It has now been a year since I moved to Wageningen and started my PhD. I am constantly impressed with how much I have learnt, and how much I have grown as a scientist during this period. It is a fantastic gift to wake up each day and truly enjoy my work, I love that each day is different. A few weeks ago I got to take part in VLAG graduate school PhD week. It was so nice to get to network with PhD’s from different departments across the university, particularly as there are not too many PhD’s working in my research institute. As an animal lover I was super excited by the numerous goats, peacocks, and one very friendly ram. It was a great experience to take part in the team building exercises and workshops, although I can say for sure that I hated the super awkward activity where we had to stare into another persons eyes without talking for 3 x 2 minutes!
(VLAG PhD week with my ORC colleagues, and some new colleagues, the Ram and the Peacock)
Recently, I have been lucky to be able to put the skills I learnt in my Presenting with Impact course into action. Earlier this week I presented on the topic of smartphone-based food allergen detection at the Wageningen University & Research PhD symposium. The symposium was a great opportunity to hear about other PhD’s work across the university. It is too easy to become trapped in your own research bubble, so it is energising to hear about research from different fields (although sometimes it can give you project envy!). I was also happy to present as it gave me a chance to practice some of the content that I will present later in the month at the FAST (forum of analytical science and technology) conference in Eindhoven (which will be my first oral presentation at an external conference). I can see a definite improvement in my public speaking skills compared with this time last year, and it is a skillset that I am eager to continue developing!
This past week has been exciting, as I have started developing my lateral flow immunoassay. In previous blogs I have mentioned what this type of assay is, but I will quickly reiterate for you here. Lateral flow immunoassays (LFIA) are diagnostic screening tests (the most famous example is the home pregnancy test). These tests allow you to detect your target by an antibody-antigen interaction. You can have sandwich or competitive format LFIAs, but because I am aiming to detect food allergens (which are large proteins) I will be using a sandwich format (and so I won’t bore you about competitive format as well ;). In a sandwich format test, you have a test line which contains an allergen specific antibody (this antibody is complementary to the target allergen); and a control line which contains a non-specific antibody (which is capable of binding with multiple different antibodies). You also have a conjugate pad which contains another allergen specific antibody (this antibody must bind with your target allergen on a different binding site compared with the antibody on the test line), this antibody is labelled with a coloured particle, such as a carbon black nanoparticle. The conjugate pad overlaps with a sample pad, which is where (you guessed it!) you add the sample. At the opposite end of the strip there is an absorbent pad, this basically acts as a sink for the assay, this draws the lateral flow movement of the sample. Now is where it gets interesting. When you add a sample containing your target allergen, the allergen binds with the carbon black-labelled allergen antibody forming a complex. The complex moves up the strip (drawn by the action of the absorbent pad), where the allergen molecule also becomes bound to the allergen-specific-antibody on the test line region. As the complex is carrying the carbon black-labelled antibody, a black line appears in this region of the test. Any remaining unbound carbon black-labelled antibody then binds with the non-specific antibody on the control line, giving two black lines for a sample containing the target allergen. This week I have been conjugating carbon black nanoparticles and anti-hazelnut antibodies and preparing hazelnut LFIA’s, and am excited to see even the practice conjugates/strips I have prepared, already have great reproducibility and sensitivity without any optimisation yet! In the coming weeks I look forward to preparing more conjugates/LFIA’s with my fastest and slowest antibody pairs and comparing the kinetics of the two. It is expected that we will soon be able to semi-quantify/quantify these LFIA’s using a smartphone app developed by my colleague Jack (Queen’s University Belfast).
(Hazelnut LFIA, the first is a blank and then with stepwise increasing concentrations of hazelnut allergen. You can observe one line for the blank, and two lines for the positive samples, with the intensity of the lines corresponding with the concentration of hazelnut present)
Of course it would not be a blog post without talking about the great travel opportunities here! Just a short drive away is the wonderful country of Germany and the beautiful city of Cologne. Cologne is an impressive city with fantastic gothic architecture, the cathedral is particularly spectacular. As well as wandering through the sculpture garden and the numerous parks, I got to visit the Ludwig Museum which houses a mesmerising collection of art, including pieces by Picasso, and one of my favourite artists, Dalí. I visited Cologne when I was younger, so it was great (now that I am old enough) to get to try out some of the famous Brauhaus’. In these beer houses, as soon as you have finished your drink, a barman comes and refills your glass, keeping a tally on the beer costa. Definitely an easy way to get drunk, especially as German beer tastes so good.
(Me enjoying a Kölsch, in the sculpture garden and Cologne cathedral at night)
Speaking of beer… visiting Brussels last month was one of the highlights of my year so far. I loved everything about the city, from the cobbled roads (even though we were on scooters, so these cobbles were a bit of a nightmare!), the grand place, the Atomium monument and artwork all around the city. But most of all, I loved the beers. Most bars in Brussels have beer-tasting menus where you can select (very high %) beers to compare the tastes. With so much beer, it makes sense that everyone constantly needs the toilet, and the city is aptly home to three urinating figures, a man (the most famous), a women and a dog.
(Mural in Brussels, me with a 8%+ tasting selection and me in front of the Atomium monument)
I am of course excited for the upcoming summer school to Prague (and to try some Czech beers ha ha). Last year’s summer school was a super for meeting all of the other ESR’s and to find out some juicy information about smartphone based diagnostics. I am eager to learn about a whole new set of skills this year and also to get to explore the city.
Until next time,