When you first meet Carolyn, you are taken aback by her passion for what she does; she has a natural and infectious curiosity that drives her in her work. Carolyn did not go into the NAD programme with a clear idea of what topic she would like to investigate for her PhD project. Instead, she has been very method-focused when scoping out potential rotation labs:
“I was looking at methods a lot because I wanted to see what I want to use in the future. I knew from the beginning that omics was going to be a part of my PhD project because I like that type of data analysis, especially the breadth and the multi-applicability of it, so I am using the rotation process to dive into this approach. In addition, I really wanted to do at least one rotation involving surgical procedures.”
This led her to approach Professor Winnie Jensen of the Neural Engineering and Neurophysiology Group at Aalborg University Hospital for her first rotation. Winnie’s group works within the field of electrophysiology and electrophysiological animal models:
“I have been working interfacing the nervous system ever since I was a PhD student. I have an engineering background, so my unique approach and one of the things we are strong at here in Aalborg is electrophysiology. I use implantable devices that you could say are comparable to a pacemaker for the peripheral or central nervous system,” Winnie explains.
Winnie is currently occupied with developing chronic pain models of Danish farm pigs, and this is also the project that Carolyn has been involved in.
Making new connections
During her rotation, Carolyn has been broadly involved in the lab’s work: she has done animal behavior, attended surgery courses and observed surgical procedures. She has also been involved in dissecting pigs in addition to preserving and processing samples.
While getting involved in the lab’s current project, Carolyn saw an opportunity to build upon the lab’s existing work. Drawing on her previous experience with mass spectrometry, Carolyn suggested that the samples preserved from the pig dissections were sent for further analysis in order to piece together a map of the adult pig brain:
“I brought up the possibility of bringing some of these tissue samples over to process full RNA sequencing for transcriptomic analysis because the proteome is so spotty. It is quite difficult to put together, but if we could pair it with a transcriptomic analysis, that is a whole project right there. Then you would be piecing together something like a neural atlas of the adult pig”, Carolyn explains.
This project could potentially be highly translatable as pigs have crucial similarities in neurotransmitter systems to humans: “We know very little about the different brain regions in adult pigs, especially the peripheral nervous system and spinal cord. Lots of studies are done in fetal pigs, and with so many industries now coming up with more pig studies, mapping the adult pig brain is going to be extremely relevant”, Carolyn says.
Carolyn’s fresh perspectives has led Winnie to think about the possibility of establishing a collaboration with another lab with expertise within mass spectrometry – a great example of how the rotation process can also set new collaborations between labs in motion:
“I think that is why it is actually nice to have Carolyn come in and be open because proteomics is not my expertise at all. I think it is a really nice example of complementing each other so that we can actually add on to what we do.”
Prior to starting her rotation, Carolyn went to Aalborg for two days to visit Winnie’s lab. She had the opportunity to see the behavior and the surgery, and she was introduced to people working in the lab.
“We were lucky with the timing. We talked in October, and I told Carolyn that we had a surgery going on in November. I think the visit was really good because Carolyn could see what environment she would be heading into, and we also got to explore directions for the rotation project”, Winnie says.
Carolyn, who has done her MSc in Human Biology at the University of Copenhagen, is definitely excited about the research community in Aalborg:
“I have moved around a lot and been to many different cities, and I think this has to be the easiest transition I have ever had.”
Winnie chimes in, pointing out that Aalborg also has a thriving environment for junior scientists.
The rotation process poses a number of benefits, both to NAD fellows like Carolyn, but also to the Danish neuroscience community as a whole. While the NAD fellow is exposed to new techniques and research areas and has the chance to build their network, the PI and host lab can also benefit from the perspectives that the NAD fellow brings into the lab, potentially paving the ground for new collaborations.