‘Like Don Quichot, you have to keep dreaming’
Having a bachelor, master and Ph.D in chemistry, Elena Sánchez López shifted to a more biological research for her postdoc. All of her studies she did at the University of Alcala, in Spain. Way back in medieval times, this city was the place of birth of Miguel de Cervantes, author of the world famous Don Quichot stories.
‘When I did my Ph.D., my group always underlined the importance of international experience: it helps you grow, both scientifically and personally,’ says Elena Sánchez López, working from her home in Leiden due to the corona crisis. ‘So I did an internship at LUMC, for two short periods. The first was in 2015, and I fell in love with Leiden, even though it was winter. I really liked the LUMC as a work environment. The second time was in the summer of 2016: how the city then comes to live!’
In June 2018, Elena’s research proposal got accepted; a prestigious Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellowship from the LEaDing Fellows programme enabled her to come to Leiden again, this time for a two year period, in professor Dorien Peters’ research group. ‘When I received the good news, I was so happy. I was going back! And even though I was familiar with the LUMC and Leiden, it felt different. Besides, my postdoc position is at Human Genetics, which was new for me. From the start, I have been experiencing great support from colleagues at LUMC and my supervisors. They have made things easy for me, by helping me, answering my questions and supporting me on an emotional level. That really helps to get a kick-start when you arrive here as a postdoc.’
Third time is a charm, as they say, and Elena completely agrees. ‘The Netherlands is such a sweet country. In Leiden, there are a lot of international people so it was relatively easy to find other people and get in contact with them. In my case, I was able to join the association of Spanish scientists in the Netherlands. The Dutch culture and me, we click very well. Especially the cycling! You can go anywhere by bike. That is one of my favorite things. The only thing I had to get used to is the early lunch and diner time,’ she says, smiling. ‘It is good for you to go some place new and work in a different environment. I can recommend it to everyone. Go abroad – whether you’re a postdoc or not. To improve yourself and get to know new people. If you discover things all by yourself, you will be less afraid to overcome issues and problems in the rest of your life. It strengthens you as a person.’
Understanding polycystic kidney disease
Elena’s research concentrates on studying the altered metabolites upon disease. ‘When a person has an illness, you can study what the metabolites are related to that disorder. These molecules can act as biomarkers, which can help in diagnose, predict a particular disease or give information on the effectiveness of different treatments. The aim of my project is to understand the mechanisms of polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disease which causes the development of large cysts in the kidneys. I mainly focus on understanding how certain metabolites are altered in mouse models, in order to find the affected metabolic pathways.
There is no effective cure yet for this disease, which in most cases results in transplantation and dialysis. I hope my study can tribute to finding an effective medicine or cure, as well as a biomarker to predict whether someone will get this disease, so that preventive measures can be taken.’
Elena is broadening her personal horizon at the same time. ‘My background lies in chemistry, working in the molecular biology field is something different. Not only am I broadening my scope, which I find very useful and interesting, but I am also bringing analytical chemistry knowledge and expertise to this research group embedded in the Human Genetics department. I am very grateful that I can also work closely together with the LUMC Nephrology department; they support me and give me access to patients data and urine samples, to correlate the data obtained in the mouse models to patients, for example.’
In order to further study polycystic kidney disease, Elena also planned a collaboration with OcellO, a biotech company at the Leiden Bioscience Park, adjacent to LUMC. ‘They have a unique model to study polycystic kidney disease based on 3D cell samples, so that I can both study in vitro and in vivo the mechanisms underlying the disease. Unfortunately, the corona crisis got in the way of this “field trip”. I have developed a method to properly measure these samples, now I have to wait when we can take the next step with real samples.’
Kaleidoscope of data
The LEaDing fellows program enables Elena to invest in her career development. Thankfully, she has not experienced too much delay due to corona. ‘My contract is for two years, it will end in November 2020. As a lot of my work is data analysis – it is a big kaleidoscope of data that I have to unravel – I was still making progress the last weeks, even though some experiments have been postponed. I always try to stay positive. I guess that is a personal trait that a postdoc has to have. Otherwise you will be out of competition in no time. It’s the long mile. If something does not go according plan, you have to be resilient. And a good planner: while focusing on your research, you have to stay alert for future funding options and faculty positions. You have to play all sides of the court. Earlier this year, I have proposed for a VENI grant. But due to corona, this process too is delayed. I hope to get a decisive reaction before my contract expires.’
As a postdoc, you deal with this kind of uncertainty all the time, Elena says. ‘Grant applications have to meet strict requirements. If you fail one, you can immediately be withdrawn from the procedure. It sometimes is quite intensive and definitely not always easy, but I am positive and always try to look on the sunny side. Like Don Quichot, it is important to keep dreaming and set new goals.’
Does Elena have a ‘pro tip’ to share? ‘Well, it would be more of a wish. If Leiden University could do something about the uncertainty we have to deal with... Then again, I think this is a worldwide challenge for postdocs. But it would be great if this valuable group of committed researchers could get a bit more stability.’
Elena Sánchez López was co-funded through the H2020 Marie Sklodowska Curie program under contract number 707404