusing on underrepresented communities. You can follow all my science outreach on Twitter and Instagram.

If you’re interested in sharing your story of international mobility in STEM, email me!

Languages & connecting to the world

Languages & connecting to the world

Even within Europe, Paris often seems like it’s in a bubble of its own – but only when viewed from the outside. In Paris, life goes on as usual. It’s not until I’m visiting other big European cities that I realize how different life in Paris is from other Western cities.

For example, in both Amsterdam and Berlin, you can find many American chain stores, such as KFC, TJ Maxx, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Convenience stores sell Kit Kats and Kraft macaroni and cheese. Not so in Paris.

And – as many of the French people I’ve met readily admit – outside of France, people indeed tend to speak better English than do French people.

And yet, within that Parisian bubble, I feel like I fit in better into day to day life than I do while traveling, and I think it has to do with the language. There’s a level of comfort that’s associated with walking down the street and understanding the signs, even with understanding fragments of conversations as you pass by other people. Even without any of the other familiarities, I’ve found that language is, for me, the first thread I need to feel connected to a place. For example, Germany, where I’ve been for the past 10 days, I’ve found in fact to be an exceptionally challenging country to travel around, knowing no German.

Yes, as hard as it can be to sometimes struggle in holding a conversation in French, I will always prefer being able to understand over being able to communicate. Both are frustrating problems to encounter, but I realize the immense value in the ability to have a deep understanding of your surroundings, even – especially?  – if they are dissimilar to what you are accustomed to.

And English, as much as its thought of as being the language of science, isn’t always the optimal language to use in daily science-related interactions, whether in the lab with local staff or even when traveling elsewhere for scientific meetings. I believe there is value in scientists learning the local language if they move abroad, or anticipating that there may be challenges in communication if expecting 100 percent English all the time. I can say that while I was prepared to speak French at the lab and in day-to-day life in Paris, I still expected that I could switch into English as necessary and be understood. It hasn’t always been the case there, nor while traveling, at the same time challenging my preconceptions about life here and opening my eyes to the challenges that language barriers impart on our ability to connect and share with others. I think this lesson is incredibly hard to come by for native English speakers like myself due to the conception that everyone will speak our first language, so our being able to speak another language is just a bonus for everyone around us.

There are many factors that influence how connected we each feel to a place, and living in Paris and being constantly at the edge of my comfort zone has opened my eyes to what I personally need in order to form that connection. Language is not something to take for granted; it impacts every aspect of daily life and has a huge part in feeling comfortable existing somewhere. It’s the main thread connecting each of us to the world around us.

Yes, I go to lab!

Yes, I go to lab!

I’ve written a lot about my adventures exploring Paris since being here, but I am actually here to do research! Contrary to what it may seem like based on what I have been blogging about, I have been spending every weekday here in the lab! 😉

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Waiting for the equipment to warm up…

The project I am working on here is addressing some questions related to my “favorite protein,” IL-36g, in colon cancer that require human samples, as opposed to the mouse model I was using in Pittsburgh, to realistically address. In particular, it’s been interesting to look at IL-36 expression in samples taken from colon cancer patients, where I can analyze not just the tumor, but the entire microenvironment that includes stromal and immune cells and adjacent normal tissue, for expression patterns. This is different from the mouse model I was using, which is a transplantable model and therefore while the cells are derived from colon cancer, they are actually grown under the skin of my mice as opposed to in the colon.

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Favorite microscope! 🙂

Besides learning about colon pathology, I’m also excited to learn new imaging techniques! The reagents and equipment available here is all different from what I use in Pittsburgh, so I’ve really been enjoying getting to learn about different microscopes and slide preparations. In particular, I’m getting to use a technique (using tyramides) that makes it easier to look for multiple proteins on the same slide using immunofluorescence, no matter the species of origin of the primary antibodies; and two microscopes, one of which can scan an entire slide instead of imaging just one field of view at a time (which I’m currently working with), and another which is a multi-spectrum microscope that lets you stain for upwards of 4-5 colors/proteins per slide (as opposed to 3 on the average scope)! (This is important for my project since I’m interested in identifying which cells secrete my protein within tertiary lymphoid structures (TLS), so I might need to stain for my protein, cell type-specific markers, and markers of TLS on the same slide.) I also get to work with some nifty pieces of equipment for the staining itself that are completely automated, both for the antigen retrieval (to prepare the slides for staining) and staining steps. This is good for two reasons – it’s consistent between different batches of slides, and runs without human interaction after being programmed.

So while I’m still in the process of testing the antibodies I’ll ultimately use for my project, I’m really enjoying what I am working on here! And I’m almost done, after 6 weeks, with testing and validating my reagents, which means I should be able to start staining my cancer patient slides within the next couple of weeks!

I’m also (for the most part) enjoying the people in the lab! I’ve made some friends who besides helping me get acclimated to things around the lab, I have also spent time with outside of the lab exploring the city. I wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived here, but having friends in lab makes the days even better!

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Montmartre/Sacre Coeur with lab friends!

I’m also pleased to say that my PI here is great – she has a very similar personality to my PI in Pittsburgh, which is sometimes eerie – and she is really letting me keep ownership of my project and direct the questions that I’ll be addressing while I am here. She’s also sending me to a conference in Germany this May!

For only having communicated by email with my PI here before confirming that I’d be coming to the lab, I can now say that I’ve gotten really lucky across the board with the whole situation. It’s certainly been a growing experience, both personally and scientifically. In particular from a scientific perspective, being able to direct my own project has given me some liberty to really think about what I want to know and how to address it, as well as to better my time management skills by balancing bench work and reading and writing – especially given the 6-month time frame I have to start and finish this project. It’s a good experience to have as I get towards the end of grad school and start thinking about my next step. Whether it’s in research or not, the independence I’ve been developing here will certainly be an asset moving forward. Personally, although it took some getting used to, I’ve also been enjoying that I spend most of the day communicating in French – my communication skills have definitely improved in the last two months! I’ve also gotten to learn first-hand about French culture (and discussing how it compares to the U.S.) from talking with my labmates. It’s been a learning experience unlike anything else I’ve had in 15 (!) years of studying French.

So in conclusion, although I write about science less than my other adventures, I have truly been enjoying every facet of my time here in Paris, including the science! I’ll make sure to update on my research throughout the next few months, too.

What do I do?

What do I do?

If you have not heard about Up-Goer Five before – it is a place on line where you can see if what you write has only used the top ten hundred words we say. (The idea started because of this picture.) Last night I tried to explain what I do using only these words. It was hard! Here is what I wrote:

Sometimes people get sick because cells in their body start to grow out of control. I study new ways to kill these sick cells in your body, using good cells that I make better at killing. Other ways of killing sick cells sometimes kill good cells at the same time, but this is something to avoid. The kind of good cell that I study keeps already sick people from getting too much sicker while they are trying to get better, by only killing very sick cells and leaving cells that are not sick alone.
There are lots of other people who have tried to do the same thing! Here is where you can find their words.

Can you explain your work using only these few words? Give it a try! Share it with me.

And if this body of words I wrote seems strange to you, it’s because I only used the top ten hundred words to write it!