I am working in Prof. Michael Heneka’s lab in the DZNE Bonn, where I am currently doing a second postdoc. After finishing my PhD in a Nephrology lab in Germany, I decided to switch topics and went to the US for 3 years to learn about Alzheimer’s and other dementia research. Despite being in science for 9 years and attending multiple retreats and conferences, this was the first time I went to a Summer School and I have to say: try it! For one week, we went to Chiclana, Spain, with a small group of students, postdocs and PIs to learn more about neuroinflammation, exchange ideas and make new contacts. But to be honest, I did not really know what to expect from the school. It turned out to be a great mixture of lectures from experts in the field, discussion of papers led by the participants, soft skills labs and an interesting set of open discussion rounds on any science or career topic that came to our mind.
Topics for the lectures ranged from Alzheimer’s disease (AD) over amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to cerebral malaria, which gave everybody a great overview about several diseases and the role of immune cells in general with a strong focus on microglia. Neuroinflammation is a central part of most neurodegenerative diseases and GWAS (genome wide association) studies are one approach that can be used to identify genetic risk factors in all of these.
Over the past years, GWAS studies identified several genetic risk factors in microglial genes like e.g. TREM2 and CD33. While most of the studies so far have been done in AD, other diseases are also associated with risk variants present in microglial genes. However, it became clear pretty quickly that microglia can be either friend or foe, sometimes based on the disease but actually much more variation can be seen with respect to different disease stages.
For example, two publications were presented and discussed showing opposing effects on AD pathology after knockout of TREM2 (see Bemiller et al. 2017 and Leyns et al. 2017). Just a closer examination of the methods and results revealed that these effects were described at different disease stages in two different mouse models. But one thing has to be kept in mind: microglia (or other immune cells in the brain) are usually not causing a disease, but they can influence its onset and drive disease progression.
Luckily, our days also included smaller and larger breaks spread over the day, which gave us the chance for interaction not only with the participants but also with the PIs. This is much easier at a Summer School with a very limited number of people present as compared to the large conferences where the PIs are always surrounded by a multitude of interested people. One of my favorite memories from this week in Spain is a long walk along the beach right before dinner with one of the PIs.
It started out with me asking more specific questions on his talk about his new adventurous job in being paid for planning a start-up company. Then we decided to enjoy the free time at the beach where we started a very stimulating discussion about my most recent lab project, followed by sharing our thoughts on our most favorite places in the world. Things like this usually do not happen on conferences, but if you go to a Summer School, they do.
Apart from all the science, the hotel where the Summer School took place was an amazing place. Located directly at a long, sandy beach with a large wellness area and amazing food, it was a perfect get-away. Imagine to have a wonderful dinner every day after an extremely interesting day of work before you can enjoy a swim in the ocean followed by watching a beautiful sunset, your feet in the sand. Think about it: Who does not want to be paid for talking about science in an amazing spot on earth like this one? And to me, even more exciting than the planned scientific program was the possibility to get to know new people, network, share ideas and start collaborations or even find a new job.
Author: Christina Ising