The BIST master of research: a multidisciplinary journey

By March 21, 2019January 7th, 2021BIST Community, ICIQ, IRB Barcelona

BIST Community Post
Jia Liang Sun Wang, BIST MMRES graduate, 2018

Ever watched The Big Bang Theory sitcom? Well, the BIST-UPF master’s degree felt a bit like the show. One could think of the master as a defined space in our ever-expanding universe where scientists of different backgrounds get to know each other and even work together: physicists, mathematicians, informaticians, chemists, biologists, engineers, nanoscientists, and many more. Sounds crazy right? Well I actually think that this was the best part of the programme. I learned so much from my colleagues, science-wise and career-wise and we became a very close family. It was very interesting to know for example that the universe is mainly made of dark energy and dark matter and that “normal matter” makes up only 5% of it – note that I am a biologist.

The fact that this programme focuses on collaborative research projects among different scientific disciplines is awesome. It makes you realize why these kinds of collaborations among chemists, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, etc. are crucial if we want to take our research to the next level and solve complex scientific questions. For instance, if we want to visualize intracellular organelle contacts at live single cell resolution then not only do we need cell biologists but also physicists and engineers who can upgrade and build new imaging tools and interfaces. Or if we want to improve drug targeting for therapeutic purposes, research in nanomedicine has become a hotspot in and requires scientists from many different backgrounds.

In addition, this degree also provided us with very valuable training in skills such as project management, effective communication, research integrity, and more, which I think is very important no matter what kind of career you intend to pursue. This feature made the programme unique, as this sort of training is normally provided to students that are at the PhD level.

During the programme, I also had the opportunity to work on a cutting edge collaborative project between a chemistry group (led by Prof. Pau Ballester, ICIQ) and a biology group (led by Prof. Manuel Palacin, IRB Barcelona). Our research focused on the development of synthetic carriers for the transport of small molecules and ions. Why is this research important? Our cells constantly exchange molecules and ions with its environment through the activity of membrane transporters, a dynamic process that occurs in the cell membrane and is essential for the well-being of cells. There are several human diseases in which this dynamic exchange of molecules and ions is impaired, mainly because of defective membrane transporters or due to a hyperactive transport activity. Therefore, we believe that the development of artificial transporters that could mimic membrane transporters is of utmost importance to tackle these diseases. The potential synthetic carriers, based on calix[4]pyrroles, were developed in the lab of Prof. Pau Ballester at ICIQ. Here, we worked on different methods of inserting our carriers into the membrane of liposomes (a research tool that mimics the cell membrane) to compare the anion transport activity of our carriers and found that the insertion method influences the transport properties of our carriers. Our findings point out that insertion as DMSO solution is not optimal for highly-lipophilic carriers, whereas pre-inserting the carriers during the preparation of liposomes would be the best strategy to achieve an optimal transport activity. According to these results, not only do we think that our pre-insertion methodology can be useful in other comparative studies of anion transport activity in liposomes but also can be implemented to study the transport activity of synthetic carriers in living cells. We have implemented this methodology to study whether these artificial transporters could transport amino acids in cells in Prof. Manuel Palacin’s lab (unpublished data). This project received funding from the BIST Ignite programme, an innovative initiative that fosters this kind of multidisciplinary research.

To sum up, the experience through this multidisciplinary journey was incredibly enriching, both scientifically and socially. Last but not least, I would really like to thank the coordinators as well as all the people who were behind the scenes to ensure we had an amazing experience. They were very involved and engaging. I hope the current cohort of master students are enjoying it as much as we did and I wish them the best of luck.

Jia Liang Sun Wang graduated from the BIST MMRES in 2018. He is now a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna where he works in the Signialling Mechanisms in Cellular Homeostasis group at the Vienna Biocenter.