Reflecting on an International Laboratory Placement.

Dr Shane Bell, who has been part of the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research (WCMR) team at Newcastle University for 6 years, was recently offered the exciting opportunity to spend 3 months furthering his research project in a laboratory at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Here, Shane tells us more about his experience and why he would recommend a similar placement to other early career researchers.

Dr Shane Bell

What was the placement?

I’m a post-doctoral scientist and work as part of the treatment team in the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research (WCMR) at Newcastle University. I was recently given the incredible opportunity to visit another lab as part of a 3-month placement to develop new skills in Professor Orian Shirihai’s group at UCLA within the UCLA Metabolism Theme. During my time there, I was under the supervision of Dr Rebeca Acin-Perez. The placement was funded by the Newcastle Wellcome Trust Translational Partnership and by Professor Grainne Gorman.

What were the goals for this placement?

The key goals for my placement were:

  • To gain experience in a different lab environment to further develop my skills as a post-doctoral researcher;
  • Work with experts in the mitochondrial field to exchange new ideas, build new connections and learn new experimental methods in order to broaden my expertise and share this with the WCMR team;
  • Investigate current projects with the established methods in both UCLA and Newcastle University to produce robust data for scientific publication.

Can you describe the project?

As a member of the treatment team within the WCMR, we investigate mitochondrial disease and identify potential new treatments that we hope will transform the lives of those living with the condition. One of the main aspects of this research involves testing compounds on brain cells that have been derived and grown in the lab as a model of mitochondrial disease. The cells still need to be fully characterised but we have already made some very interesting observations and hope to publish these findings. One of our goals is to characterise the components of the mitochondrial respiratory chain, specifically mitochondrial supercomplexes, to help us understand the symptoms of mitochondrial disease. Professor Orian Shirihai and Dr Rebeca Acin-Perez are experts in mitochondrial supercomplexes and have vast experience in the mitochondrial field, which is why we reached out to them to collaborate on this project.

In order to answer our scientific question, we decided it would beneficial for me to join the team at UCLA in order to learn and perform a range of experiments. The scientific methods included Blue Native PAGE, in-gel activity assays and Seahorse analysis in both live and frozen samples. In addition, I was integrated into their lab in order to gather data under their supervision, allowing full collaboration and input to the project.

Did you benefit from this experience?

In more ways than one. I believe going to UCLA has invigorated and motivated me to become a more independent and experienced scientist. Not only have I learned novel techniques, which will be beneficial for my lab and for my career, I have formed long-lasting international connections with the researchers in UCLA. My visit has produced very important data and has made a significant contribution to our research project, which is almost complete with regards to publishing. Rebeca and I have also found additional interesting data which has potential for a further publication.

The visit has also given me experience and further knowledge in a field I have not explored much before, and I feel confident in my understanding of mitochondrial supercomplexes from my time in UCLA. This is in part due to the length of my stay but also the passion and expertise shared by the scientists who work there.

Orian also invited me to join meetings as part of a scientific project he is developing, which allowed me to share ideas and suggestions but also gave me experience and confidence as an independent post-doctoral researcher. Following my participation in these meetings, I have performed work with Dr Cristiane Beninca and her team in order to test a novel compound on brain cells derived and grown in the lab. Following this work, we are in the process of forming a collaboration to perform more experiments at Newcastle University.

Another tangible benefit is giving me the confidence and experience in exploring a new country and a new lab. Los Angeles is a fantastic place but also a very daunting place to visit alone!  Flying there and getting set up by myself was challenging but has given me individuality as a person and as a scientist. Before my trip I was terrified of going somewhere else, but now I would love to have this experience again. I have also made some long-lasting friendships both in UCLA and in Los Angeles, which adds to the experience.

Did you face any challenges?

Yes. However, most of these were in the initial planning of the trip and I would like to say a huge thank you to Deborah Little and other members of the WCMR team who helped me sort out the logistics of my extended stay in LA. It was very challenging familiarising with the laboratory and how the team works, which is different to how we work as a lab here in the WCMR. However, experiencing this allowed me to think of different ways I can perform experiments now that I am back. The other difficulty was keeping in contact with friends and family whilst I was over there, but they were always supportive of my journey, and I adapted quickly.

Would you recommend a placement like this to other young scientists?

Yes. This placement has given me so many new experiences, laboratory skills and strong connections both personally and professionally. Everyone was pleased with my progress during the time in the lab and we are all excited about the scientific findings we have gathered. I have gained so much confidence as a scientist and as a person as a result, I would recommend this to anyone who is unsure about moving to a different lab or where to go with regards to their career. The methods I have learned will be used for the rest of my post-doc in the WCMR at Newcastle University, and hopefully more projects and exciting experiences may come.