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Hydra Panoramic

By Marousa Darsinou

Hydra is an island located in the Aegean Sea - wonderful, calm and the place where I grew up.

Considered one of the most romantic destinations in Greece, its natural beauty has inspired painters and muscians from around the world. That inspiration, however, is not just for the artists. Over the last twelve years, Hydra has played host to the European Summer School on Stem Cells & Regenerative Medicine. The summer school provides intensive training on fundamental concepts and contemporary issues in stem cell biology to young researchers and students.

Last year I was given the chance to participate in HYDRA XII Summer School as a student and local. After my high school graduation, I studied biology at the University of Ioannina and am currently pursuing my PhD at the Biomedical Research Institute in the same town. My research focuses on how neural stem cells generate new neurons throughout lifetime. For me, it was an incredible experience to be able to participate in such a high level educational discourse with top international scientists in my small hometown.

The programme included inspiring talks, small discussion groups that led to constructive conversations, and poster sessions where participants were able to present their work. This gathering enabled me to hear, learn, and discuss about the most cutting-edge topics for stem cell research and novel pioneer techniques. Throughout the programme, a theme emerged of the complexity of the nature of stem cells -- from the cells environment to position to key characteristics.

Hydra speakers

In particular, I was struck by a number of speakers and the topics they raised both in full discussion and small groups. I was impressed by Allon Klein’s talk that included a discussion on the single cell barcoding technique that provides an opportunity to know each cell’s identity and thereby allow us to understand stem cells better than ever. Michele de Luca’ s talk was an astonishing look into a clinical case in which they were able to use stem cells to treat a life-threatening disease. I also had the chance to hear about ethical and bioethical issues that are not usually discussed. Most importantly, Michaela Frye’s talk and the small discussion group gave me new ideas about my own PhD project. As a young scientist, it helped me reorient my thinking in a more responsible and focused way.

Apart from the invited talks, there were poster sessions where all the participants, including myself, presented their work. By discussing with other participants about their work, I learned new concepts that helped me to better understand some of the topics addressed throughout the week with which I was not familiar. From the discussion of my own poster, I was also able to get valuable feedback about my work from the professors in the summer school.

GameSomething that I also enjoyed a lot was the public engagement sessions. It is always a challenge for scientists to explain their work to people with a different (or no) academic background. The EuroStemCell team showed us how to engage the public with the science in an accessible way. We discussed about how we can approach our work with somebody not related to our scientific field using our own “simple, single sentence”. At first, I thought that this was easy. However, when I was asked to describe my work in a single sentence, I couldn’t. In addition, we discussed about how to describe the role and significance of stem cells to children. They showed us a few cartoon videos and comics, and we also played games that explain the importance of the stem cells to children in a simpler and more entertaining manner. Actually, I found the cartoons and the games quite amusing, even for adults.

The importance of being able to communicate my work to a general audience became clear to me when I remembered that I had faced this problem before when my family was asking me about my work. Anna Couturier and Amanda Waite helped me to face this problem.

After the sessions, they gave me homework to explain my work to a friend who is not related to the science of biology. Needless to say, diving into my work with a friend with no stem cell science background was an odd experience for me. We hung my poster on the curtain using clothespins and I started to explain. At first, I found it a bit difficult to describe precisely my work to him ,as the concepts seemed too complex to communicate. However, by using the public communication skills I learned at Hydra, I was able to have a fun and informative conversation. I used tools like drawings, as well as simple examples like switches, traffic cops and the components of a cake to describe complex processes that take place in the cell. We both really enjoyed the conversation and - most importantly -  my friend was able to understand much more about my work than he did before.

The Hydra XII summer school was very beneficial for me - and amazing to experience on my home island. It improved my scientific background and gave me fresh ideas about my work. The talks helped me engage with new concepts and areas of research. During the summer school, I was glad to meet many great people and make new friendships with people who share the same passion for science as me. I strongly believe that every stem cell scientist, at least once, should have the experience of participating in this summer school. After all, participating in HYDRA XII Summer School has been a unique experience for me. It inspired and encouraged me to carry on with my research problems and scientific understanding. And as Connie Eaves said:

“Dream big - all things are possible!”

I would like to thank Prof. Clare Blackburn, Dr. Kim Jensen, Dr. Sally Lowell and Prof. Austin Smith for giving me the chance to attend this summer school. I am really glad that I met you all.