The 2023 NAD Fellows Have Selected Their PhD labs and Primary Supervisors

After completing three lab rotations and careful consideration, the 2023 NAD fellows have now decided on their primary supervisors and laboratories for their PhD projects.

Over the coming months, the NAD fellows will work on their PhD proposals and identify key collaborators who will be involved in the projects as co-supervisors.

The pre-PhD year has been designed to prepare the NAD fellows for doing excellent PhD projects in neuroscience, and we are excited to see their projects take form. Keep reading for an interview with NAD Fellow Sopio Gverdtsiteli about her experience of the pre-PhD year and what guided her in her choice of PhD lab.

You can also see an overview of the NAD fellows’ PhD labs and primary supervisors on each fellow’s page here.

PhD Lab Choice Interview: Sopio Gverdtsiteli

With an MD from Tbilisi State Medical University in Georgia, NAD fellow Sopio Gverdtsiteli moved to Denmark just as the pre-PhD year started – and so far, it has been an intense year of great challenges and experiences. Sopio has completed three lab rotations during the pre-PhD year, all of which have benefited her massively, and choosing one lab for her PhD project was a difficult decision.

Sopio came into the NAD PhD programme with a keen interest in epilepsy and epilepsy genetics. Ultimately, this was the guiding factor in her decision to do her PhD project at the Department of Personalized Medicine and Epilepsy Genetics at the Filadelfia Epilepsy Hospital in Dianalund with Professor Rikke Steensbjerre Møller as her primary supervisor. The department works to unravel the underlying mechanisms of genetic epilepsies and find new treatment options. During her 10-week lab rotation at the department, Sopio had a chance to get a sense of the research done in the group and explore ideas for her PhD project. While her project has not yet been defined, she does have some preliminary plans that she will refine during the next couple of months of PhD proposal writing:

“My project will be concerning epilepsy genetics for sure. I am very interested in sodium channels and similarities between different sodium channelopathies, so that is one way we could go. Another focus area might be neonatal epilepsies, meaning epilepsy that debuts during the first months of life,” Sopio explains.

An open community

Aside from the scientific focus, Sopio’s choice of PhD lab was also influenced by her experience of the general environment at the department. The group is social and diverse, consisting of both geneticists, electrophysiologists and medical doctors, and the environment is collaborative and dynamic:

“It is a very dynamic group of people, and they have lots of connections with people who are working on similar topics, not just in Denmark, but also abroad. They come from many different backgrounds, and they all have expertise within their own field. I think it is very nice to be in this kind of group where you can get input from many different people.”

While there is no laboratory at the hospital, the group collaborates extensively with other labs in Denmark:

“If I want to do something more in the lab, I have the chance to do that by collaborating with others. I am not limited by the group; in fact, I am encouraged to collaborate with others. I think that is the best part of the NAD programme. You can always involve other people if they are interested in the project,” Sopio explains.

In addition to her rotation at the Department of Personalized Medicine and Epilepsy Genetics, Sopio did two more rotations during the pre-PhD year that also benefited her massively. Her first rotation was with Professor Zeynep Tümer at the Kennedy Center at Rigshospitalet Glostrup. Zeynep’s main research area is the identification of genes as well as genetic and epigenetic mechanisms involved in neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders. While Sopio ultimately chose to do her PhD project in a more clinical setting, she definitely sees potential for collaboration:

“Zeynep’s group is highly specialised in diagnostics. Because of my medical background, I decided to go with a department with more opportunities for doing clinical work and interacting with patients and their families for my PhD. But since I am so interested in genetics, I think that we will definitely find a way to work together with Zeynep and others with that kind of expertise.”

Sopio’s third rotation was at the Sørensen Lab led by Professor Jakob Balslev Sørensen. The research focus of the Sørensen Lab is mostly basic, as the lab studies the inner workings of for neurotransmitter release and the defects that lead to disease, for example epileptic encephalopathies. During her rotation, Sopio focused on getting hands-on experience with a variety of techniques, including electrophysiology and imaging. Going into the pre-PhD year, Sopio was a little apprehensive about lab work because of her medical background. With the Sørensen Lab being the rotation that involved the most lab work, Sopio definitely felt challenged, but she also learnt many valuable skills in the process:

“In terms of skills, I think I learned the most at the Sørensen Lab because I do not have tons of lab experience to draw on,” Sopio says.

Depending on the direction of her PhD project, Sopio will definitely consider collaborating with the Sørensen Lab. Generally, Sopio highlights the opportunities for future collaboration as one of the best aspects of the NAD PhD programme:

“I think this programme is so good because I am not limited to one place: I can collaborate and work with co-supervisors from different labs. My experience during this first year has been that most PI’s are open for collaboration. I think that if I come up with a project that will require cooperation with a different PI than those I have already done rotations with, they will definitely be open to it,” Sopio says.

Expanded scientific network

In addition to lab rotations, the NAD fellows have also participated in neuroscience courses, retreats and networking activities during the pre-PhD year. Sopio thinks that the courses in particular were very useful for opening her mind to all the different fields she could go into as well as introducing her to the neuroscience community in Denmark. As an international researcher with few prior connections in Denmark, the pre-PhD year in general has given Sopio a head start in establishing a strong scientific network nationally.

She especially appreciates how the courses and other activities during the pre-PhD year have really honed her networking skills:

“Before, I found it difficult to just approach someone and start talking about what I want to do, what they do and how we can work together. It has been great to get a lot of practice. My experience has been that other scientists are always very interested in what I am saying, so that is very encouraging. At first, I found it difficult to clearly express what I want to do, but after some practice, it clicked. It helps you formulate your ideas when you have to talk about them with others,” Sopio explains.

Sopio has not just made connections within the Danish neuroscience community – she has also benefited strongly from her interactions with the other 15 NAD fellows:

“I think the exchanges within our group are very beneficial. I often go to the others for advice and ideas,” Sopio says.

Sopio is excited to get started on preparatory work for her PhD project and will, like the other NAD fellows, hand in her PhD project proposal later this year.

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