Lab Rotation Interview: Ginevra Matilde Dall’Ò

NAD fellow Ginevra Matilde Dall’Ò talks about venturing out of her comfort zone and putting the puzzle pieces of the pre-PhD year together.

The NAD PhD programme presents almost endless opportunities for expanding your scientific horizon during the pre-PhD year. At the same time, it is an intense year that makes demands on fellows to reflect on what they learn and make decisions accordingly.  After having finished her first lab rotation, Ginevra Matilde Dall’Ò is still deep in the process of collecting input and scoping out a direction for her PhD project.

For her first rotation, Ginevra joined the Paludan Lab at the Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University, led by Professor Søren Paludan. Working at the intersection of immunology/virology and neuroscience, the group is interested in how the immune system detects viral infection as well as immune defense mechanisms, with a special interest in the virus-infected brain and its immune defense.  Professor Søren Paludan is also spearheading the Center for Immunology of Viral Infections (CiViA), consisting of five research groups from Aarhus University and the Technical University of Munich. The center aims to address major unanswered questions within virology and immunology and was established in 2022 with a DKK 60 million grant from the Danish National Research Foundation.

New perspectives on the neuroscience field

With a BSc in Cognitive Psychology and an MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience, Ginevra would like to challenge and broaden her understanding of the neuroscience field during the pre-PhD year. She specifically chose the Paludan lab in order to gain familiarity with the (neuro)immunology field as well as neurobiological methods:

“I am thinking about neuroscience and the brain informed by my background in psychology and cognitive neuroscience whereas (…) here, I gain a new perspective on neuroscience from another field, namely immunology. I had the chance to explore how the immune system and the brain interacts and it provided me with a fresh outlook to understand the inner mechanisms of the brain,” Ginevra says.

During her rotation, Ginevra has been involved in a new project in the lab:

“My project has involved a little bit of neuroscience, as I have studied how the metabolite itaconate is involved in (…) the brain’s immune response. It has been previously shown that itaconate is upregulated in the virus-infected brain, so the underlying question was: how might itaconate impact the innate immune responses, and how could the molecular mechanisms involved be deciphered? I started this project working with mixed brain cells from mice, which was really interesting. It was my first time working with cell cultures, so I got the chance to learn new skills and gain valuable experience. It has been quite challenging because the background of this lab is completely different from mine,” Ginevra explains. 

Putting the puzzle pieces together

A lot of work lies ahead for Ginevra and the other NAD fellows when it comes to making sense of the many insights from the pre-PhD year, culminating in drafting and presenting a PhD project proposal later in the year. During her rotation in the lab, Ginevra had the chance to be part of a new project during her rotation in the Paludan lab, and she emphasises how being involved in the early stages and idea-generation phase of a research project is valuable experience leading up to working on her own PhD proposal:

“It has been really nice to see how new projects develop and start, how you get new ideas, and how you direct your research. Now, we have some preliminary data, and things are getting interesting and exciting – and I have to leave,” Ginevra says.

Ginevra has also used these first few months of the pre-PhD year to reflect on how to form a good and translational research question:

”It is really important to me to always take the bigger picture into consideration and keep it in the back of my mind, as you are usually working with a small fraction of larger mechanisms. In this project, the question was more of a basic research question, but it arose from an observation in virus-infected and pathological brains,” Ginevra explains.

In her second rotation at the Department of Neurology at Bispebjerg Hospital with PI Sanne Simone Kaalund, Ginevra is interested in exploring clinical aspects of neuroscience further. In this rotation, she will be working with post-mortem brains of patients diagnosed with multiple system atrophy (MSA), analysing Lewy bodies. While the research itself will not be clinical, she will have the opportunity to shadow a clinician and be part of a hospital environment.

Ginevra is determined to get the most out of the pre-PhD year. This means that she is still very open, both when it comes to her third lab rotation and her future PhD project:

“Here in the Paludan Lab, I work with molecular and cellular systems. Next rotation will be more focused on stereology with a hint of clinical perspective, so maybe the third rotation will be something that combines those two, a bridge. I would also like to get more experience within animal models, so that might be something that I would like to take into consideration.”

The pre-PhD year is a process, and Ginevra is constantly working to pave the way for her future PhD project:

“I think it is just like a puzzle. Currently, I am putting all the pieces together – let us see how the final picture will turn out.”

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