Stories and their values: the experience of a young researcher

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Sharing one’s working experience can be helpful for those who still have to choose their future career or those who are afraid of the changes they will have to make to pursue their dream; For this reason we thought, in the wake of the experience of a similar article, to introduce you to the path of a young Greek researcher, Iliana Georgana (figure 1), whose strong passion for microbiology led her to the United Kingdom, in a prestigious laboratory in Cambridge.

Iliana Georgana at King's College  (Cambridge)
Figure 1 – Iliana Georgana at King’s College (Cambridge)

Hello Iliana, thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to share your working experience with our readers. When did you start being passionate about microbiology?

Hello Microbiologia Italia. Thank you very much for this invitation, I am very flattered and happy to share my experience with your audience too. I would say my interest for microbiology started rather gradually. My love about biology led me to choose Molecular Biology and Genetics as undergraduate studies, during which I fall in love with immunology and later on with microbiology. For my Bachelor’s thesis, I worked with the characterisation of bacterial species, but I quickly understood that viruses and the interactions with their hosts excited me more. So, for my Master’s thesis I undertook a project on Hepatitis C and the interplay with the human cells. After this experience, I was sure that I wanted to pursue a PhD and gain more and more experience and knowledge on this field.

What made you choose to leave home and pursue further studies abroad?

Research in Greece was and is still facing many struggles and burdens, such as luck of funding. Additionally, I had a great ambition and desire to gain an experience abroad and work in one of the best international labs. So, I decided to pursue a PhD in the UK where there are numerous well-funded labs with top researchers from around the world, from whom I could learn and be mentored.

Tell us about the first lab you worked in the UK and what were your first obstacles.

I joined Dr Maluquer de Motes’ lab on 2015, it was recently established, only few years before my arrival. The group leader was a young and ambitious PI, with very solid collaborators and a great vision. The group was small, we were only two PhD students and one Postdoctoral fellow, but it was a very friendly and encouraging environment. I was initially struggling with the language and the cultural differences between UK and Greece, so it took me time to completely adapt. Then, there are of course the pressure, stress and challenges that a PhD has, but one interview is not enough to describe them all! Haha

What was the first project you worked on?

My first project was on vaccinia virus and its interactions with human cells. Specifically, I discovered that this virus inhibits one of the most important pathways inside the cells, the cGAS/STING DNA sensing pathway, which recognises cytosolic DNA that comes from mislocalised self DNA, or pathogenic DNA. This was the first study to show this, although vaccinia virus has been studied for several years. I am very proud to say that my project resulted in the first academic publication of the Maluquer lab (figure 2).

Iliana Georgana in the laboratory
Figure 2 – Iliana Georgana in the laboratory

After completing your PhD what were your career prospects?

With 3 years of research and two important academic publications, I had a very strong CV, which allowed me to apply for a Postdoctoral position at top universities in the field. I received very good offers from different universities in the UK and I decided to accept my current position at the University of Cambridge.

A dream for many of us: Cambridge! Can you describe your lab, your current project and how does it feel to work is such a prestigious university?

My current lab is quite big, we are 15 people in total, 6 PhD students and 9 Postdoctoral fellows. We are all working with vaccinia virus and its interactions with the host, either in human cells or in mouse models, so everyone works on something different. My current project studies the interplay between vaccinia virus and the cytoskeleton (figure 3) and I am investigating potential involvement of the latter in innate immunity. There is a lot of pressure and stress, and as a Postdoc I am very independent. Working in Cambridge gives the possibility of meeting and interacting with brilliant researchers from around the world and the feeling is great!

Iliana Georgana performing experiments
Figure 3 – Iliana Georgana performing experiments

How do you see your future?

I really enjoy research on virus-host interactions and I would like to keep working on this field, either on vaccinia or any other viruses. In particular, my goal is to become an independent group leader and creat my own lab.

If you had the chance would you return back to Greece?

UK offers very good job opportunities and it’s a great country to progress. However, career is not everything in life and I want to have a family too. As a Mediterranean I could see myself somewhere closer to home, but somewhere that I can also aspire my dreams and goals. I would return to Greece if only I could achieve both, otherwise another European country could be my future home. And who knows, maybe it’s Italy! Haha

If you go back, would you make the same choices again?

All the choices that I have made, although they might seemed wrong at that time, they all brought me to where I am at the moment. So, if I could turn back the time I wouldn’t change a thing!

Thank you Iliana for your availability. What do you recommend to our microbiology lovers?

Thank you again Microbiologia Italia for the invitation. I would advice to all your readers to follow their dreams no matter where they are coming from, or which is their background, to not be scared to take risks for what they want to achieve and to never stop trying, even if things don’t look good. Something great will come out of it, I am sure!

Veronica Nerino

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