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Supporting Science Across Borders with Student Exchange

Nestled in Northern Italy, the city of Bologna is one filled with medieval architecture, sprawling city squares, and a culture of scientific excellence. The University of Bologna is considered the oldest university in the western world and asserts a reputation as a leading institution for biomedical education in Italy and around the globe. In 2020, The Wistar Institute kickstarted a Ph.D. exchange program with the University of Bologna for budding scientists in cell and molecular biology. Exchange students travel to Philadelphia and complete their thesis over the course of three years at the Institute while being supervised by a Wistar principal investigator and immersed in a collaborative, supportive research environment.

Ilan Kirkel, an exchange student in Wistar’s Gardini lab, who presented a research proposal to University of Bologna faculty and was invited to Wistar by Alessandro Gardini, Ph.D., said, “I looked online, and it just seemed like the most unbelievable place with so many opportunities. I thought, ‘Count me in! I’ll see you in November!’.” Ilan is currently researching biological machinery involved in regulating the process of transcription. Specific transcription complex subunits are potentially linked to the repair of DNA breaks, which is an important activity that affects the functioning of cells and Ilan seeks to understand these regulatory processes.

Exchange student Davide Maestri is working in the lab of Italo Tempera, Ph.D., on understanding the mechanism underpinning Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) latency in hosts. EBV latency could present differently in immunocompetent versus immunocompromised individuals and these differences could be linked to tumor formation, making the latency mechanism a potential effective target to treat EBV-associated tumors. “What attracted me to this exchange program was the possibility of incredible professional growth. I’ve always wanted to expand my “research horizons” to cancer research and genomics and after reading the projects that were ongoing in the Tempera Lab, I thought it would be a perfect match for me,” Davide states.

An exchange student in the lab of Rugang Zhang, Ph.D., Simona Lombardi is focusing on the epigenetics of cancer. “I always dreamt about being a researcher and this program was the perfect opportunity for me to achieve my goal. I remember my joy when I found the lab that could best match me at the Institute,” Simona recalls. Her Ph.D. thesis project is about investigating epigenetic alterations involved in endometrial cancer and revealing potential therapeutic targets for more effective cancer treatments.

Learning in a Creative and Nurturing Environment

Students in The Wistar Institute and University of Bologna Ph.D. Exchange Program in Cell and Molecular Biology have been in Philadelphia kickstarting their science. In addition to settling in and starting their research, these students have been immersed in an innovative atmosphere unique to Wistar that is focused on learning and career building.

“I feel academically liberated,” Ilan divulges. “It’s wonderful to be surrounded by so many driven and intelligent people. At Wistar, you can tackle problems from almost every single angle. For example, I just participated in Wistar’s Life Science Innovation course where we gave a ‘shark tank’ style biotechnology pitch to investors and it exposed me to the business side of life sciences.” 

Simona, who joined Wistar in late 2020, affirms, “Day after day, I am more convinced that the choice I made for my Ph.D. program has been the best one. I believe that a Ph.D. is a fundamental step in our growth as researchers, and we must choose it carefully and find a place that nurtures and feeds our passion even more.”

Davide provides a perspective as one of the students who has been at Wistar the longest, adding, “I’ve been here a year and a half now, and this has been one of the best experiences in my life so far! I had the opportunity to work in close contact with highly competent and humble people who are always ready to help me with my experiments.”

A Future of Internationally Reaching, Impactful Science

Looking forward, the exchange students will continue to craft their thesis projects and investigate the endless mysteries that the life sciences field poses to researchers.

Davide intends to pursue a career in academia. He details, “I still have another year and a half in front of me here at Wistar that I hope will be as scientifically stimulating as the first half of my exchange.” After his thesis defense, he would like to remain in the U.S. and start a post-doctoral position. Simona is also planning on staying in the U.S. after finishing this program and pursuing her scientific questions even further. “I am determined to continue my career in the field of cancer research,” she states.

“A Ph.D. crystallizes as time goes on,” says Ilan. “Being at Wistar and seeing cutting edge research and utilizing state-of-the-art resources helped me realize I can do so much.” He feels prepared to quickly move into an academic research position after completing his degree but is staying open to the diverse career opportunities to be pursued in the life sciences. “Three years is a bit of time for me to think and see what else I can accomplish.”

With promising talent and a degree program that addresses the creative, collaborative, and global nature of successful STEM research careers, the Institute is excited to continue supporting these Ph.D. students as they discover, innovate, and impact.