EASO New Investigators United Spotlight Interview: meet Claudia Sikorski-Luck

Claudia, it’s lovely to meet you. Congratulations on your NIU award at the European Obesity Summit for public health. Please tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up and how did your journey with science begin?

Claudia Sikorski-LuckI grew up in a small rural village in the middle of Thuringia – a state in Germany that is also known as its “green heart”. This is mainly because its shape looks like a heart, but also because mountain and forest ranges are key landscape elements. I suppose this is where I developed my love for nature and the outdoors; even as kids my brother, sister and I went out and about in the woods surrounding our village. I attended regular primary school and continued on to high school in a city close by. In 6th grade, my mother who is an English teacher, got the chance to spend 6 months in a teacher exchange and took me along – that’s how I ended up in North Carolina for this period of time. I spent another year in the US during high school and finished my high school exams in 2004. It was during this time we were to write our first scientific summary – we were to research literature and even collect data on a chosen topic – and I enjoyed becoming lost in writing this report. I remember that my limited knowledge of research designs and data analysis limited my work and I continued researching how to gain a better understanding on my topic (assessing personalities of students who spend a year abroad).

After high school I was struck by the many options around fields of study and had some difficulty choosing what to study. Medicine, psychology, political science and journalism all made the short list, but psychology turned out to be the sought after combination of the social and natural sciences. I developed a strong background in research methodology at the University of Leipzig, which included several of my own small research projects. I also started to work as a student assistant at the Institute of Sociology, which continued to propel my path toward research and which broadened my horizons to new and more advanced statistical methods, while introducing new concepts in a sociological context. My final thesis about depression in old age provided the last push to lead me to pursue a career in research.

I started working at the Institute of Social Medicine, Occupational Health and Public Health in 2010, where I was responsible for my first individual research project – assessing the attitudes of the general German population and health care professionals towards people with obesity. The next years were dedicated to my PhD and the project, both of which were finished in 2013. I liked the challenge of the topic – it means that you have to be prepared for questions of all kinds (like: Are people with obesity really not just lazy? What are the reasons for obesity then?) and to answer these you have to think outside the box and be open to different research areas. I very much like that my work feeds my curiosity to learn about things, gives me the opportunity to see the world and meet inspiring people and other researchers – this work is never boring.

Just this year, after a post-doc phase at the Institute of Social Medicine, Occupational Health and Public Health and a short stay at Columbia University, New York, I was appointed professor for psychological health and psychotherapy at the University of Applied Sciences, Gera. During my PhD studies, I continued to pursue my psychological education as well and I’m in the midst of finishing the training required to become a psychotherapist. In summary, I would say that I have found a position that lets me combine research and practical work with patients and students – which I would have defined as my “ideal” position.

We would love to learn more about your home country and the area you live in now:

Even though I work in Gera, I still live in Leipzig, Germany, and I commute about an hour every day (one way). As you may have noticed from my career path, Leipzig has been the main focus of my studies and work. It’s a wonderful city to live in, it feels very open and free in general. Rents were cheap and the creative scene bustling when I was a student, and now I enjoy the art and cultural scene as well. Many of my close friends and family are in Leipzig or close by. The only thing missing is the mountains and woods.

How did you come to enter this particular field of research?

A lot of this was plainly co-incidence. The German system is somewhat directive; PhD students often rely on their supervisors for project ideas and actual projects. My supervisor was simply wonderful (Prof. Steffi Riedel-Heller); she trusted me as a newbie with a big and important project, and encouraged me to keep going at those times when I felt like I may have been reaching a dead end. After taking over the project, I simply wanted to find out more about obesity in general and naturally developed an intrinsic motivation to stay in the field. I never quite let go of other interests, such as mental health in old age.

Did you participate in the 2015 EASO NIU Summer School?

I attended the 2015 NIU Summer School as a teacher which was a great experience. I am always amazed by some of the young researchers coming into the field; and particularly by their knowledge and eagerness to learn. I suppose it is being able to get excited about things paired with passion for research that impresses me and I’m not sure I had that from the beginning. I am broadening my research fields to psychological aspects of bariatric surgery and more pathophysiological parameters of obesity stigma. I also supervise students on their thesis themes of psychological and psychotherapeutic topics in general.

What are your future career plans?

After starting my new position just a few while ago, it seems hard to think about next steps. I think I would like to spend some more time in another country and experience research practice there. Additionally, I would like to be able to secure funding to pursue some of the ideas that have been in my head for some time.

EASO New Investigators United Spotlight

Maria Angela Guzzardi is a member of the New Investigators United Board.

Maria Angela, Please tell us about yourself.

I was born in Pisa, in Tuscany, but my origins are Sicilian, since that is the place where my family comes from and that I consider my home region.

I was an active and curious girl, and in school, I was interested in science and biology, and also in philosophy and literature. After I undertook study in classics, I decided to focus on science and studied Medicinal Chemistry and Technology at the University of Pisa. As an undergraduate, I became aware of my interest in scientific research and in 2010 I completed my PhD in Innovative Strategies in biomedical Research with a thesis on “Dynamic hepatocytes cultures as in vitro models of the liver and the metabolic system”, at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, a joint programme with the University of Pisa. During my PhD I was very motivated and wanted to explore other aspects of scientific research and other realities. Thus, I spent sometime at the Oxford Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM) in Oxford (UK), and then a full year at the Center for Bioengineering in Medicine (CEM), the Harvard Medical School and the Shriners Children Hospital in Boston (MA, USA). Afterwards, I worked as post-doc fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, working on the interaction between hepatitis C virus life cycle and host lipid metabolism. Different work experiences made me realise that I am greatly interested in the complex regulation underlying metabolic homeostasis and by study of the cross-talk between the organs mainly involved in this process of regulation.

In order to gain a deeper understanding in this field, I began working as post-doc in the group of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Nuclear Medicine led by Dr. Patricia Iozzo at the Institute of Clinical Physiology at the National Research Council in Pisa, where I still work.

We would love to learn more about your country and the area you live in:

I live in Pisa, which is a lovely student town in Tuscany. Pisa is located about 20 minutes from the sea and about 1 hour from the Appennini mountain chain. The town is famous worldwide for its leaning tower that every year attracts thousands of tourists who take funny pictures pretending to hold up the tower. But if you have the chance to live in Pisa, you can discover that such a small town has a lot of beautiful spots: there is the lovely Arno river that crosses the town just before falling into the Mediterranean sea, there are several historica churches and monuments, the medieval brick wall surrounding the town, and the beautiful Cavalieri square where the historical building of the Scuola Normale of Pisa, formally founded in 1810 by Napoleonic decree, when Tuscany was a province of the French empire.

Please share some detail about your specific professional interests and any research, EU projects or clinical teams you are working with:

In Pisa I am currently part of the Endocrinology, Metabolism and Nuclear Medicine group. My research is focused on the etiology and physiopathology of obesity and type- 2 diabetes, and on the identification of the early mechanisms and markers associated with the development of the above pathological conditions.

My initial interest was the study of glucose metabolism in animal models of obesity and in response to different metabolic conditions by the use of positron emission tomography (PET) imaging technique. In the last years, my interest has extended to the study of the effect of very early exposure to an obesogenic environment. In fact, I have been working extensively on the effect of maternal obesity on offspring cardio-metabolic health, which is the focus of the EU FP7 project DORIAN. During the course of this project, I really came to understand and appreciate that a multidisciplinary approach is of paramount importance when tackling a complex health problem such as obesity, including its development and its complications.

I am also interested in the association between obesity and brain metabolism and function. In the EU FP7 project Neurofast I have been assessing brain response to food cues in a group of women with obesity using PET imaging, and I have explored the hypothesis of food addiction.

How did you find the 2015 EASO NIU Summer School and can you share what you are looking forward to for the 2016 summer session?

Since May 2015 I have been a Board Member of the NIU. The 2015 EASO NIU Summer School was a very successful experience for both young delegates and the EASO NIU staff and the speakers. In fact, it was a good chance to discuss hot topics in the field of obesity, but also to meet and talk with other young researchers from other European countries and share experiences. The summer school 2016 will be even more engaging, not only bus to the important and cutting edge topics that will be addressed, but also because the program includes a special session aimed at helping the new researcher on grant and proposal writing. Moreover delegates will have the chance to present themselves and their work, which I think is a great opportunity, and may pave the way to EASO establishing a European community of new researchers in the field of obesity.

What are your future career plans?

My plan is to develop a stronger expertise in the etiopathology and pathophysiology of obesity and of insulin resistance, and to become an independent researcher. I am working hard to grow a network of international and multidisciplinary collaborations. In order to turn scientific research in helpful treatments for patients’ management, is very important to tackle the mechanisms associated with the development and establishment of obesity, insulin resistance or other pathological conditions. I think that in order to pursue this aim, a multidisciplinary approach is mandatory.

Aside from your professional interests, what are your hobbies and interests?

During the weekend or in the evening during week days I love to participate in sport, such as tennis, and I spend time at the gym. In the summertime, I love walking on the beach just before sunset, when it is less crowded and the weather isn’t as hot, and I enjoy swimming. I also love reading, and I prefer mystery and thriller stories, but I also appreciate classical authors.

I love music and I can play piano, but I regret that I have almost abandoned it in recent years due to shortage of time.

New Investigators United Spotlight: Sonia García Calzón

Hello Sonia. Please tell us a bit about yourself:

I was born in 1986 in Logroño, a small city located in the North of Spain. Maybe you have heard of Logroño; it is famous for lovely Rioja wine. When I was 18 I moved to Pamplona to begin University studies in Pharmacy, Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Navarra. I chose this course of study because I enjoy health promotion and the clinical aspects involving treating patients, but even then I was already becoming interested in research. Therefore, when I got my degrees I decided to do a Masters Degree in Research, Development and Innovation of New Drugs which really awakened my interest in science. Afterwards, I started my PhD studies in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Navarra, where I received my PhD in January 2015. I have been working as a Postdoctoral researcher in the same department and plan to begin a postdoc abroad in the upcoming months.

We would love to learn more about Spain and the area you live in:

-what is it like?

I live in Pamplona, a lovely small city surrounded by mountains, located in Northern Spain along the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago. The city was founded by the Romans and is now a modern city with a high quality of life offering a wide range of activities including walking around century-old walls and cobbled streets; relaxing in parks and terraces; tasting delicious tapas – pinchos as they’re known locally, and visiting historical monuments. Tourists from all over the world come to Pamplona in July to enjoy San Fermin Festival known worldwide for the Bull Run (Running of the Bulls).

How did you come to enter this field?

My master’s project was about childhood obesity. I participated in a lifestyle intervention with obese children and their parents, and there I discovered that we have much work to do in tackling obesity, which affects a large number of people worldwide. I wanted to do my bit in obesity and that is why I undertook PhD studies in this field. My specific research interests are genetics and epigenetics in metabolic diseases, particularly obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Congratulations on winning the 2015 EASO New Investigators Best Thesis prize. Please help us learn more about your thesis and present research interests:

Thank you very much. In my thesis project, I looked into the association between telomere length, which is considered a biomarker for aging, and adiposity traits in different age groups. We found that an intensive weight loss intervention resulted in an increased leukocyte telomere length and also we proposed the assessment of leukocyte telomere length as a potential biomarker for changes in adiposity. Moreover, the results from my thesis clearly show that dietary and genetic factors can modulate telomere shortening associated with ageing.

This work contributes to the field of obesity because it may help to improve personalised dietary recommendations according to genetic background, to impact ageing (as telomere length is considered a biomarker for age), reduce adiposity, and therefore age-related chronic diseases. Telomere attrition could become a possible target in nutritional interventions to prevent the progression of metabolic diseases. Interestingly, telomere length may be a biomarker for metabolic alterations and therefore it should be highlighted the possible role of telomere length in the onset of obesity.

Excellent. What are your future career plans?

I want to continue research; the next step in my career will involve doing a postdoc abroad in epigenetics and metabolic diseases. Last year I did a short-stay at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm in the epigenetics field where I discovered the key role of epigenetics in the pathogenesis of complex diseases such as obesity and diabetes. I am very interested in working in the epigenetics field because it is relatively new and is a revolutionary concept in genetics, and is also essential to understanding regulation of genes and gene-environment interactions. I believe that in the near future, it could present solutions for the prevention and treatment of metabolic diseases, such as obesity.

Fascinating, thank you. Aside from your professional interests, what are your hobbies and interests?

I like doing sports, especially playing tennis or going hiking on a sunny day. I also love reading and travelling – I enjoy discovering and exploring new places and cultures. I am very sociable and enjoy meeting with friends whenever possible to share wonderful times together.