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There and back again – talented researchers receive fellowships for research abroad

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded postdoctoral fellowships to three adept young researchers which enables them to work on exciting biomedical projects at leading research institutions abroad and thereafter return to Denmark to continue their line of research.

Conducting research in a different country and culture often provides new perspectives as well as professional and personal development.

Now, three talented biomedical researchers will have the exciting opportunity to test their research theories and broaden their horizons at research institutions outside Denmark, having received a postdoctoral fellowship for research abroad from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

The three researchers selected for the Foundation’s 2021 Postdoctoral Fellowships for Research Abroad are Yuvaraj Bhoobalan, Thomas Daugbjerg Madsen and Milena Timcenko.

They are moving to excellent research institutions in France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, respectively. All three will engage in projects focusing on understanding basic biological processes in the human body. Read more about their projects below.

The unique 4-year fellowships are awarded to enable postdocs to obtain international experience and improve their skills at a research institution abroad for at least 3 years while remaining affiliated with an institution in Denmark. This connection is designed to ensure that the young researchers can return to Denmark in the fourth year of their fellowship with their new knowledge and experience and start to establish an independent research career.

“International experience and mobility are of importance when building a career as a younger researcher, it sharpens their competitive edge and serves as a mark of excellence and commitment. Learning from other research and teaching environments and cultures also leads to personal development and strengthens their network. This creates new energy and value for the research institutions to which they return,” says Niels-Henrik von Holstein-Rathlou, Senior Vice President, Biomedicine and Health Sciences, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Read more about the postdoctoral fellowships from the Foundation here.

The fellows and their projects:

Milena Timcenko
Age: 29 years
Granted amount: DKK 3,993,426 over 4 years
Institution abroad: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Neurobiology Division, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Danish host institution: University of Copenhagen, Department of Biology
Project title: Structural investigation of retinal neuron synapses by cryo-ET

Milena says about the project: ”Our perception of movement depends on the bi-directional communication between two types of neurons (nerve cells) in our retina through a structure called a synapse. When something moves in our field of vision, one type of neuron instantly releases two different small molecules called neurotransmitters (NTs) into the synapse, and it is their exact balance, which enables us to register the direction of movement. This kind of simultaneous release of multiple NTs is important for the function of the central nervous system, but the process in not yet well-understood. Cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET) is a novel and rapidly improving technique, which makes it possible to study flash-frozen tissue in three dimensions at molecular resolution, thereby making it possible to study proteins in their native environments.

In this project, I will study the molecular structures of synapses from mouse retina to further our understanding of synaptic communication with multiple NTs. The institution where I am going, the MRC LMB, has pioneered electron microcopy, the basis of the cryo-ET technique, that I will be using in this study, and is an excellent place for me to develop further as a scientist.”

Thomas Daugbjerg Madsen
Age: 29 years
Granted amount: DKK 3,997, 557 over 4 years
Institution abroad: NIH National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland, United States.
Danish host institution: University of Copenhagen, Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine
Project title: Regulation of endocytic receptors by dynamic sialylation resolved by real-time intravital microscopy

Thomas says about the project: ”Protein glycosylation and subsequent sialic acid capping (sialylation) is a very complex and widespread post-translational modification that regulate protein functions. Emerging evidence suggest that this is a reversible and dynamic process that allows the cell to control not only protein functions but also recycling of cell surface proteins after endocytosis (i.e. process of uptake of external substances and membrane proteins into the cell).

My project explores molecular switching of receptor glycans and sialic acid capping in vivo using real-time intravital microscopy in conditional mice mutants in three different endocytic organ/receptor-systems. The project builds on my line of research, and my discoveries of site-specific glycosylation of a group of the endocytic LRP receptors where sialylation serves as a switch between high- and low-affinity states of the receptors. This regulatory element of the LRPs is crucial in several important physiological processes such as cholesterol-metabolism and kidney function. The laboratory at NCI/NIH where I am going has specialized expertise in real-time intravital microscopy that is central for my project, and I will be trained in this cutting-edge techniques which will both provide me with real-time imaging of receptor/ligand trafficking. Importantly, I will bring this expertise back to Denmark with the aim of establishing a platform for intravital studies of glycoprotein trafficking. My project will undoubtedly have profound impact on our general understanding of the regulation of receptor functions and provide new avenues for treatment of diseases such as hypercholesterolemia, renal insufficiency, and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Yuvaraj Bhoobalan
Age: 30 years
Granted amount: DKK 3,885,194 over 4 years
Institution abroad: INRAe, Micalis Institute, Paris, France
Danish host institution: University of Copenhagen, Department of Biology
Project title: Phage evolution and phage-bacteria interactions in the intestinal environment

Yuvaraj says about the project: “The human microbiome is a complex ecosystem (including bacteria, archaea, viruses, etc.) which needs to be in harmony and is key for our health. The gut microbiome has been linked to metabolic and inflammatory disorders, cancer, depression, as well as infant health and longevity. Bacteriophages (in short phages) are virus that attack bacteria. Phages exist naturally in the gut and are an important but understudied part of the microbiome. Evolutionary pressure induces mutations among all living organisms; these genomic changes are especially prevalent among viruses (and phages) and contribute to infectious mutants.

My project aims to gain a basic understanding of the root mechanisms behind specific genomic changes in phages to understand how phage evolution rates impacts the phage-bacteria dynamics in the gut environment. The group at the Micalis institute (INRAe, France), where I am going, has developed a method for detecting mutations in real time, which I will employ in this project. Understanding phages and their impact on bacteria in the gut has several potential applications. The emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria has devastating impact on health, and phage therapy is emerging as the most rational treatment against antibiotic resistant bacteria. I intend to use the obtained knowledge to develop a phage-based effective and long-term treatment-option for inhibition of disease-causing bacteria to promote the maintenance of a stable gut microbiome.”

Further information

Christian Mostrup, Senior Programme Lead, +45 3067 4805, [email protected]