An Unexpectedly Amazing Duo
When I discovered that I would be taking Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience in Stockholm, a part of me questioned my decision. Of course, I love neurobiology and research. However, I wondered if it Stockholm was the right place to study STEM. I questioned if a class on Norse mythology, politics, or even ecology would have been a more interesting and unique classroom experience. After all, there is nothing like learning about a culture, community, or environment locally.
Yet, I was forgetting an essential detail: Stockholm is basically built on STEM. Not only is the Nobel Prize awarded here annually, but the Karolinska Institute is also home to some of the most advanced research in the world. In addition, Sweden consistently ranks highly in healthcare quality and STEM education. In this way, Stockholm is the perfect place to study neuroscience. From watching a human brain dissection to working in world famous laboratories, I have gained experience and understanding of the field here that would be hard to find anywhere else.
My professors are neuroscience researchers at Karolinska, and from the beginning, they broadened my perspective of the field. We have talked about everything from bioethics to neurodegenerative diseases and consciousness. We began the class with some neuroscience basics and then dove into using databases like the Allen Institute and the Human Protein Atlas to understand key proteins in the brain. For instance, my protein, SLC17A7, plays an important role in excitatory neurons. I had never been exposed to all of the databases that are available for neuroscience research. It was so cool to be able to find pictures of my protein expressed in human, mouse, and pig brains. I was even able to compare the expression at a cellular level!
During the second week, we traveled to Budapest and Vienna to learn from researchers and innovators about their work. The first academic visit was to the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, where we talked about the biological basis for neuropsychiatric disorders and toured the institute. The next day at A:Head Bio, I was able to see brain organoids through a microscope and watch as their brain activity was displayed on the screen. It felt futuristic and zombie-like, yet it was real. I listened as our guide explained how strong the community was at the company and how everyone brought new ideas and experiments to the table.
In Budapest, we went to Semmelweis University, where we learned about brain anatomy and function from an experienced neuroanatomist. I had never seen the brain from so many angles or truly appreciated its complexity until this lecture. It was such a privilege to be able to work with the models and gain a deeper understanding of the organ.
Finally, my class went to KOKI, a neuroscience institute in Budapest. The lecturer focused on the role of microglia in the development and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Huntington’s Disease. I found his research particularly interesting because of my experience researching neurodegenerative diseases and taking care of family members with Alzheimer’s Disease. I had never considered the immune system’s role in brain development and pathology before. Yet, what really made this visit my favorite was the fact that microglia can EAT your entire brain within 18 years if disregulated.
All of the visits left me feeling excited to go into the field and hopeful for the future of neuroscience research. It was so interesting to see so many different approaches, from developing technology to traditional laboratory settings. It was also cool to see the differences between lab set ups and funding processes across Europe and the world.
Yet, the study tour was also an incredible opportunity to learn about a new part of the world and grow closer to my classmates. In Vienna, I saw a massive rose garden where a mama duck had just given birth to ducklings, walked through the historical buildings, and tried schnitzel for the first time. I even fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams of seeing Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss at the Belvedere Palace. In Budapest, we went to the Parliament building, the Fisherman’s Bastion, and the Buda castle. We also went on a secret food tour, where I tried traditional coffee, cottage cheese strudel, and Hungarian dumplings. It was incredible to be in such beautiful places and to learn science at the same time!
When we arrived back to Stockholm, we began the lab section of our course, which is how I found myself sitting in one of the research labs that contributed to the Human Protein Atlas, which maps proteins in all of the cells, tissues, and organs of the human body. My professors brought us to their lab for the week to work on immunostaining our protein of interest from the first week of class. We also had a science fika, where we shared coffee and discussed complex topics in neuroscience. I have never been in such an incredible laboratory space. The building was filled with beautiful plants, coffee machines, and communal spaces to discuss science. It was even located next to the building where the Noble lecture is given every year! I felt so lucky to be able to apply the skills I learned in class to a real-world scenario.
As my class is coming to a close, I have learned that neuroscience and Stockholm are not a strange combination at all. In fact, they are the opposite: a perfect duo. I am so grateful to be able to study science in such an important city for innovation. From practical laboratory techniques to interesting research questions, I have learned so much and will cherish the relationships I built with my classmates and professors for many years to come. In retrospect, I would not have taken any other class. 🙂