Scientia Fellows profile: Following research dreams across Europe
Filipa Baltazar da Costa Vaz grasped the chance to design and conduct her own research project as a Scientia Fellow. Her interest in combining microbiology and immunology took her from Lisbon, through Oxford and Glasgow, to Oslo.
Filipa Baltazar da Costa Vaz presenting her research at a Scientia Fellows lunch meeting.
Here we discuss her research, the move to Norway, experience during the lockdown and plans for the future.
I started a PhD in microbiology at ITQB (UNL) on a fellowship from the Portuguese government (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia). The host lab in Portugal had a collaboration with the host lab in Oxford, and due to my field of research and technical skills from extensive lab work, I got the opportunity to work in Oxford for a total of three years. At Oxford I encountered the world of immunology, and I realised I wanted to pursue research in the interaction between microbiology and immunology. After my PhD, I stayed on for another six months which positioned me to apply for a postdoc in Glasgow. Once again, I moved on to pursue my research interests.
Why did you apply to Scientia Fellows?
I was happy with my project and work in Glasgow, but I wanted to include more immunology in my research and looked for opportunities to do so. The opportunity to apply to Scientia Fellows and work with Ludvig Sollid’s group, with Rasmus Iversen as my advisor, was the opening I was looking for. I also wanted to create my own project and not solely work on projects for others, being employed in a research group. Scientia Fellows creates a great opportunity to do this. I was aware I could write my own project in collaboration with Rasmus, and I knew from previous projects that three years is optimal, as that is enough to do substantial research but short enough to keep you really focused.
In addition, I found it desirable to attend a fellowship programme. It is good for integrating and meeting new people. When you attend meetings and courses you meet people, and being part of the same programme creates a feeling of belonging. When you move to a new place and do not know anyone it is great to meet a small group in the same situation as you, people you can talk to and ask questions. Even with the lockdown I have been able to meet Scientia fellows at post doc trainings and Zoom meetings. The networking aspect of being introduced to people who are important for your present and future will improve after the lockdown.
I have already recommended the next call for Scientia fellows to a friend of mine.
What are the main things to consider when moving to Norway?
I started my fellowship in January and arrived a few days after Christmas. I hired an Airbnb to stay at for the first weeks, but luckily I got an email from Ingunn at the lab and she had a flat to rent out. I only wanted to stay there for a few months, but I am still there since it is such a nice flat and well located. Finding accommodation can be a challenge when you move to a new country.
Another hurdle can be getting all the necessary papers and permissions from the tax office. They do not exactly call you up to inform you, so I called there almost every day. But it worked out in the end.
I had never been in Oslo before, but it is a capital, not the end of the world. The thing I missed was the pub culture in the U.K. You can always go out and meet people. People here socialise more within their own group. My colleagues at the lab have been great and helpful with everything I have asked for. But when you are new, sometimes you don’t even know what to ask. I noticed it with many things like bank id, Vipps and other solutions you need to get by in everyday life that are specific to Norway.
I can`t speak of a cultural chock, though. In my experience it is a great benefit to travel and see how similar many things are. The differences are not with the culture but more individual to people or the environment at the lab. I think being exposed to those differences makes you more open and tolerant.
What is your research project and what do you expect to achieve?
I work with celiac patients to study how immune responses in the gut contribute to systemic responses. Gut immune responses give rise to antibodies that may protect us from infection both locally and systemically. However, we do not understand how local immune responses in the gut are connected to systemic antibody production. This knowledge will be important for the future development of efficient oral vaccines.
In my project I wanted to grow bacteria from biopsies from patients. It became clear that due to restrictions I could not do that in the university lab. The lab at the hospital became my rescue. When I started out, I got a lot of samples from patients and it worked out very well to grow the bacteria. Almost too well. Fortunately, the collaboration with the lab at the Department of Microbiology gave me access to equipment needed to conduct MALDI TOF analyses, which made the analyses of the samples possible without hiring staff to do it.
Norway went into lockdown mid-March due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Where you able to continue your project?
The first four weeks or so, everything was locked down besides essential lab functions. In April they slowly opened up, but the hospital decided that researchers could only access the hospital lab after hours, so I started at 4 p.m. I had to do everything I usually do in the evening, before work. Now, it is finally slowing down a bit, and I am relieved I was able to continue my research. My samples and research would be gone if they had closed everything completely.
What will you do in five years, after this project?
I have a couple of different projects I want to move forward with. I need to consider the data and possibility of funding to choose one. The dream would be to start my own lab with a small team. My strengths are technical skills in the lab and analysing data, but I have also acquired supervision skills since mid of my PhD. To minimise the administrative and educational part of my work I would like to keep the lab small. I will probably do some work in the lab, making sure the experiments and processes run perfectly in the beginning. But, I think I will also continue to keep my own mini-project “just for fun”, the one that keeps my curiosity high, and go back to it whenever I find the time in between the responsibilities of my new position.