Written by Nóra Lehotai and Ionut Sebastian Mihai.
The Industrial Doctoral School for Research and Innovation at Umeå University was established in 2008. Its goal is to create strong bonds between the private and public sectors by connecting doctoral students via shared projects and networking. Every doctoral student of the programme is supervised by a university researcher and mentored by an employee of an external party. I had a chat with Ionut Sebastian Mihai, who joined MIMS in 2019 as a doctoral student in the Henriksson group and is one of the students currently participating in this programme offered at Umeå University.
Picture: Iounut Sebastian Mihai. Credit: Mattias Petterson.
How would you describe the doctoral student programme by the Industrial Doctoral School?
“It is a project the university created to connect different disciplines. The goal is that the PhD student has an external partner anywhere in Sweden, outside of academia, which in my case is the company called Sartorius, forming an interaction between academia and industry”, says Sebastian.
The participating students have diverse backgrounds, he continues.
“I am the only one coming from molecular biology. I have the feeling that especially at my field, this interaction between academia and industry is often overlooked.”
In the frame of the program, he has a 3-month long period at Sartorius where he joins a project which is somewhat different from his own research project.
“My skillset is a mixture of wet lab and computational skills (under improvement). I have the opportunity to learn from them and experience how a company operates, how it feels to be working in industry with my academic background and how my knowledge can be translated into something more applied, with potential for industrial application.”
The supervisor’s proposed project for the PhD study can enable whether a project is selected by the university for this program or not. The project’s potential for collaboration and output determines its value for the external partners. The industrial partner covers 50% of the PhD salary, and additional costs. At present, there are 50 companies and organizations collaborating with Umeå University.
“Together with the other participants of this program, we have regular meetings where we present our projects, discuss, give feedback to each other and develop science communications skills. I find it very motivating and useful”, concludes Sebastian.
Can you tell us about your role at MIMS, what are you working on now?
“My research topic is the activation and differentiation of T cells. T cells are very important cells of our immune system. The subset of T cells I am working with, CD4+, coordinates and regulates the immune response”, tells Sebastian.
The knowledge on T cells can be translated into personalized medicine, for example to target cancer or infected cells. This application already exists in the form of CAR T cell therapy, but it can be further improved. For that, key details of T cell biology like which genes are relevant for activation and differentiation need to be elucidated, making use of state-of-the-art sequencing and computing technologies.
“We would like to discover what the connection points among multiple genes are thus, helping us to better understand the activation and differentiation process of T cells. In order to do that, one needs to study genes from multiple perspectives, and then integrate all that knowledge into a comprehensive picture that furthers our knowledge in the field. We work mostly with healthy donor blood samples from the Blood center (Blodcentralen) at the University Hospital of Umeå (NUS). We extract the T cells from the blood, activate and differentiate them, so we can study which genes are involved in these processes.”
What were you doing before you joined MIMS and what attracted you to start a position here?
“I studied biology at Universidad de Alcalá de Henares in Spain. I did my Erasmus at the Department of Molecular Biology at Umeå University, then I decided to stay to do my Master here as well. After trying several groups whose research focus ranged from prostate cancer and glioblastoma to plant-fungi interactions, I decided to start my PhD at the Molecular Biology department too, under the supervision of MIMS group leader Johan Henriksson.
I found the available project from Johan very interesting. During our initial discussion, I thought that he was very open minded, quite prolific in terms of field-related ideas, we shared visions for the future of the field, and the combination of wet lab and bioinformatics skills required for the project completion were exactly the type of challenge that I was looking for”, explains Sebastian.
If you would not have your current profession, what do you think you would be doing?
“I wanted to get into astrophysics, anything related to space as I was in love with that topic when I was a kid (and still do)! Chemistry was also interesting, especially if linked to biological systems.
I wanted to become an army pilot, however my eyesight wasn’t good enough for that school. Finally, I was also training and competing in Muay Thai but decided to protect my brain from hits at least until I get my PhD diploma, so I am taking a break with that.”
What do you do in your free time and what are you most enjoying in living in Umeå, Sweden?
To this question, Sebastian replies: “Going to the gym, reading on a wide range of topics (from economics and history to psychology), playing video games, going on car trips.”
He believes that playing certain type of ‘souls’-like games is like learning a new coding language, because you do something and if it fails, you try it again and again, until you figure out the pattern for what you want to achieve.
“I am trying to self-learn how to play on the guitar. It is good to have several types of hobbies to relax”, he adds.
“I like living in Sweden. I like and very much appreciate the work ethics and the conditions here. It allows space for creativity. I enjoy that Umeå is a growing city and hopefully, it will soon become a life science hub. However, the darkness is quite challenging, and without the external input of physical exercise, the circadian rhythm drifts very easily.”
Picture on the left: Training at Umeå Muay Thai Club (sebastian is in the middle). Credit: Umeå Muay Thai Club. Picture on the right: Car trip with friends (Sebastian on the right). Credit: Ionut Sebastian Mihai.
Is there a little known/interesting fact about yourself?
“I got into Muay Thai as a kid. When I moved to Spain with my family from Tibanesti, Iasi (Romania) where I was born, I started to do judo, but I found it boring because I dominated the other kids, and that was too easy. I tried football and other sports but fell in love with the thrill of Muay Thai. I would like to return to Muay Thai (or similar disciplines) one day, of course.”
By the way, Sebastian is waiting for his turn to go to Mars with SpaceX.
You can read the interview in Swedish here: https://www.umu.se/nyheter/mims-spotlight-serie-nora-moter-ionut-sebastian-mihai_11643238/
Translation and publishing on umu.se by Ingrid Söderbergh.
News article about the Industrial Doctoral School programme in the newspaper Curie by the Swedish Research Council (in Swedish): https://www.tidningencurie.se/nyheter/2022/06/08/forskarskolan-som-far-ut-forskningen-i-verkligheten/?utm_source=Paloma&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_campaign=Forskarskolan+som+f%c3%a5r+ut+forskningen+i+verkligheten
Webpage of the Industrial Doctoral School for Research and Innovation at Umeå University: https://www.umu.se/en/research/research-with-us/forskarskolor/industrial-doctoral-school-for-research-and-innovation/
Website of Sartorius: https://www.sartorius.com/en
Website of Umeå Muay Thai Club: https://umeamuaythai.se/