The life of Paola: Always on the move

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Paola Masuzzo left Sicily to combine her love for mathematics with her passion for biology-driven questions. After Rome and Utah (US) she moved to Ghent, and is now focusing on cell migration, for a PhD in Biomedical Sciences at Ghent University and VIB.

“When I graduated, my university in Italy did not have any research funding for PhD students, so I started to work in a biomedical company. However, it wasn’t the right match for me, so I quit after only 2 months and decided to look into options for a PhD abroad. I got a position for a PhD in Biomedical Sciences at UGent/VIB, and despite the hard times every PhD student has to go through, I believe it was the best thing that ever happened to me!”

What is your PhD about?

“My PhD is about developing computational tools (such as software and algorithms) to advance cell migration research. Cells move in a lot of processes, both physiological and pathological: during wound healing, in inflammation processes, in neural development, and, as bad as it sounds, in cancer invasion and metastasis. It is therefore extremely crucial to understand these movement strategies, and what we can do to interfere with them.”

Despite the hard times every PhD student has to go through, I believe it was the best thing that ever happened to me!”

“In the last few years, the technology used to study cell migration (which is basically live-cell microscopy) has become both high-throughput and high-content, producing rich and complex datasets. This has created a strong need in terms of solutions for management, analysis and storage of these data.”

“During my PhD, I therefore developed CellMissy (Cell Migration Invasion Storage System). This is an open-source software that takes care of all the steps in a typical workflow of a cell migration experiment, from the setup, over the storage, to the visualization and the analysis. The key feature of the software is the ability to exchange cell migration data across different laboratories, thus enhancing reproducibility and quality control.”

I try to advocate as much as possible for openness in science in general.

“This is very much in line with my passion for Open Science, and especially for open source and open data. I try to advocate as much as possible for openness in science in general, and part of my PhD efforts was the establishment of a research ground to build an open data ecosystem for cell migration research. Basically, the idea of this project is to build a central database where cell migration researchers can both submit and retrieve data, which will be stored in a standardized, common format. Open cell migration data will enable the development of new bioinformatics solutions and algorithms, unlocking fundamental knowledge in the field and translating this knowledge into (pre)clinical applications.

Furthermore, I am currently developing an ontology for a single cell migration track, which is basically a fingerprint for a single moving cell: How can we characterize it? Which numerical features are needed? Which ones are the most informative? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we use them to automatically quantify and classify cell migration strategies?”

What are the possible applications of your PhD?

“The possible applications of my PhD are in the (pre)clinical world. I would love to see one day a ‘cell migration kit’ being used on a patient; for example, to estimate the stage of a metastasis, or to early diagnose an immune-related disease (looking at migrating leukocytes). Also, with a huge amount of data, it would be possible to predict the effects of a specific compound on specific cells, thus accelerating drug discovery for cell migration related diseases.”

You mentioned ‘the hard times every PhD student has to go through.’ What do you find especially demanding about the PhD process, and what has helped you during these hard times?

“A PhD is much more than just researching and writing manuscripts for scientific dissemination. It’s a process of discovery and personal growth, and as such it cannot come without a price to pay. It’s a chain of ups and downs, and most of the time these two moments cannot be predicted! But I believe it’s totally worth it!
I have been lucky to have two nice supervisors who do their very best to guide and support me, and I think this can make a huge difference for every student.”

A PhD is a process of discovery and personal growth.

What are your ambitions for the future?

“At this very moment, I am pretty sure I want to stay in academics, at least for a few more years. I have crazy ideas in mind and a huge desire to make them come true!

I cannot foresee what will happen in the long future, but I believe I’d like to be a professor one day and give my students the same guidance and support I have received.”

What do you do when you are not at work?

I go out with ‘normal’ people (aka no PhDs).

“Think of work? Just kidding (or not?). I try to take good care of myself: I cook, I do Bikram yoga, I read – I read a lot! I write too, but just for my pleasure. And then I do all the things that serve me and my research activity, but that I cannot do at work: I watch tutorials, I read scientific blogs, I take classes online (I love Open Educational Resources), I write my own blog. I watch Seinfeld! I go out with ‘normal’ people (aka no PhDs).”

Do you envision going back to your home country at some point?

“I am not sure I’ll live in Belgium for the rest of my life, but I am pretty sure I won’t return to Italy. I better not get started on why, or I’ll end up writing a book! Let’s just say right now Belgium makes me a much happier person. I do miss the Sicilian sun and the sea, though.”

Read more about Paola on her blog
or follow her on Twitter (140 characters, what a challenge for an Italian!). You can also find more information about her here.

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Top image: courtesy of 
Esther De Smet