#PHDstory | Michele Gabriele

Michele Gabriele
SEMM PhD Student
European Institute of Oncology, Milan

What do you do your PhD in and what is your main research topic?

I work in Giuseppe Testa’s laboratory, in Milan. My PhD project is about disease modelling and epigenetics, which means that I study how neurodevelopmental syndromes and cancer occur, when the mechanisms that regulate where and when genes are expressed are altered. More specifically, I currently study the molecular basis of Kabuki syndrome and Gabriele-deVries syndrome using patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which are then differentiated in cell types affected in these diseases, such as neurons. In parallel, I study how the same mutations causative of Kabuki syndrome, when occurring in adults, are responsible for many tumors.

Can you explain to us what are Kabuki syndrome and Gabriele-deVries syndrome?

Kabuki and Gabriele-deVries syndromes are both genetic neurodevelopmental diseases caused by mutations in genes involved in the control of gene regulation. The individuals affected by these syndromes are affected by intellectual disabilities, facial abnormalities, neurological symptoms, and, often, several other systemic problems.

How did you get interested in this particular topic?

When I was in university I got fascinated by the “developmental biology” class, which was about answering the question: “how is it possible that cells of an organism “know” what to become if they all arise from the very same cell and have the same genome?” The topic of gene regulation is exactly the answer to this question and, when altered, gives rise to many pathologies. So, I became more interested in this topic to better understand these mechanisms and to create knowledge that could be used to help people and society.

Tell me more about it.

I was dreaming about becoming a scientist since I was a child when I first watched Jurassic Park. I was Mr. DNA and the scientists that were working there, and I basically decided I wanted to do something similar but more useful! ? I am a very curious person full of enthusiasm for life and I don’t really know how to get bored.

Is yours going to be a new approach?

What I currently do in the PhD project is the latest approach to study human diseases. What I hope is that, in the future, I will develop new effective and easily reproducible approaches that will be adopted widely to help scientific advancement.

Do you also collaborate with other research groups?

I believe that nowadays collaborations are the new and good way to do science. We must let go of the idea of the genius scientist who discovers a new thing by himself. We reached a level of knowledge in which problems need to be addressed in a multidisciplinary approach and often by combining the expertise of several research groups. For example, I collaborate with Nael Nadif Kasri’s team, who has a strong electrophysiology background, and with the geneticist Bert de Vries’s team, with whom we discovered a new neurodevelopmental disorder.

What motivated you to enter this field of study?

I have always been fascinated by neuroscience, since the brain is the most fascinating organ. By studying its diseases, I contribute to give a better understanding of it, to help and to solve problems. For gene regulation is the same; it influences everything, and we still need to understand a lot of fine regulation mechanisms.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning? What inspires you?

I guess everybody knows that the PhD salary is not that great, in every part of the world. I really think that science is a vocation, you need to be curious and love this kind of work. I think I am also lucky that I have a lot of great colleagues, with whom I enjoy my free time and with whom I can have productive conversations that lead to new ideas to be tested. I am mostly inspired by some scientists, who, with their passion and attitude of questioning, had a great impact on our current way of thinking and knowledge. Few examples are Francis Crick and Jared Diamond.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

In 5 years, I hope I will have finished my post-doc studies (the career step after the PhD), and be starting my own laboratory. I want to keep all the relationships with all the people I met so far, though. Moreover, among my long and immediate term, I hope to transmit my enthusiasm to the new generations, both in science and out of academia. Therefore, I hope I will manage to do some good science communication.

What makes life meaningful?

Eheh, one of the biggest questions that I think I don’t have a universal answer for. For sure, enjoying everything you do is the key to having a meaningful life. Moreover, I think that it is important to share! Everything becomes more rewarding if you share experiences, moments, everything! Trying not to waste time in the distractions that mislead us and make us waste our time.

What does the world need the most right now in your opinion? What is your dream society?

Again, I think we need to share more and reduce waste and human impact. The world really needs us to stop destroying it and this is linked with my dream society, in which everybody has a good education, that leads to independent thinking, to awareness, and to unity. In my dream society, everybody respects nature and the environment, and we focus on issues that unite people and not divide us.

What does science need the most right now in your opinion?

What we need now is a complete revolution of the publishing and the financial system. Currently, the publishing system is based on peer-revision, which means that anonymous peers, or experts, on the field read your paper and review and criticize your work, to check that everything is correct. This often times doesn’t work in the way it is supposed to work and unpleasant things happen. One signal of change is that several journals have recently started to publish all the review email exchange, to make everything clearer for everybody.

The current publishing system is strictly related to the funding system. Indeed, most funding agencies demand a publishing track record in prestigious journals, and this often creates a vicious circle that fuels the fact that who has money will win more money and who has no money will not probably win new grants because they’re not able to publish. Anonymizing grant applications is another way to evaluate ideas and to give the possibility to non-prestigious teams to win big grants as well. Now, in a scientific world that has become more accessible and crowded when compared to 30 years ago, the combination of these two things creates a lot of negative competition, and a “bad science” behavior caused by the “publish or perish” attitude.

Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

“Michele Gabriele impressed me with his passion about science which was always with him, since he was a child. His view of the publishing system is different but also realistic, a good push to critical thinking about the system itself.”

Learn more about Michele's work:


Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

“Michele Gabriele impressed me with his passion about science which was always with him, since he was a child. His view of the publishing system is different but also realistic, a good push to critical thinking about the system itself.”

#PHDstory | Noemi Alfieri

Noemi Alfieri
PhD in Portuguese Studies

1. What do you do your PhD in and what is your main research topic?

I’m doing my PhD in Portuguese Studies, with a focus on Book History and African Literatures written in Portuguese. I’m trying to understand more about the relationship between identity and conflict, and its manifestations in the literary production. That’s why I’m researching about literature written in Portuguese (no matter if it’s poetry, novel or short story) between 1961 and 1974, the years of the War that took place between the Portuguese fascist regime and the Liberation Movements of Portugal’s former colonies: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and then Cape Verde and São Tomé e Príncipe, that were not directly involved in the war, but that still fought for their independence and right to self-determination.

2. How did you get interested in this particular topic? What motivated you to enter this field of study?

I have always been surrounded by books. My grandmother was a teacher with a huge passion for literature and history. I spent several days of my childhood looking at the shelves full of books that surrounded every single part of her house and I remember I was fascinated by them like if they were hiding secrets. They were some kind of extemporal entity living in the house that I could touch just if authorized. It’s a passion she and my grandfather forwarded to their son and nephews. I’ve always loved books that tell you something about the daily life of regular people, that give visibility to who’s invisible and voice to those who haven’t got it or who struggle. A few years ago, I red a book by one of the most famous Angolan contemporary writers: Mayombe, by Pepetela. It was just published in 1980, but written in the early 70’s, when the writer was involved in the guerrilla against the colonial regime. The book is politic and needs to be read with the consciousness that there are several elements of a propaganda book, but still, Pepetela describes the feelings, the fears, the struggle of people of different ethnic groups fighting for their right to decide about their future. I began to read more about this war: how did it start? Which were the movements there were leading it? What Angolan ethnic groups were involved? Which were the common elements these heterogeneous groups were using to rebuild a shared identity? These were the main questions that led me to read the work of other writers, not just from Angola, but also from the other countries I mentioned above.

3. Tell me more about it.

When the war in Angola started, on the 4th of February 1961, the social situation was quite complicated. It was the late 50’s and the number of Portuguese settlers in the country had increased exponentially, while most of the African countries were achieving their independence from the European powers. There was a renewed consciousness of the need of a real approximation to the rest of Africa, a strong will of independence or increased autonomy, at the same time as part of the population was fighting the Estado Novo regime of Salazar, the colonial condition, and the racial discrimination. Languages such as Umbundu, Kimbundu, Ronga, Creole, were used in daily life and they show up in the written production. In the former Portuguese colonies, literature was a way of consolidating a new national identity: due to censorship and to the self-censorship, poetry was used to say, in an encoded way, what could not be said otherwise. Novels and short stories started to deal with social problems and with a reality that was really far away from the one shown on the propagandas of the regime.

4. Is yours going to be a new approach?

I hope so. What I’m trying to do is to have and interdisciplinary approach, using Social History, Political History and, obviously, Literature, that is my field and the main focus of my research. I think it is important to read books and to enjoy them just as literature, but then, they’re a relevant resource that can give us several information about a historical period, the mindset of a certain group of people, the way languages interacted. Using literature as sources, we always must be conscient that it’s a representation of a certain view and conception of the reality and not the reality itself, that a narration is a social construction and, at the same time, an artistic invention. We cannot just take a literary excerpt, or a written text, an say the context it represents reflects perfectly what was happening at the time. So, my challenge is to try to go deep into the contradictions that emerge from literary texts and to try to deconstruct narratives.

5. Do you also collaborate with other research groups? If so, tell me about it.

I do. I’m part of the group Leitura e Formas de escrita (that is, Reading and the Forms of Writing) of CHAM – Centre for the Humanities of Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal. The group studies the forms of writing, their meaning and their usage, from old manuscripts to digital, as well as the forms of reading and the agent involved in these processes.

6. What makes you get out of bed in the morning? What inspires you?

The sun, nature, books, and the people I love.

7. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I try not to make long-term plans. Expectations kill creativity.

8. What makes life meaningful?

Again, a walk in the woods, the breeze of the wind by the sea, hiking a mountain, a sunset and a sunrise, contact with animals and time spent with the people you love. Visiting new places, seeing different traditions, speaking to people from different parts of the world. I tend to appreciate more and more simple things in the frenetic times we are living.

9. What does the world need the most right now, in your opinion? What is your dream society?

I would definitely say: communication between humans, contact with animals and nature, respect of the environment and real use of renewable resources. We live in a world of migrations, war for the resources and climate change. It’s urgent to fight the intolerance to other cultures as, whether people like it or not, we’ll live in increasingly multicultural societies. So, people need to read, to speak with people from different cultures and countries, to question their way of leaving. The West should question its position, and last but not least, even if we have the tendency to forget it, humans are animals and we need contact with other animals as much as we need an environment to live in. We – especially the so-called West, that uses most of the resources – have been knowing for decades our way of living is not sustainable and we are now paying the bill, but so is the environment that feeds us and the animals that get extinguished because of the disappearance of this very environment.

My dream society is one in which no people die of hunger, lack of medicines, cold. Where all the children can go to school and receive a basic education. It is a society in which everybody has the power to speak freely, were demanding the right to have a voice is a pride and not a shame. It’s a society in which people don’t work fourteen hours a day and have time to spend with their children, their family, to join friends, dance, cultivate traditions.

10. What does science need the most right now, in your opinion?

Science needs to be inclusive, to give space to women, to get rid of its old forms and to get to the society. Society needs science communication, has the right to know its results, and science needs the feedback of society to understand its needs and to find new research strategies. In one word, science needs to leave the golden cage of the academy and get to the people. The contact between specialists is important and stimulating, but it’s not enough.

Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

“It was very interesting interviewing Noemi, and learn a lot about the Angola’s History and how it influenced the literature. And I am impressed by the fact she does her research in 3 different languages! I hope you will enjoy it too.”

Learn more about Noemi's work:


Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

“It was very interesting interviewing Noemi, and learn a lot about the Angola’s History and how it influenced the literature. And I am impressed by the fact she does her research in 3 different languages! I hope you will enjoy it too.”

#PHDstory | Ayda Badri

Ayda Badri
PhD student in Laboratory of Atomic and Molecular Spectroscopy,
in the Faculty of Science of Tunis


Q: Hello! Can you introduce yourself?

A: I am Ayda Badri, a PhD student in LSAMA: Laboratory of Atomic and Molecular Spectroscopy, in the Faculty of Science of Tunis. I am in my 3rd year.

Q: What’s the topic of your research?

A: I am interested in the CO2-CO molecular complex. I study shocks between these molecules. The CO2 molecule has been detected around us in the atmosphere, in the interstellar medium, etc… In the LSAMA laboratory, people study two kinds of molecules: big ones, and small ones. Big molecules are what researchers in medicine and biology are interested in. One of them is the DNA. It is a complex and big molecule. My team is interested in the small molecules that exist in the atmosphere, or the interstellar medium. Their presence influence many fields, such us industry, climatology, pollution, etc…

There are molecules that are more likely to collide with this molecule. So, first, we study the collision rate for many molecules, and we pick up the one that is most likely to collide with it.

I am also interested in the N2O-CO molecular complex, recently detected. It has been detected in the atmosphere.

Our work is between theory and simulation. We use numerical software to perform complex calculations, that finally give us information about these molecular complexes, and that will be useful to researchers in physics, astrophysics, biology, medicine, etc… It needs strong calculators, which are not easy to get!

Q: What are the most important questions you want to answer through your research?

A: We are trying to provide information about these molecules for the physicists, biologists, chemists, pharmacists, etc… We provide a theoretical study that, when combined with experimental studies, will be useful to better understand the world, make new medicine, purify the atmosphere, improve agricultural activities, nutrition, cosmetics, or any beneficent application.

This study contains theoretical information about the stability of the molecule, the properties of collisions with the most abundant molecules in the atmosphere – or the Universe more generally- (such as di-hydrogen (H2) and Helium (H)), or the human body, etc… Then comes the experimental study, which will rely on our theoretical study, which allows them to narrow the possibilities and focus on the most interesting areas to discover.

Q: What are the challenges you are facing in your PhD?

A: The human bonds are very important in a research work, especially collaborative work. When people work together, they make huge steps, with fewer mistakes. A single person cannot do this big path alone. It is a challenge to face every day, to keep a team working together on a very big project. Human relationships are complex. So I think this is a big challenge.

The project we are working on is not the easiest. We can make mistakes that cost much time and money. So we have to be very careful. But the project is motivating, so we go on!

Another challenge is the means. We have a limited budget, as many other laboratories, and we are many to study on a single calculator. It makes things more difficult, but it only gives us more will and strength to make even bigger things.

Another challenge is health. I am having health problems but I keep struggling. They only push me forward.

Q: Why are you doing this?

First, I was not interested in this field. I was interested in nuclear physics; this is what I did in my master’s project. But, there was too much math and analytical calculations in it, so I chose to go back to “real” physics! I wanted to make something more directly useful to humanity. Right now, I am studying these molecules in the atmosphere only. But I intend to move to biological applications as soon as I finish my actual research. I like this.

Every study has an influence, in one way or another. But I need to do something that brings improvement to the world, right now! It has incredible applications. One colleague is working on cocaine. Another one is working on anesthetic substances. It is really interesting. Big molecules are the subject of interest here. One day, I will hopefully move from small to big molecules.

Q: What is your dream?

A: We are only theorists in LSAMA. I hope that one day we will have an experimental team with us to collaborate and work together about cancer, for example… My dream is to find a cure to some cancer, or any illness. I am confident that we will.

Q: What are the topics that the FST (university) is interested in?

A: There are many fields in our university: mathematics, chemistry, biology, computer science and physics. As far as I know, it invests most of the money in energetics (photo-voltaic panels for example).

Q: Tell us more about your difficulties/activities?

A: I am a member in an association for researchers. We try to find solutions to their problems, either financial or scientific problems (like copyrights, organizing conferences, etc.). Another problem that researchers face is the time problem! Many students have lost a lot of time and effort working on something that, right before they publish their results, another team, somewhere in the world, publishes it before them. It is due to the limited means they have. Some of them are deprived from the rights and privileges of being researchers.

Q: Is there a book, a person, a situation that inspired you?

When I was in Poland, I was provoked by someone who told me that Arabs are those who invented the algorithm. They challenged me to make a program. I took it as a challenge. It motivated me. I spent two days working on this program. I did not even sleep. With the help of someone else, we both could make it much sooner than he thought. It really gave me energy.

Otherwise, my dad is my first inspiration and source of motivation. He was brilliant as a student. He is an accountant. He wanted to continue his studies, but he had to stop for many reasons. So, I want to continue his own path. So I have double motivation: mine and his! He is always interested in my studies. We always discuss about my research.

Q: What kind of society do you dream of?

A: Justice! We miss justice in this world. I also dream of a society where people help each other without counting. Or, at least, a society where people don’t make obstacles to others, because of envy and jealousy. There’s room for everyone. It doesn’t really matter who arrives first. What matters is the journey itself.

I also dream of a society that gives the opportunity to intelligent people to study if they have any kinds of problems.

Q: Do you have some fears?

I fear that one day I will be too busy for my research. I mean my familiar and social duties. I know they are my number one priority but, I still want to do my research at the same time, without sacrificing this or that. I want research to be my only job.

Q: Do you want to add anything, or give a message to people?

Research is passion! It gives me the strength and energy to face all the problems I face. I want to reach my goal of working as a researcher in the medical field, and continue on this path!

Thank you, Ayda! Good luck!

Conversation by:
Salma Baklouti

“I chose to interview Ayda Badri because I know she is an awesome person full of energy and hope, with a sharp sense of justice and loyalty. I think her story can inspire many of us, including me. Her studies are also very interesting, and meet in a certain way with my field of studies, which is astrophysics. But their applications are much larger than just physics.”


Conversation by:
Salma Baklouti

“I chose to interview Ayda Badri because I know she is an awesome person full of energy and hope, with a sharp sense of justice and loyalty. I think her story can inspire many of us, including me. Her studies are also very interesting, and meet in a certain way with my field of studies, which is astrophysics. But their applications are much larger than just physics.”

#PHDstory | Octavia Borecka

Octavia Borecka
PhD in Biochemistry / Biology
University of Manchester


What do you do your PhD in and what is your main research topic?

My project is about vitamin D production in skin through UVB radiation and why the elderly tend to have lower vitamin D levels. The main study available on this topic is fairly a old paper published in the 80s with limitations and inconsistencies in its methodology (MacLaughlin and Holick, 1985). For example, they used skin from amputated legs, which we can assume is not really representative of an average healthy person’s skin. So, my aim is to shed more light on this topic through well-designed and controlled experiments. We will be taking small skin biopsies from a specific area of the body, the lower back/upper buttock, as it is a part of the body which does not get much sun exposure, therefore not affecting our results. We will then measure levels 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC), which is a precursor of Vitamin D, and compare two data sets (young vs old age group).

Is yours a new approach, then?

I am developing an assay, more than an approach. I use HPLC (High Pressure Liquid Chromatography) and MS (Mass Spectroscopy) to do this. I am using skin samples, processing them in a specific way and then running them through the HPLC-MS system to determine the quantity of 7-DHC. However, to do this, I initially need skin samples from healthy volunteers. So I will be carrying our clinical research study where I will be able to collect skin biopsies. This involves writing and designing the study and obtaining ethical approvals. So in my PhD, I am involved both in lab research and the clinical aspects, which I think is a unique combination.

Do you collaborate with other research groups?

Yes, we do. I have two main supervisors. Prof. Ann Webb is based in the University of Manchester. She is a physicist specialising in solar radiation, but also a dean of graduate education. Prof. Lesley Rhodes is based in Salford Royal Foundation Trust Hospital. She is a dermatologist, but is also heavily involved in skin research. We also collaborate with another research group from University of East Anglia, and I often work in a lab based near Liverpool. It is good to see and be part of nice collaborative environment between different research groups and universities.

What motivated you to enter this field?

Oh, gosh, this is such a complex question! There are so many factors and I can talk about my motivations for a long time. Sometimes it is easy to forget about what brought me here, as routine and day-to-day life gets in the way, but it is good to remind myself once in a while.
I think there was a moment when I was 25 that I said to myself: I’m going to be 30 soon. I have a background in pharmacology, drug discovery and some dermatology/skin knowledge [Which I obtained during my internship at university spin-out Curapel and later at my job in medical devices company.]. Let’s use these skills and learn more about skin. I find it fascinating how light affects our skin and that up to 80% of aging is caused by light (Flament et al., 2013). Theoretically, if you lived in a dark room and never got exposed to UV light, you would look 30 forever! Though you might have problems with bones due to lack of Vitamin D. My PhD research is a fascinating topic full of contradictions.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

It would be nice to do something that can help people. Make people aware that sun can be bad in large doses and leads to skin cancer (mostly melanoma), and that artificial tanning beds are very dangerous (banned in some countries such as Brazil or Australia). Most of those beds don’t even emit UVB radiation, which is needed in small doses to produce Vitamin D, but UVA which only ages skin and brings no benefits. One session in tanning bed increases your chances of skin cancer by 20%! (Skin Cancer Foundation, 2012).
Yes, you may look tanned today, but your collagen is being damaged after excessive UV exposure leading to premature skin ageing (wrinkles, skin elasticity, etc.). It is a quite interesting social concept, as here in Europe everyone wants to be tanned, while in Asia, everyone wants to be fair. It is unfortunately the influence of marketing which aims to create artificial demand for skin tanning or lightening products. It would be great if this was finally challenged and more people would care about health rather than what is ‘the mainstream’.

What is your dream society?

I think my dream society would be a place where everyone has some and is able to use critical thinking skills, especially before making decisions that affect all of us. Looking at the world today I notice that a lot of people base their knowledge on what they are told by one newspaper or one TV station instead of questioning it and trying to get to the facts rather than opinions.
I believe that understanding the world we live in is a duty for us, as thinking conscious beings. Otherwise we are only creatures, like any other animal, that live only for the sake of it and not bring anything good to the society or human civilisation as a whole.
My dream society is a place where people understand the world around them, they are kind, tolerant and non-selfish.

What motivates you to get up in the morning?

I personally like to achieve aims, whether they are small or big. I cannot carry on very well without an aim. For example, tonight I am going to cook ‘this and that’. It is a small aim of course, but I like to wake up and know I have something to do. The long term aim is obviously to finish my PhD and then get a job in a research industry. So, that’s it, having aims motivates me to get up in the morning. Not at all times (laughter), but the majority of the time.

What would you tell your past and future self?

This is a very hard question! You know, my mom told me once something really great and I keep thinking about it whenever I start to regret the past. She said that there is no point regretting things we have done in the past. As in that moment, with all the facts and information we had, we have made the best decision we could for ourselves. We are (mostly) logical beings; therefore we always make the best choice we can at the time. That is a great advice I am very grateful for. For the future, I do not know. We will see what the future brings.

Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

“When I have asked Octavia what is her dreams society, it was like listening to myself: a world where everyone uses critical thinking and where everyone understand the worlds around us, with respect and tolerance.”

Learn more about Octavia's work:


Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

“When I have asked Octavia what is her dreams society, it was like listening to myself: a world where everyone uses critical thinking and where everyone understand the worlds around us, with respect and tolerance.”

#PHDstory | Teresa Sorbo

Teresa Sorbo
PhD in Neuroscience
Seconda Università degli Studi di Napoli 'Federico II"

What do you do your PhD in, and what is your research topic?

I work in the field of neuroscience, I work with neurons. My specific research, my project, is about neuro-regeneration, so we are trying to find a way to make damaged neurons to work again.

How and why did you get interested in this topic?

Well, neuroscience in general, the brain in general, has always been very interesting to me, since I was studying biology at high school and then deciding to do biology at university. With everything that I was studying – you know, how the body works -, I realised that it comes from the brain, and we know so little about it. I have always been very curious about it and I said (to myself) I want to go and know more about it, and that is when I started looking for a PhD position in neuroscience.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your research topic?

Yes, so I work with neuroprogenitors. Progenitors means that they are kind of cells who are not neurons yet, but they have the potentiality to become neurons. As these kinds of cells are very interesting for neuroregeneration in general, we are trying to find different approaches to make these cells work again. In my case, we are trying to grow these cells in different areas of the brain to see if they actually work so they can be, in the future, transplanted. This is the main aim of the project.

Is yours a new approach?

Not really, because these kinds of cells are already being transplanted in animals, but it is very difficult to know the destiny of these cells. When you do such a big thing, when you just put cells in the animal brain, you do not really know what it is going to happen, or what these cells can do, so my approach is actually a step behind. We are looking (at this process) in vitro, so we have everything under control and we can actually see what is going to happen and see if these cells need a little help or something else to be functional in vivo later on.

How is your research going to affect society?

Oh well! Ahah. I’m not saying this because it is my project, but I am a very fond of it and I am happy that it is working and that I am having nice results, from my point of view. I hope this kind of approach and these results in general can be good for the future of regenerative medicine. So it could be really helpful to see and to state that these kind of approaches works or not in the future.

What motivated you in particular to enter this field of study?

Besides the interest that I always had in the field of neuroscience, I found this position here, in Trieste, in SISSA, and my professor is working with nanotechnology, so she is actually interfacing neurons with nanomaterials. I was attracted by the idea that these kind of things can be the future, so that is why I was really willing to come to this specific lab.

What makes you get up of bed, what motivates you in the morning?

Honestly the idea of finishing this project. Because PhD can be very long and can be very frustrating when you do not get good results, and when you have your deadline and other stuff. So now I am in that part of the PhD project where you are actually almost done, so when I get up, and it’s not that I am overthinking my project, but the idea to go there (the lab), to have nice things done, to finish the work and then have a publication, and maybe to go on and move to a different project in the same field. So yes, trying to finish this chapter and then go on is what motivate me.

How do you see yourself in 5 years? What would you like to do?

Well, this is the most difficult question. I have no answer to that, because of the way I am. I am not very thoughtful about the future, I am not making plans. That is me, and that is research. I mean, academia is like this, you never really know. I am going to finish here and then I have no idea if I am going to stay in Italy, or if I am going to move to US or to just stay in Europe. Or, if I am going to get married. I actually don’t have any idea. If you ask me what I would like to do, I would love to be a University professor. I would love to keep doing research, to have my class and to have kids.

What makes life meaningful?

I think the most important thing in life is family, friends, love. I mean, I love my project and I love my work, but work is not life, so people.

What does the world and the society need right now in your opinion?

Humility. I think that now people start to be very pretentious, very arrogant. They pretend to know, they pretend to be stronger than the others, they put themselves before the others and there is no communication. So I really think that everyone of us should step back and listen to the others. Also empathy (is something the society needs.) We should empathise more, because people are very selfish, in my opinion.

What does science need right now?

I think that science needs to get less involved in politics and bond less to money. Because, you know, researches are very much related to money, to grant, and so on. Every kind of topics can be more or less interesting to study depending on the impact and on the money.
I think research needs to discover again the curiosity about pure research and to trust young people more, because they have a more free mind. If you talk to people and professors that have been in research for many years, they think the same old way, because they know how things are working; but instead, young people may not know how things work, but their way of thinking could be a good approach to go to a different direction. So I believe science needs to be more free from the society and to discover the curiosity to study again.

Would you like to say anything else?

Yes, I would say something to young researchers and to biology lovers like me. I’m always thinking if I had the possibility to go back when I was finishing high school and decide to study biology or economics or law or languages, I would change and not do research. Research is hard and future (in research) is very weak, you know? You never get enough money to build your dream house. So I would change it for something more useful, or more understandable by society. But then, if I think about myself 10 years ago and if someone would have said to me “even if you love biology you should do economics”, I would have said No.
I would tell people and students, young girls and boys that love biology, that they can go for it, because it will be worth it if you like doing it, but it is going to be very hard. So weight what you want to do, if you love to study more than having a nice life (kids and family or whatever) then, do it. But think about it.


Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

I loved interviewing Teresa about her research. Neuron regeneration is a very difficult field as neurons usually do not regenerate themselves once damaged.
I believe that her project will be extremely useful to the people affected to brain damage and to the progress of today’s medicine in general.

Learn more about Teresa's work:


Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

I loved interviewing Teresa about her research. Neuron regeneration is a very difficult field as neurons usually do not regenerate themselves once damaged.
I believe that her project will be extremely useful to the people affected to brain damage and to the progress of today’s medicine in general.

#PHDstory | Nadine Mirza

Nadine Mirza
PhD in Psychology
University of Manchester, Assistant Psychologist at Just Psychology CIC.

What is your research project?

The area I am looking at is focused on dementia in an ethnic minority, and I’m specifically looking at British South Asians, because I am South Asian myself. What we are seeing right now is that dementia is one of the leading causes of death; it is in the national dialogue a lot, everyone knows someone with dementia. When it comes to British South Asians, there is a high susceptibility of being diagnosed with dementia, which is due to a variety of reasons. For example, we have a lot of risk factors, so people with diabetes and heart problems are more likely to be diagnosed with dementia. British South Asians happen to have a high rate of this problems. We also have lifestyles and belief systems that do not allow us to receive education on dementia as much as other ethnic minorities, and when we do see problems, like people showing up signs of dementia, we prefer to keep the issue within the family because of stigma and the belief that only family needs to take care of family and we do not want outside intervention.

So, my research project is very specific and focuses on memory clinics. Memory clinics are places where you go, referred by your GP, if you think you have dementia. When you go to these memory clinics, they do lots of tests, assessments and interviews to officially diagnose you. What we see is that although British South Asians have all those high risk factors, they do not show up to memory clinics, even when they get a GP referral; or, when they do show up, they drop out before the full assessment is done.

So, my project is to understand why this is happening, why are they not accessing this service even though they need it, and what can I do to fix this. We are hoping to create some sort of tool kit which will have training for memory clinic staff, educational material, diagnostic tests for dementia that focus on British South Asians, and improve their access to memory clinics.

Is yours a new approach?

It isn’t essentially a new approach more than it’s building up on all the research done in different areas. For example, we have seen that the same issue happened in primary care services, and this kind of approach improved access to GP. The same happened with other mental health problems, and this kind of approach improves interventions for depression, anxiety and so on. But when it comes to dementia, this is quite new. It is basically recycling an old method for a new problem.

Do you collaborate with other research groups?

Essentially, the research project is taking place in the Centre for Primary Care Health here at the University, so they technically own the project. My specific research team is supervised by Dr. Waquas Waheed, a psychiatrist here at the University, and he is leading the first ethnic minority research in primary care division in the UK. So, here is where the research is based. But, we are hoping to eventually collaborate with other research groups as well as with NHS trusts to get our work in the system.

How did you get interested in this field?

To be honest, I kind of fell into it. I had never imagined that I was going to do research and I would be working on dementia. Obviously, dementia is a topic that is coming up a lot, and as I said, everyone knows someone who has dementia – I know someone who has dementia -, so it becomes almost personal in a certain way.
I guess I became interested in it because everyone was talking about it, and when it comes to ethnic minorities, I am an ethnic minority, and I see the struggle of British South Asians when it comes to mental health in general. So, I wanted to get involved in ethnic minorities even if it was not dementia. It just happened to be dementia.

What does science need right now?

I think science needs better representation, because science is something that seems very unapproachable to the general public, something which is very exclusive, and therefore not fair. Something, you know, elitist. Or it seems that scientists are trying to scare everyone because it gets misportrayed all the time; we make little steps in science and the media latches onto it.
We tend to overestimate knowledge and underestimate intelligence. Not everyone knows the things that we scientists know, but that does not mean they do not have the capacity to understand it if we just explain it to them.

What is your ideal society?

I think I would like a more open minded society. To thrive as a society, I think everyone should be open minded and a critical thinker. Having an open mind exposes you to the idea that you may not know everything and there is so much more to learn. There are so many different ways to be and not one way is right.
Critical thinking is something that makes you question what everybody is saying. I can see different cultures and religions, but no one questions, everyone just does. But if you know why you are doing things, that is very important.

Is there anything that you would like to change about science right now?

There is not a lot about science that I feel needs to be improved, probably because I have not been exposed to the bad side yet, but I do think that even within our community of scientists there is still exclusivity. Little cliques in different fields, a hierarchy where the uppers are always with the uppers and the lower students hang out with the lower students. Maybe that line needs to blur, and those divisions need to fade. One science is not better than another.
Because I focus on mental health and psychology a lot, I hear a lot of flack about how it is not a hard science and it is not real research. And I think we do not need any of that kind of talk, because it prevents collaborations and cooperations. It is really unnecessary.

Is there a story you would like to share with us?

Today during my first year interview viva, they (the examiners) were reading my report and kept saying that I wrote ‘We did research’, and ‘We got results’. We, we, we… and they said, “You need to say I”, and I thought that does not sound proper. “You need to take ownership that this is your own research project”, I was told. And I kept thinking, Yes, this is my project and I should say I, but I feel this is not a solo effort, because it goes way beyond. There is you, your supervisor – Dr. Waquas Waheed, in my case -, all the people in your department you run into and say “Oh, you are an expert in this, can you teach me this, can you teach me that…”. The project would not be possible without them.
There is the family and the support that I have. I know that those people (the examiners) don’t care, but I have a very, very supporting family: a dad and a mum who always valued higher education and the importance of having a career. I have a brother who is like my best friend, who will come in the middle of the night when I am really upset with ice cream or food or to take me out to see a movie. I have a fiancé who, when I am really upset, will transcript data for me, or help me find the different software I need, or simply listen to me rant about the project. I have friends who have now left University; they have their own lives and families and careers, but they will still run to help me when I need them. So, I do not think I can emphasize enough how we keep getting told (phd) is a solo effort, but it really should not be.

Thank you!

Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

“It was really interesting interviewing Nadine, as she was the first PhD student working on a not hard science project.
It is really curious to see how psychology can be combined with a social aspect, ethnic minority in this case. I believe you will find Nadine’ s work extremely interesting too.”

Learn more about Nadine's work:


Conversation by:
Marianna Loizzi

“It was really interesting interviewing Nadine, as she was the first PhD student working on a not hard science project.
It is really curious to see how psychology can be combined with a social aspect, ethnic minority in this case. I believe you will find Nadine’ s work extremely interesting too.”

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