A great summer for two Edinburgh Infectious Diseases Honours students exploring science in Leiden

Two students from the 2015 / 16 Infectious Diseases Honours course have recently returned from summer placements at the Leiden University Medical Center.

Rachel Halkerston and Jake MacLeod have just begun their final honours year studying infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh.  But before they started they had the opportunity to find out what it is like to do real research – they were selected to spend two months working in the Departments of Parasitology and Molecular Microbiology at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.  This student placement programme is funded by Edinburgh Infectious Diseases

Read more about the projects they worked on below, and how they found living and studying in the Netherlands.


During his placement Jake Macleod worked with Dr. Puck van Kasteren and Dr. Peter Bredenbeek in Prof. Eric Snijder's research group to study the relationship between RNA viruses and innate immunity.

During the course of an 8 week internship Jake investigated the relationship between a viral protease from equine arteritis virus (EAV) and ISG15.  ISG15 is an ubiquitin-like molecule that the lab had previously shown to deubiqutinate the EAV protease. He employed various experimental techniques including PCR, cell culturing and western blotting to analyse the in vitro expression of different constructs of the EAV protease and ISG15 proteins.

Writing about his time in the lab:

The experience which I gained from working within a research laboratory environment has been invaluable and provides a good foundation of understanding of experimental techniques which I can take forward into my own Senior Honours project and build on in future research. Dr. van Kasteren and Dr. Bredenbeek were indispensable in providing me with key knowledge during the internship and allowed me to experience how a research group is run with discussions into individual projects and collating these as a collective towards the research goal.

And about his time in Leiden and the Netherlands:

Leiden itself is a beautiful city with canal routes throughout the city, and encompassing the old town in which I stayed for the duration. The old town is full of character with many small cafes (of both the coffee and beer variety) with restaurants scattered along the canal banks. One cafe in particularly was a favourite – Oliviers which is situated on Hooigracht. Oliviers is a fantastic establishment for great food and excellent beer with a lovely garden. There are a couple of pool halls to be found in restored old churches and the university's botanic gardens can be found not too far from the centre near the main student accommodation centre.

Jake out and about in Amsterdam; at the city gate of Morspoort; picturesque canal in Leiden

The LUMC is slightly north-west of the centre of the city, just 2 minutes by foot from Leiden Centraal train station. Many shops can be found within walking distance of the train station and the old town on Haarlemerstraat.

In terms of activities, there are a variety of museums including the Museum of Natural History (which is a couple minutes from the LUMC and train station) along with the option for canal tours which, weather permitting, provide for a relaxing insight into the history of the city.

There is always the possibility to take trips to Amsterdam and Den Haag which will provide ample opportunity to explore the vast culture of the Netherlands further. With trips to Amsterdam you can visit the Anne Frank Museum, the Royal Palace and the Rijk Museum to name but a few attractions.

In terms of language, the majority of people speak English so if learning foreign languages is not your strong point then don't worry!

And in conclusion:

I can say that, without a doubt, the 8 week experience in the Netherlands was fantastic. Whilst being provided with insights into new culture and a beautiful country, I received brilliant opportunities to improve my skills within a research environment and would highly recommend the placement to any prospective students.  I can have no regrets about choosing to spend a glorious summer abroad!


Rachel worked with Dr. Bruno Guigas to study the effects of helminth-derived products on the development of adipose tissue.

The body is composed of three types of adipocyte tissue, white (WAT), brown (BAT) and beige. WAT is important in storing excess energy as triglyceride whereas BAT is known to play an important role in regulating body temperature in small mammals and newborns. There is increasing evidence that BAT and beige tissue play an important role in energy homeostasis in adults too, via mitochondrial UCP1 facilitated thermogenesis (Saely et al, 2012), a pathway which is dysregulated in obesity and obesity related disease.

Helminth infection induces a Th2 immune response in the host.  Cytokines associated with the Th2 response are also known to promote WAT beigeing – the upregulation of UCP1 expression from WAT tissue.  We hypothesize that helminth derived molecules might promote BAT/ beige tissue development and concomitant thermogenesis, which in turn may play an important role in the control of obesity and obesity related diseases in the future.

Rachel first determined the optimal experimental conditions to differentiate re-adipocytes towards brown adipocytes that express the cellular marker characteristic of in vivo tissue.  Using these conditions she then tested the effects of helminth derived molecules on adipocyte differentiation. 

Rachel at the Leiden botanical gardens; along one of the many beautiful canals in the city

What it was like in the lab for Rachel:

I absolutely loved working in the Department of Parasitology under Bruno’s supervision.  Everyone was very welcoming, friendly and helpful from day one. They were very sociable with pie/snacks being present on multiple occasions during my project to celebrate births, birthdays and leaving do’s.  Embracing these occasions made interacting with the rest of the department very easy and there was always a group to enjoy lunch with. 

The lab facilities available allowed me to learn and develop lab techniques not possible so far in my undergrad and if I was stuck with a technique there was always someone to ask for help ranging from the other students to technicians and Bruno my supervisor.  It was also very beneficial to be able to talk over results with different people who had a more extensive knowledge of the subject. Not only did this develop my understanding of the project, but it also helped develop my critical thinking and interpretation and to understand how to plan the future experiments to explore or confirm results which will be very important in our 4th year projects. 

Having hands on experience has reinforced how interesting and satisfying parasitology is.  Before this summer I didn’t realise and range of activities and level of collaboration involved in a research environment between co-workers and departments.  It has strenghtened my desire to continue into a research masters or exploring other aspect Infectious Diseases in the future.

And of her time living in Leiden, Rachel said:

Leiden is a very picturesque place to live and everything in the centre of Leiden is easy to navigate/ walking distance if you don’t have a bike.  An aspect that I particularly enjoyed was the outdoor swimming pool ‘The Vliet’, which is open all summer.  There is also a good selection of eateries/pubs/pool halls near the student accommodation, with Jake's and my particuarl favourite being Oliviers.

I visited as many places as I could during my two months in the Netherlands including Enkhuzien, Hoorn, Haarlem, Den Haag, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Maastricht and the Hoge Veluwe National Park.  I thoroughly enjoyed these chances to explore places I wouldn’t necessarily visit on a holiday.  Investing in an OV-chipkaart travel pass made the public transport system in Holland affordable and it was also very efficient and easy to navigate.  I also found it extremely easy to travel further afield from the Netherlands – you can get to the overnight bus (7 h) to Paris for the weekend!

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