FENS Voices | Alexandros Tsimpolis: Learning from a heat blocker
28 October 2022
This week’s FENS Voices guest is Alexandros Tsimpolis, a PhD student from the Medical Department of University of Crete, Greece. He received his BSc in Biology from the University of Crete and went on to specialise in the Molecular Basis of Human Disease. He is currently studying the potential interactions of glucocorticoids and neurotrophins (mainly BDNF) in the brain and the importance of glucocorticoid ultradian pulsatility on neuroprotection. Along with his colleagues, he recently characterised the existence of a biphasic response on the expression levels of BDNF after glucocorticoid administration in astrocytes. In 2022 he received a fellowship from the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation for the continuation of his work and was awarded with a NENS Exchange grant to visit and collaborate with the Gene Regulation and Adaptive Behaviours lab in the University of Sorbonne, France. Read the full interview below.
Everyone has their own starting point, an initiation in science. What is yours?
AT: Ever since I was a kid, I tried to interpret the world around me. With every day and every experience, new questions would arise, but most of the time I didn’t have the necessary skills or tools to even attempt to answer them. During my undergraduate years, I had my first chance to reach out to people that had many of the answers I was looking for, but at the same time were so eager to tackle new and complicated topics that I hadn’t even begun to conceive. The same people started teaching me the proper way to observe and study a phenomenon, how to formulate a hypothesis, how to design an experimental method and how to conduct the necessary experiments.
Studying at university offers you a large palette of research possibilities. How was this period for you?
AT: Looking back now, I guess I would have to say “confusing”. So many interesting biological topics… A period of significant breakthroughs in almost all fields and every lecturer in the university had the ability to excite you and guide your curiosity to his/her own scientific footsteps. I think it is really important for students to remain open-minded to everything they are offered by their institution during these early university years, as they are discovering the research fields. They should also be on alert, in order to identify the one or two areas that would inflame their scientific curiosity and passion.
How would you describe your first project in brain research? What did you learn from it?
AT: A highly educational experience. I made so many mistakes, which helped me realise the complexity of brain physiology and the necessity of adequate studying and designing before executing an experiment. But perhaps even more important proved to be the fact that I realised the importance of collaboration and of having discussions about my project with colleagues. It goes without saying that without having made those mistakes, I wouldn’t have developed the researcher’s mentality that I currently possess. This is why, weirdly enough, I kind of am looking forward to my next mistake and to the lessons that I will draw from the experience.
Everyone makes mistakes, thus drawing valuable lessons. If you would be able to travel in time, what advice would you give to a younger Alexandros Tsimpolis?
AT: Stop wasting time overthinking or regretting failures. Quickly learn from what went wrong, adapt, improve and be better prepared next time. Oh! Also, don’t forget to properly adjust the heat blocker on 20 December 2016. It will save you from your first big criticism.
What is the story behind forgetting “to properly adjust the heat blocker” on 20 December 2016?
AT: The lab I was being trained at back then received some long-awaited and very important mice tails that day and I took over their genotyping. I added the tail lysis-proteinase K mix in the tubes and left them overnight at what I thought was a 65oC adjusted heat block. Unfortunately, I did not find it necessary to double-check the temperature that it was set on. The next day, we found out that the heat block had been adjusted at 95oC, resulting in the deactivation of proteinase K and the complete degradation of all DNA in our samples. My professor made sure to firmly underscore the severity of this mistake and the importance of never repeating it again, by emphasising on the hard work required by my PhD supervisor to obtain this mouse line and the valuable time that this mistake would cost. At the same time, though, he assigned me to deal with the next genotyping of the same mouse line, thus demonstrating his belief that I have learned from my mistake. He also made me aware of the responsibility related to my decision to accept the task.
Up until that day, I was not really taking things as seriously as I should have within the lab, and I could not imagine the impact that a seemingly insignificant (for me) mistake could have on the hard work and time of a colleague (my former PhD supervisor). This criticism coincided with my growth, as I immediately developed a much more professional behaviour in the context of a lab.
Have you ever “criticised” anyone in the context of a lab/university?
AT: Yes, I have. I used a criticism “recipe” similar to the one described above, with minor improvements based on the negative feedback that I acquired on my own, from not so productive experiences.
Like I previously stated, I consider that making a mistake is highly educational and it is a very important step in a researcher’s maturity. But a lot of times, especially with students and young researchers, a mistake on its own is not enough for one to unravel its educational benefits. This is when it is the supervisor’s responsibility to exploit such a mistake in the best way possible, balancing between keeping their trainee motivated, highlighting the severity of the implications and demonstrating good practices, that would avoid a similar mistake in the future.
Brain research is so wide and diverse, making it very difficult to choose a topic. What made you decide to pursue a PhD in neuroscience and how did you decide what to study?
AT: I was always fascinated by the effective complexity of the brain, the source of rational (or sometimes irrational) thinking, dreaming, puzzle-solving and feeling. Its extreme malleability to environmental stimuli and experiences enable the shaping of so many unique personalities. Thus, it is no surprise to me that in my early academic years I was attracted to neuroscience. I wanted to take part in the efforts to unravel the brain’s mysteries and, honestly, I think it was mainly to satisfy my own curiosity. After my first involvement in a neuroscience project, my curiosity grew, further impelling me to pursue a PhD in neurosciences.
Your doctorate aims to highlight the importance of ultradian GC pulsatility in correlation to BDNF and will introduce a new in vitro method of simulating physiological and pathological oscillating patterns. How did you end up choosing this topic?
AT: Ever since I was introduced to the topic of glucocorticoid pulsatility, I was immediately intrigued by the fine regulation of such a delicate, yet so complex system and its homeostatic significance in so many aspects of our circadian-oriented lifestyle. The more I read about it, the more questions I had about the neuroprotective importance of such a pulsatile pattern on the brain. Through discussions within our team during the finalisation process of the project, it became obvious that the lack of an in vitro method that could properly simulate different oscillating patterns, would be an impediment that we would need to overcome. That is where the second goal of my thesis originated from.
What are the greatest challenges of being a PhD student and how are you planning to cope with them?
AT: Undoubtedly, some of the greatest challenges all PhD students face from time to time are frustration and lack of motivation, especially after one or a few failed experiments. In such moments, you should try to remember the feelings you had after a successful experiment or when one of your hypotheses was confirmed, making you crave for more. The sooner you do that, the sooner you will be able to overcome the frustration and focus on resolving the problem at hand. Another challenge I came across was choosing the best technique to approach my hypothesis. So many new and innovative techniques are being published, thus being able to keep up with them is necessary, in order to obtain maximum quality results and efficiently solve experimental problems.
How would you describe the brain in one word?
AT: Paradoxical. Unparalleled beauty, yet having terrifying capabilities. Disturbingly fragile, yet so powerful. Highly interactive, yet crucially isolated. Thoroughly investigated, yet still a puzzling mystery.
Who are your neuroscience superheroes and why?
AT: An easy and quick solution would be starting to name some of the most important and influential neuroscientists to have lived, like Cajal, Kandel, Barres and many others. But I wouldn’t be truthful. My real inspirations in science are my mentors: my post-doc and my professors. And I think that this is really healthy for a PhD student, because you need to be able to find constant inspiration in your lab environment in order to be kept motivated on a daily basis throughout the whole duration of your thesis, no matter the difficulties that you may come across. I am lucky enough to find this inspiration through their relentless hard work and passion for our projects, which sparks my scientific flame every time it flickers.
You were a NENS Exchange grantee. How has it impacted your career? How important are these types of grants for early career researchers?
AT: The NENS grants represent a unique opportunity for young neuroscientists to broaden their scientific spectrum, acquire new technical skills, be exposed and adapt to a new laboratory environment and, last but definitely not least, expand their network. Personally, the NENS grant, besides all of the aforementioned benefits, also allowed me to establish a lovely collaboration, which resulted in significantly improving the quality of my thesis project. It enriched my results, while at the same time I associated myself and even became friends with brilliant researchers, who have either already or will in the near future participate in shaping the future of neuroscience.
What are your future research plans?
AT: In the near future, we will attempt to correlate and integrate the knowledge obtained from my thesis into more complex cell culture systems (3D scaffold-mediated cultures and co-culturing of different neuronal and glial populations), that would mainly be derived from hiPSCs, thus increasing the translatability of our results. With the simultaneous completion of the setup of our in vitro method simulating physiological and pathological oscillating patterns, we will have the opportunity to harmoniously combine the two systems into one and scientifically exploit the vast potentials that this interesting “marriage” will have to offer.
About NENS Exchange grants
NENS Exchange grants for training stays are intended for Master and PhD students enrolled in a NENS member school programme. Candidates should be members of a FENS society or FENS individual members. Applicants are expected to spend a period of one to three months at a NENS member school of their choice in a different European country for the purpose of methodological training. The exchange grants cover travel and accommodation costs up to EUR 3,000.
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