I was fortunate to receive the SOT Supplemental Training for Education Program (STEP) award. With this award, I traveled to Sapienza Università di Roma in Italy, to the laboratory of Dr. Rita Businaro for what was intended to be a three-month training period focused on mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), cells that modulate immune response and tissue repair. Dr. Businaro is an expert in MSCs and intercellular communication between MSCs and macrophages via extracellular vesicles; thus, this was the perfect environment to extend my dissertation research.
I first met Dr. Businaro in June 2019 at the Annual Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats (CounterACT) Research Symposium, which was held in New York City. I presented part of my doctoral research on how macrophages play a regulatory role in lung injury and fibrosis. During the meeting, I had several conversations with Dr. Businaro regarding her work and how MSCs may be a significant component of the processes. After the symposium, we discussed an incredible opportunity that would allow me to travel to Rome to work in her lab to learn methods for isolating and characterizing MSCs in a setting where there also is expertise in the fields of inflammation and macrophage biology.
After much anticipation and planning, I flew from New Jersey to Rome at the beginning of February. Two weeks into the trip, news was spreading of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in areas of northern Italy. By the end of February, cases dramatically increased and the situation was developing rapidly. Flights all around the country were being delayed and/or canceled. Businesses were forced to close. After discussions with Dr. Businaro and my thesis advisor, Dr. Debra Laskin, I returned to the United States at the beginning of March.
Although my time in Rome was significantly abbreviated, I was nevertheless able to make progress toward achieving my goals of learning how to isolate and culture MSCs and investigate how they communicate with macrophages after lung injury. During the short time in Dr. Businaro’s laboratory, I received hands-on training in immunofluorescence. I also learned to prepare lung MSCs, along with a new flow cytometric technique for isolating microvesicles—tiny particles released from cells that serve as biomarkers of lung injury. In addition, I presented my research at Sapienza and attended a two-day seminar on advancements in microscopy techniques for research. I also worked with Dr. Businaro and her group to put together a review on nutraceuticals as therapeutics for lung injury and fibrosis induced by mustard vesicants.
The training in Dr. Businaro’s laboratory allowed me to return to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, with a new understanding of how MSCs function to promote lung fibrosis and apply this knowledge to our nitrogen mustard lung toxicity model. Although far too short, I am grateful that I was able to interact more closely with faculty and trainees at Sapienza, all of whom were incredibly helpful and patient as I navigated language barriers and new science. I am disappointed that I will not be able to return to Italy before graduating, but this short experience provided me with an opportunity to move my research in a unique direction and expand my skill set and knowledge base. It also provided me with an opportunity to see how scientific research advances in a new environment and culture.
I highly encourage students to apply for the SOT STEP award. The award provides support for trainees to pursue training beyond the walls of their institution, which is highly valuable.#STEP