Spring School 2016 – a joint effort between European Society of Gene and Cell Therapy (ESGCT), German Society for Gene and Cell Therapy, German Center for Infection Research and Hannover Medical School – took place 20–22 April in Hannover, Germany. The program was tailored for PhD students and catered for the curious young minds eager to get a grasp of the latest developments in the field. Three days were bubbling with public engagement training, excellent talks by leading scientist, delicious food and merry evening networking. Hannover pampered us with chilly but stunningly sunny spring weather.
The school took place at Stephansstift, a tranquil venue easily accessible from town by public transport. The program kicked off with a brilliant public engagement workshop by the lovely Renée Watson. She is The Head of Explosions at WATS.ON Consultancy, a company specialised on science communication and education. We learned about different channels for science communication and the importance of thoroughly knowing your engagement audience. Renée strongly believes that any science can be communicated – it’s a skill! In fact science needs to be communicated to win support, to drive transparency and ethical practices, to succeed in grant applications and to change attitudes towards life-saving research. Get out of the lab and spread the science love!
ESGCT Spring School 2016 took place in Hannover, Germany. The venue Stephansstift (bottom and top left) was very peaceful and pretty, with excellent catering (middle). The course program included an excellent public engagement workshop for researchers interested in science communications (bottom right), led by Renée Watson (top right) from WATS.ON Consultancy.
The main program was of awesome standard as we were spoiled with talks by leading experts from around the continent. The presentations varied between anything from stem cell therapies, T cell immunotherapies and retroviral/AAV vectors to the latest hot topic, precision genome surgery with the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tools, that admittedly have infinite applications in biotechnology and medicine. My personal favourite was Dr. Zoltan Ivics’ talk on Sleeping Beauty transposon-based non-viral gene delivery methods. Dr. Ivics, based at Paul-Erlich Institute in Langen, Germany, delivered an excellent and visually engaging talk with striking images of fluorescent animals.
The life of a scientist should be hard work, but hard fun too. On Thursday evening we had the pleasure to enjoy the after dinner talk by Professor Len Seymour from Oxford University. This warm-hearted gentleman and highly respected gene therapist shared his views about the past and present of cell and gene therapies. His love of science, brilliantly witty humour and strong belief in success stories motivated the whole audience, and left me hoping for a much longer speech.
The final evening of the Spring School anticipated a surprise number, as the program mysteriously stated “Find what is missing…”. I’m still not quite sure what was missing, but I do know now that quizzes are not for me! Powered by refreshing German lager, we worked our way through the questions on anything from football to geology and back to the camouflage of arctic animals. The winning team received a bottle of sparkling and a box of famous Leipniz biscuits, a Hannover treat that celebrated its birthday on that very same day. The losers (yes, my team) received a box of some random, but tasty, biscuits that were shared with everyone to root out any jealousy.
The course program was jam-packed with brilliant talks and networking. World-leading scientist from around Europe gave talks on recent advances in cell and gene therapy, including Professor Zoltan Ivics’ mesmerising talk on Sleeping Beauty transposons (bottom left) and Professor Len Seymour’s brilliant after dinner talk (top left). Lunch time was buzzing with networking as students discussed science and other cool stuff (bottom right), and a multidisciplinary quiz ‘Find what is missing…’ took place on the final evening.
I interviewed a couple of participating students for objective views on the Spring School. Axel Rossi, a final-year PhD student of viral gene therapy thought the course was an excellent taster of a variety of gene therapy applications. Axel is busy juggling his research project between France and Germany – in Lyon, Hannover and Cologne. Alongside his project on the interaction between AAV vectors and dendritic cells, Axel is working on a mute comic strip with his illustrator friend Rémy Mattei (check out his sample illustration here). Axel is passionate about translating the often-complex gene therapy findings into an easily digestible and entertaining form for the public. Axel has received a kick-off grant for the project, but is currently looking for further funding to aid the publication of their first full-length comic book. Get in touch if you’d like to help the boys with their cool project!
Lisette Latorre’s PhD project, the development of genetically modified platelets, is split between Paul Ehrlich institute in Langen and Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main in Frankfurt. When looking for PhD positions, gene therapy sparked her interest as it’s a fast moving field that has great promise for helping many patients with fatal diseases. Lisette was very pleased with the school program and considers courses like this immensely important. “The informal atmosphere helped to meet and approach senior scientists and the educational tone of the presentations allowed the students to learn about research outside of their specialist area”, Lisette explained. In her opinion, the meeting gave motivation and insight to new students, while final-year students had a unique opportunity to meet potential future PIs, and to establish new collaborations.
A glimpse of Hannover bathing in sunshine. Hannover is home to The Old Town (bottom left and top left), River Leine (bottom right) and the top local football league Hannover 96 (middle).
I managed to have a quick stroll around the beautiful town before rushing off to my bus. Hannover is a compact city on the banks of the slowly flowing River Leine, with around half a million inhabitants. The town centre has its busy shopping streets and some impressive establishments such as the opera house, while the cute Old Town area is lined with lovely old half-timbered buildings, small cafes and specialist shops. When visiting a new city, I always head to botanic gardens and relax among beautiful plants and flowers. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit Herrenhausen Gardens, a heritage of the kings of Hannover, and apparently a very popular tourist attraction.
I think initiatives such as ESGCT Spring School are fruitful in many levels. They build up academic development and confidence, and spark insights and ideas. They bring the scientists’ work closer to the current health issues, and remind of the big motive behind all medical research ‒helping people. I’m very happy I got to attend the Spring School, so big thanks to BSGCT for funding my trip. The next Spring School will take place in sunny Spain, which is sure to attract one or two students from this wet corner of the world!