Two Edinburgh students report back on their experiences at Leiden University Medical Centre in summer 2014

In the summer of 2014 Edinburgh Infectious Diseases sponsored two Edinburgh undergraduate students to undertake research placements at Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands. 

The students, Jack Law and Elizaveta Elshina, had both just completed their third year at the University of Edinburgh and would be joining the Infectious Diseases Honour Programme in September 2014.  The two month placement gave both Elizaveta (R) and Jack (L) a valuable insight into what working in a research lab is like and also gave them the opportunity to widen their horizons exploring another country.  We intend to run the programme again in summer 2015 and this year hope to welcome students from Leiden to work in Edinburgh. 

Elizaveta and Jack both had very positive experiences during their time in Leiden.  Read more about what they did, and what they thought about their time in the Netherlands below.


Summer placement in the Leiden University Medical Centre, Netherlands (July-August 2014), by Elizaveta Elshina

The project – Culturing schistosomulae of the instestinal helminth Schistosoma mansoni

I joined the Glycobiology group led by Dr Ron Hokke within the Parasitology Department of Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC). I worked with the PhD student, Michelle Yang, on the Schistosoma mansoni project. There are around 200 million people infected with this parasite which results in 300,000 deaths per year in Sub Saharan Africa alone. There is no efficient vaccine against schistosomiasis; the ones in development are based on the protein antigens. In the Glycobiology group they are interested in the glycan antigens that are present on the parasite lipids or proteins that can confer an immune response and can be ultimately used as vaccine adjuvants. We worked with live infectious parasites which required extra care. There is a S. mansoni life cycle carried out in the animal facility of LUMC, therefore each week we were provided with freshly shed S. mansoni cercariae and were transforming them into the schistosomula stage.

In the first few weeks we established optimal conditions for culturing schistosomulae in vitro. We were adjusting various parameters of culture conditions and assessing their survival by fluorescent labelling of dead schistosomulae with propidium iodide.

Upon penetration through the skin the parasite in schistosomula stage is exposed to the host immune system. Therefore schistosomula antigens are important potential targets for a vaccine. For the first time we performed killing assays where we assessed the effect of monocolanal antibodies against different surface glycans on the rate of death of cultured schistosomulae with addition of normal or complement inactivated mouse sera.  Immunofluorescence assay with fluorescently labelled secondary antibodies was used to visualise the location of glycans on the parasite surface while propidium iodide fluorescent labelling was used to estimate the degree of killing.

Later I got a chance to do other experiments of my interest. I  tested the glycan specificities of various monoclonal antibodies on the glycan microarray and learned to use GenePix Pro software for the array analysis. I also learned to run SDS page and Western blot with the lysate of cercariae or schistosomulae to compare the monoclonal antibody specificity for the glycans of their structural proteins. Subsequently I performed trypsin digestion of the proteins and MALDI-TOF Mass Spectrometry using the Mascot search engine for the identification of those proteins.

I presented my results at the weekly meetings and was pleased that my suggestions were always taken into account.  During these meetings I learned about the work of researchers in the Glycobiology group who also advised me on some aspects of my experiments.  I was given freedom to try different techniques of my interest as long as they could be linked to the research.  So overall I am very happy with the practical experience that I gained in this project.

The city

Leiden is a beautiful student city with many tourist attractions. LUMC is located near the city centre and two minutes away from the train station so it is very convenient to travel there. I lived in another city, Delft, and was taking train every day to work. The communication between Dutch cities is very convenient and fast. Such cities as Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft and Rotterdam are easy to access from Leiden.

Social life

I met many interesting people even within the LUMC. There are many international students and researches so English is the most used language. I was in time for the annual lab outing with the Glycobiology group and we spent a great time in The Hague, doing the locked room experience, being on the tour around the city, finishing with the barbeque on the rooftop of our supervisor’s house and playing mafia until late. We have also spent time together with other interns inside and outside the LUMC, going to museums and cinemas in the Hague and Amsterdam or watching international firework show on the beach near the Hague. There are lots of opportunities for entertainment!

Some tips for future students gleaned from my experience

  • For many people it takes time to find a suitable accommodation in Leiden so it is better to look for it in advance
  • It is common to live and work in two separate cities so you may want to consider  living in Delft or the Hague unless travel costs will make it more expensive than living in Leiden
  • The system of train passes is confusing and it often changes. For now it is not possible to get a discount month pass unless you have a Dutch bank account, also student train passes are not issued in summer.
  • Don’t worry about the language because 95% of people speak very good English

Leiden University Medical Centre Summer Internship – Thoughts on my experience, by Jack Law

The project – Investigating the effect of Schistosoma mansoni infection on neuroinflammation

I undertook an 8 week internship at the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Department of Parasitology, working as part of Dr Bruno Guigas’ group, under the supervision of Dr Noemí Garcia-Tardón.

In this time I performed two main experiments, involving cells of the brain and the effects of inflammation from helminths:

  • Investigating the effect of Schistosoma mansoni infection, in combination with an ovalbumin-induced allergy, in relation to inflammation in the hypothalamuses of mice, by q-PCR.
  • Assessing whether up-regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines in BV2 microglial cell line cultures was regulated by the NFκB pathway, using Western blotting.

The time I spent in the lab, learning new techniques under a broad theme of investigation, was time well spent.  There wasn’t enough time in the short 2 months I was there to follow a whole project through from beginning to end, but it was an excellent introduction to life in a university lab. It allowed me to see how the days were spent between bench work and writing, as well as seeing how the research groups worked by attending their meetings on new findings, and attending presentations from other students’ master’s internships.

The city of Leiden

The city itself is very nice. There are picturesque canals within the centre, with a large canal system forming a ring around the old city. All the buildings are very old and pretty. There’s a large shopping street running through the city, and on Saturdays there is a market outside the town hall.  The LUMC is in the Northwest next to the train station.

By way of attractions, there are several museums: the Natural Biodiversity Museum, which has a large collection of preserved animals, as well exhibits on the history of the world through geological periods, and other bits; the museum of ethnology (Rijksmuesum Volkenkunde), which has exhibits on cultures from all over the world and was fascinating; there were also a few art museums, and a museum of archaeology, which I did not visit. The botanical gardens were a good visit, having a good greenhouse section, and overlooking the canal, and in the centre is the burcht (like a motte and bailey), which gives some stunning views of the city.

I would recommend getting a bicycle. Whilst the city is small and easily walkable part of the “Dutch experience” is cycling, and it is an excellent way of seeing the city. It’s very safe - unlike here where it’s a battle between cyclists and cars for the same space, there is nearly always a cycle lane or path, and the drivers are all taught how to deal with cyclists. The only accident I witnessed was between two cyclists!

Social interactions

Everyone was very welcoming in the department, from the master’s students to the post-docs and professors. It was easy to make friends within the workroom I was put in because it does become quite a tight-knit community within that space. There was always someone to eat lunch with, and we also spent time together outside of work, having dinner and drinks on occasion. It was just a very pleasant environment.

The Netherlands

Travel around the Netherlands is very easy, as their train system is excellent, and cheap. Places near Leiden to visit include The Hague and Amsterdam, both very close by, as well as the similarly picturesque Delft. Although I didn’t, it’s perfectly possible to visit places farther afield, like Rotterdam, Utrecht, and Antwerp, for relatively little money.

Practically everyone that one could need to speak to has at least functional English, if not excellent English. The language of the LUMC is English, and there are plenty of people from other European countries meaning that there aren’t too many unintelligible conversations held in Dutch.

Conclusions

Overall, it was a fantastic experience. It gave me a great impression of what it could be like to do further study in the field of infectious disease, and has helped me in my decision on whether to do further study. (I definitely want to.) The Netherlands is an excellent place to visit, and living there for two months was very easy as it’s so similar to here. I was rarely short of something to do, and made good friends and contacts.  I would definitely recommend continuing this opportunity.

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