Research Assistant Olivia Ciampa recently spent six months working in a collaborator’s lab at the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, USA. I asked her why she went there, what it was like, and what she achieved.

Olivia Ciampa is a Research Assistant in our Molecular Carcinogenesis Program. Last May she headed over to a lab in the US to undertake a collaborative research project. That lab, in the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, has an experimental model of the childhood cancer neuroblastoma – in zebrafish.

The Molecular Carcinogenesis team is developing some promising new targeted drugs for neuroblastoma. Olivia’s first task was to learn about the zebrafish neuroblastoma model. Her second was to use that model to see if her team’s new drugs could slow the development and growth of neuroblastoma tumours. She originally planned to be there for four months but ended up staying six. She tells us all about it.

Q: “How did this collaboration and this trip come about?”

A: “My supervisor Dr Belamy Cheung met Dr Jane Zhu, our collaborator at the Mayo Clinic, at an international neuroblastoma conference in Cairns, Queensland. They talked about a potential collaboration and agreed to Dr Zhu’s lab testing one of our targeted drugs in her fish model.

close-up of a zebrafish
A zebrafish

“The results that came back were really remarkable. Based on that potential, Dr Zhu then suggested that our team send a researcher over there to learn the technique and test more of our drugs.

“Dr Cheung and the Head of our Program, Professor Glenn Marshall said to me: ‘There’s an opportunity to be part of a collaborative project in Dr Zhu’s lab at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Would you be up for it? We would need you to go as soon as possible.’ It was such a short timeframe to organise a project plan and move over there, but I looked at what amazing outcomes could be generated and agreed that it would be most beneficial to our lab’s research. A few meetings with our finance department, a couple of medical checks, a trip to the US embassy, and a month and a half later I’d arranged everything and was on my way.”

“It was amazing to visualise those drugs slowing the progression and reducing growth of neuroblastoma tumours.”

Q: “How did the work go? Did you achieve what you hoped?”

A: “There was definitely a very steep learning curve. First, I needed to be trained (in techniques using the zebrafish model) very quickly by a researcher who was leaving for medical school in three weeks. Every second with her was valuable so I kept my mind focused and by the end of the month, I was very confident with the technique. By three months I had completed testing for one of our drug projects. My supervisors were really pleased with the results and asked if I’d consider staying another 3 months to test more drugs. I said yes.

“They were hoping I’d attain data for two more drug projects, but in the end I was able to generate data for four projects. It was amazing to visualise those drugs slowing the progression and reducing growth of neuroblastoma tumours.

“Professor Marshall and Dr Cheung had originally said to me: ‘We have no expectations, just do your best’. So I’m really pleased that my results have contributed to four of my team’s drug development projects.”

Examining a zebrafish under the microscope
Examining a zebrafish under the microscope

Q: “What was it like being on your own in Minnesota for 6 months?”

A: “I did miss my family, partner and friends. The Mayo Clinic is located in the small town of Rochester, Minnesota, which is about one and a half hours from the capital, Minneapolis. The town is surrounded by stores, cornfields and soy bean farms, so it’s very isolated. It’s a really nice town, quiet and welcoming. People wave as they drive past.

“I used the opportunity to network as much as possible too. The Mayo Clinic is an amazing hub of dedicated clinicians and researchers, each with their own unique story, but gathered with a shared passion for medicine. I quickly connected with the Research Fellows Association, which organises social events for international visitors. I met people from lots of different places – Italy, Sweden, Lebanon, the Netherlands. I also became friends with another Australian working at the Mayo Clinic. It happened by accident. My mum had come to visit me. She went out for coffee and bumped into an Australian researcher who has been there since 1975, and surprisingly still has her Aussie accent.

“I also took the opportunity to travel around and experience some of the most amazing places the US and Canada has to offer, which made this experience much more memorable. Some of my favourite places included Chicago, Banff and Whistler.”

Q: “What has the experience taught you?”

A: “I learned an amazing new experimental model, techniques and technology and brought back skills that will benefit my team’s research. During my placement, Dr Zhu also assigned me a PhD student to train and to assist me in my projects. I trained him in zebrafish handling and a variety of techniques which I was using in my work. I felt great pride at Dr Zhu trusting me with this teaching opportunity.

Olivia (right) with Dr Zhu (second from right) and colleagues in the fish facility at the Mayo Clinic
Olivia (right) with Dr Zhu (second from right) and colleagues in the fish facility at the Mayo Clinic

“Personally, I think the most rewarding aspect of this journey was developing my confidence and not being so scared to take that extra step, to show people they can trust me and develop further relationships. I saw how important it is to develop collaborations, because we as researchers are all striving for the same goal.

“Dr Zhu has an amazing heart. She used to be a paediatrician before becoming a researcher. She was tired of seeing children die from these cancers, without knowing why, and now she’s striving to find a cure. She feels that is her life’s goal. Being able to use her new neuroblastoma model permitted me to send home results aligned with that goal.

“Living abroad alone exposed me to vastly different, and at times overwhelming experiences. I was able to truly embrace living in a new city and culture, and was forced out of my comfort zone with needing to be completely self-reliant. The overall experience was wonderful though and if I got the opportunity again, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it.”

A fish called Zebra
A fish called Zebra

Top image: Olivia (in green) with Dr Jane Zhu (left) and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic

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