In conversation with… the Singh Lab

28 February 2021 - By: Alex Evans

Starting a PhD can be a daunting journey for anyone. Starting a PhD with a newly established laboratory in a foreign country at the start of a global pandemic is something else entirely. We caught up with three such PhD students in Sumeet Pal Singh’s endocrinology research laboratory at the Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire en Biologie Humaine et Moléculaire (IRIBHM), Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Brussels.

Singh Lab

Alex (AE): Hello Sema, Inés and Macarena, please introduce yourselves to our readers!

Sema (SEE): I am Sema Elif Eski. I started as a PhD candidate in October 2019, arriving from Istanbul, Turkey. I am interested in exploring the gene regulatory network of the zebrafish thyroid gland in the context of its function and development.

Inés (IGS): I am Inés Garteizgogeascoa Suñer from Madrid, Spain. I am a PhD candidate at IRIBHM and I work on whole-body live imaging of insulin sensitivity at single-cell resolution to better understand metabolic adaptations in different contexts such as starvation or calorie restriction.

Macarena (MPM): I am Macarena Pozo Morales, a PhD candidate at IRIBHM. I moved to Brussels from Puente Genil in Spain and I am studying the role of macrophages in thyroid gland development and function.

AE: So, how did you all become involved in endocrinology research?

SEE: I worked on the zebrafish model during my master’s in the group of Dr Stefan H. Fuss at Bogazici University, Turkey. There, I focused on regenerative neurogenesis in adult zebrafish olfactory epithelium. The experience stoked my fascination due to the advantages of genetic tools in zebrafish and I chose to pursue my academic career with this model organism. However, I was also looking for a study in which I could develop my computational biology skills. Our supervisor (Sumeet) is an expert on bioinformatics and thanks to his valuable experience and guidance, I have decided to pursue my career in single cell endocrinology.

IGS: Since my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, I knew that I wanted to get involved in endocrinology. I was fascinated by metabolism and its complex regulatory networks, which is why I decided to specialise by pursuing a Master’s in Cardiovascular, Metabolic, and Nutritional regulations at the University “Claude Bernard de Lyon 1” in Lyon, France.

MPM: During my master’s degree thesis, I independently worked as an intern student in the lab of Dr Francisco J. Bermúdez Silva and Dr Isabel González Mariscal at the Instituto de Investigación Biomédica de Málaga to study the role of GPR55 on the onset of type 1 diabetes. This sparked my interest in diseases of the endocrine organs, especially because these organs are central regulators of metabolism. Particularly, my experience in the study of type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disorder, made me interested in the study of immune cells in thyroid.

AE: An interesting mix of topics! What have been the highlights of your research careers so far?

SEE: So far, I have contributed to multiple projects from our collaborations both within and outside of our institute by analysing transcriptomics and epigenomics data. I also found an opportunity to present my work as a first-year PhD student in an international conference for applied bioinformatics and won the best poster prize!

IGS: I would say that the biggest highlight so far has been the interest of other researchers in my work every time I have had the chance to present it. Also, I actively participated in the process of asking for a grant to build an OpenSPIM at the IRIBHM. If we receive the funding, building and setting up an OpenSPIM at IRIBHM will be another big highlight that will significantly help with my PhD research.

MPM: Seeing macrophages move! I do a lot of in vivo live imaging and it is mesmerising to see macrophages migrate. I can watch them all day long (if confocal bookings allow), extending and retracting their protrusion. They are such a well-studied cell-type, yet so much remains a mystery!

AE: How have you found your first year working together as a new lab?

SEE: As a young lab, we have built and managed everything in the lab together. It has been a good experience for us because we gained so much experience on how to handle challenges from the beginning. I believe that in the past year we’ve contributed to each other’s projects with independent ideas shaped by Sumeet’s knowledge and experiences.

IGS: I joined the lab in January 2020, and I honestly feel blessed to work with Sumeet, Macarena, and Elif. I learn so much from them every day. We built the lab together from scratch and it has been an incredibly enriching experience to buy and set up all the equipment ourselves. I think it is something that not many PhD candidates get to experience and it could be really useful in the future if we ever wish to start our own labs. We also try to bond our relationship outside the work environment by going out for coffee and playing board games as much as COVID-19 currently allows us to.

MPM: I have enjoyed the experience of starting my PhD and initiating research projects, and it was especially helpful to have Inés as a colleague, who also comes from Spain. Critically, the PhD projects for the three of us do not overlap and we can avoid direct competition within the lab. We have a nice and friendly bond where we can provide feedback and suggestions to each other but have independence in pursuing our own goals.

AE: Have you faced any difficulties with living and working away from home during the pandemic this year?

SEE: I personally experienced psychological difficulties during the pandemic, even though it did not have too much of a significant impact on my experiments since I mostly perform bioinformatics analysis. I felt very fortunate to have the option to work remotely and stay productive. 

IGS: I have been living away from my beloved hometown of Madrid for many years now, so I am used to being away from my family and friends. However, I would lie if I say that it has not been more challenging during the pandemic. Spain’s situation was, and still is, extremely bad, so one always fears that someone you love will get sick and you will not be there to help. As well, with travel restrictions and quarantines, travelling home has become more complicated. However, I have a really supportive husband-to-be at home who makes life in Belgium during the time of COVID-19 much better.

MPM: I am quite independent and did not feel too stressed being away from home. I do, however, miss the food from my hometown such as fresh octopus. Also being from a sunny place in Spain, I am not a big fan of the weather in Brussels, which is rainy and windy most of the time!

AE: Sadly, due to the pandemic, the SEB community were unable to reunite at the Annual Meeting this year. Would you like to join us at the 2021 conference ?

SEE: Yes, I would be very interested in experiencing the wide variety of research undertaken by the community. This would be a great learning experience and hopefully give me a networking platform to connect with potential experimental biologists who need bioinformatics collaborators.

IGS: If the situation allows, I would love to join the 2021 conference. An essential part of a PhD is the opportunity to travel to different meetings, conferences, symposiums, and congresses. Unfortunately, the current situation that we live in is global and so everything has had to move online.

MPM: Absolutely! It would be exciting to showcase my work to a larger audience.