My first secondment: A two month working holiday

Hello everyone, glad to be writing this blog.  A lot of fun and exciting things happened since the last time I wrote to you so I am very eager to start. As my title already suggests, I was on a secondment at CSIC in Barcelona for the past two months. And no, a secondment is not the equivalent of getting pampered on the beach for two months, however…. BCN is definitely not the worst of all possible destinations. Indeed, this city is one of the most sparkling, vibrant destinations I could have imagined for my secondment… (Raheel and Claudia please read: I’m jealous…) It was not my first time to venture into this enthralling city but still upon arrival I quickly felt like I had travelled to the centre of human civilization. I know this sounds a bit exaggerated maybe but please keep in mind that I live in a very small town in the suburbs of Belfast which, by itself, isn’t exactly a metropole. Thus to be in BCN and hear and meet so many people from all over the world and be able to go out at 10 o clock in the evening and find everything still buzzing was a really welcome change for me (and my wife and son which travelled with me).

And the food….olala the food…

calamares…..,    boccadillo tortilla…,         pimientos del padron….,               Pa amb Tomàquet (the only Catalan words I learned..)…,                olives…,                pata negra (cured ham from pigs fed with acorns)…. and I could keep on going… yep you guessed it right a large part of our monthly budget disappeared into the belly those 2 months…

Also I couldn’t wait to go and see what had happened with la sagrada familia. It had been about 12 years since I last saw that building and I was very curious to see what happened to it! For those that do not know: La sagrada familia is a huge cathedral initially designed by Antoni Gaudi who started the project over a 100 years ago and the building is still not finished! Gaudi, who was one of the first to use biological structures as a template for the design of buildings, had an unique style which has been continued after his death. For instance, he designed the internal pillars like trees, branching out from nodes high above the ground which allows a much more open airyated structure letting in more light as conventional structures and looks amazing. It makes you feel like walking among giant stone fossil trees… I loved it and think it should definitely be on any ones list when visiting BCN.

Apart from beautiful buildings and a bustling nightlife, BCN also has an amazing surrounding. I love to climb and luckily managed to visit several great areas to do this close to BCN (Mont-Serrat and Vallirana). Apart from this there are also the Pyrenees, which are only a few hours from BCN by car. Here I have had the great opportunity to take my mom (of 70 summers) who came to visit us for a week, on her first canoe trip through the Mont-rebei gorge. It was a great experience and luckily we all still had dry clothes after (although there were some close calls 🙂 )

Bustling Barcelona


Congost de Montrebei

But okey, I will now end the tourist guide on BCN since else one might start thinking I did nothing else then sightseeing over there… Which of course wasn’t the case.

No the most important reason why I came to BCN was to work with and learn from my colleagues in the Nano-biotechnology for Diagnostics (NB4D) group at Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC). Here I have learned many things regarding nanoparticle functionalisation and characterisation. And just to show that indeed I was not sitting still I will make a short list of the things done:

  • Domoic acid (one of the toxins I am developing an assay for) was conjugated to a protein and the toxin per protein density characterised by MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry.
  • The performance of this conjugate was analysed through an immune assay (ELISA) and found to be in the targeted range (ppb levels)
  • Nanospheres, rods and stars were synthesized and fitted with various monolayers of heterobifunctional linkers then functionalized with the bioconjugate or monoclonal antibody directed against domoic acid
  • The particle conjugation was verified using various techniques including Bradford, Zeta potential, online high resolution mass spectrometry (HPLC-QTOF) and fluorescence assays.
  • Finally the particles were immobilized on a glass slide and a first try to use label free LSPR (remember the vibrating light particles I talked about in another blog?) was performed for the detection of domoic acid in water using darkfield microscopy and hyperspectral imaging.

Unfortunately, during this process I got reminded of one of the most fundamental principles in science: Murphy’s Law, which so elegantly states that if anything can go wrong… it most definitely will… This law manifested itself at an early point during the secondment (read during transport of my materials) and continued to reappear all along the journey… as a result all my nanoparticles got frozen in transport and aggregated. New synthesis of same particles turned out to be a pickle (different reagents and environment can effect conditions) but after some tries logic prevailed and it worked. Next on the list was the functionalization… for some reason or other some of my particles were impossible to functionalise and aggregated in solution…. This problem was finally overcome by immobilising the particles prior to functionalisation (try to aggregate if you are stuckJ). Last but not least it turned out to be quite the challenge to fully understand the capabilities of the darkfield microscope and hyperspectral imaging software. For those who do not know, darkfield microscopy (DFM) is a magical tool for nanoparticle analyses because unlike normal microscopes that collect light coming directly from the sample, DFM collects only the scattered light coming from impurities (or particles) from the surface. This makes it possible to actually see individual particles using quite simple equipment (when compared to a massive machine like a transfer electron microscope (TEM) which uses electron beams instead of light to obtain a higher resolution). On top of this, using a spectrometer connected to the microscope, one can actually scan the entire visible spectrum of many points of the surface thus allowing the collection of spectra of individual particles.  The software is not very intuitive and it takes time to learn but at the end I have very much enjoyed playing around with this system and remain impressed by its capabilities and on the last two days of my stay I finally saw a point of light in the dark and got my first indication that label free LSPR for the detection of domoic acid is possible…. So… Sayonara Murphy!

As you might understand when reading this list, a lot of work was done at CSIC and I really must say that I am very grateful to my superviser, Pablo Salvador, and all the other colleagues for the very warm welcome at CSIC and for all the help and advice they offered during my stay making it possible to advance so fast despite all the setbacks. It was truly a great experience and I definitely hope to return!

Okey so we have arrived at the end of my secondment. A sweet and sour day, it was hard to say by to everyone at CSIC and other friends living in BCN which I hadn’t  seen for a long time. And of course it was hard to say bye to the sun… luckily we had a short term solution for the last problem… and that solution was materialized in the shape of an airplane with Air Arabia written on it.. yep you got it right we flew south instead of north out of BCN and had a very pleasant holiday/travel stayover at the gates of Afrika… Maroc. The 2 weeks we spend there were absolutely fantastic! We took in an enormous amount of culture, nature and sun over there which really refuelled the enginesJ. During our stay we managed to visit the biggest sandbox in the world (you should have seen my son’s eyes), go climbing in the atlas mountains and finally have a relaxed stay in one of the most laidback towns of the country, imsouanne, and tried out the surfing over there! To sum it up, waaaauw….

Desert, donkeys and handy traffic signs, Maroc at its best 🙂

Apart from all the beautiful places we saw over there, there was also another important aspect to the journey… the travel made me realise yet again how fortunate we are in Europa and how many things we take for credit as standard commodities which in other parts of the world aren’t the status quo at all. Things like good infrastructure, continuous electricity, and last but definitely not least good safe water and food are things not everyone has readily at their disposal at all. However, although those essentials aren’t always available one thing can be seen throughout Morocco: Mobile phones! Smartphones are really everywhere now. I saw them in the desert in the hands of a Bedouin woman sitting in the dunes, in the dashboard of a 40 year old taxi in the atlas mountains and even in the hands of a farmer transporting his goods to the market by donkey! Seeing this made me realise again the major opportunities of food and water testing with a smartphone based device and makes me hope even more that many affordable devices like that can be developed to help ensure safe food and water for everyone!

Okey everyone this was my blog for this time.

Thnx for reading it to the end!




1 comment on “My first secondment: A two month working holiday

  1. Raheel Ahmad

    Superb blog Jordi…


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