International Talks

International Talks: Eli Slenders

Eli Slenders

Using a new camera to see individual molecules

Sitting in my armchair, a comfortable blue armchair that I bought last year to make the countless hours that we were forced to stay at home more enjoyable, and taking a walk down memory lane, I come to realize how life can sometimes take a strange and unpredictable course. It certainly did for me, as I never saw myself moving to another country, a country where I didn’t know many people, where the sun is highly incompatible with my skin type, and where language is communicated through two senses, both of which incomprehensible to me in the beginning. And yet it happened.

The story begins in 2016, when I was a PhD student in optical microscopy in my home country, Belgium, and my supervisor told me about the NIC@IIT workshop, a practical workshop on advanced microscopy techniques organized by prof. Alberto Diaspro and dr. Giuseppe Vicidomini, among others. I remember seeing all the optical tables in the basement in Morego and being in awe of the custom-built microscopes and the impressive know-how of the people in the group. Back in Belgium, I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm for the group and my supervisor agreed to recon the possibility of a collaboration or an internship.

Dr. Vicidomini was eager to welcome me, and so it happened that I spent the summer of 2017 in Genova. In my thesis, I described those ten weeks as one of the coolest (and hottest) adventures I had experienced until then. I became familiar with building microscopes, the very nice and informal atmosphere in the MMS group, unbearable temperatures, focaccia and the congiuntivo (I wish). The research stay resulted in a lot of memories that I will cherish forever and a very nice publication. On top of that, it opened the door to my next position.

In September 2018, about two months before I defended my PhD thesis, I learned about the open post doc position in Giuseppe’s lab. My initial doubts of exchanging my comfortable life in Belgium for an uncertain adventure in Italy were quickly dispelled after a phone call with Giuseppe and one of his former post docs, Sami Koho. In January 2019, after a long bus ride, I arrived once again in Genova. In my post doc project, I helped developing a new technique to study the movement of biomolecules in cells and the interactions between these molecules, which is useful in the study of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, and cancer. During this time, Giuseppe also encouraged me to apply for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship. I hadn’t been too successful in obtaining research grants before, and so it felt like a lot of work for no reward, but in the end Giuseppe convinced me to try it. Giuseppe, Sami, and I set together many times to explore possible topics for my application. One day, the idea came up to use a special type of camera, a so-called SPAD array detector, to perform 3D single-molecule imaging. This super-resolution imaging technique, with excellent spatial and temporal characteristics, is expected to be very useful in structural biology, for example to study large protein complexes which may play a crucial role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases. With the help of many people, I wrote a proposal on this topic and I submitted the application literally on my way back to Italy after spending the summer holidays of 2019 in Belgium. About five months later, I received an email telling me that my application “had reached the stage of Grant Agreement preparation”, which, I learned, is the bureaucratic way of saying “congratulations”. Obviously, it felt like a surreal, but awesome, surprise.

Just a couple of weeks after the confirmation, working from home quickly and drastically gained popularity. For me, given that going to the lab was impossible, this period was a time of coding, analyzing data and writing a manuscript. The paper was accepted in January of this year. Since March, the Marie Curie project has officially started and I’m very excited to also spend the next two years in Giuseppe’s lab, in Genova. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the strong coffee or the chaotic traffic here, but with the culture of aperitivo’s, the good food, the many nice people I’ve met and friends I’ve made, and the language I’m slowly learning, I’m convinced that it will be a great time.