“The people who generously donated to the ‘Futur’ campaign are an example of altruism to be followed,” says Elena Meléndez

Elena Meléndez Esteban, recipient of the first "IRB Barcelona Futur” PhD fellowship.
Elena Meléndez Esteban, recipient of the first "IRB Barcelona Futur” PhD fellowship.

The academic year began with the arrival of 11 new students to IRB Barcelona’s International PhD Programme—among them Elena Meléndez Esteban (b. Barcelona, 1993), the recipient of the first "IRB Barcelona Futur” PhD fellowship. This fellowship has come about from the campaign with the same name launched by the institute in December 2016 to increase public awareness of the importance of biomedical research and PhD training. “So many people have shown such generosity in supporting the PhD training of a young researcher whom they have never met,” says Elena. 

“Sensitive, enthusiastic, tenacious and inquisitive”, this is how this young scientist describes herself. She holds a B.Sc. in Biomedicine from the University of Barcelona (2015) and recently completed a two-year Masters in "Cancer, stem cells and developmental biology" at the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands) and the Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge (UK). Elena has now joined Manuel Serrano’s Cellular Plasticity and Disease Lab to study tissue repair mechanisms and cell regeneration. We went along to meet her.


Why did you study biomedicine and what led you to do a PhD in this field?

My biology teacher at school sparked my fascination for science. She introduced me to genetics, the immune system, and to the basic things that I went on to study. She stirred my interest in biology and encouraged me, to the point that I knew that I wanted to work in this field. When I was at university, I chose to study biomedicine and during placements at the Hospital Clínic I worked on stem cells and tissue regeneration of the nervous system. That was when I thought to myself, “I want to do a Masters that allows me to work in a lab and to experience various fields.” What really fascinated me was regenerative medicine and this is what I chose to pursue.


What led you to pick IRB Barcelona and how did you get the “Futur” fellowship?

I found out about the Institute during the on-site visits we did during our degree studies. Also, some people on my degree course and in the Masters had started their PhD studies here and what they said about the Institute encouraged me. And, of course, the final push was finding out that Manuel Serrano had moved from CNIO to IRB Barcelona.

With respect to the “Futur” fellowship, I simply went for it. I did my best to explain what I was doing, what I wanted to do, and my expectations here. I was really excited when I received the letter telling me I had been awarded the fellowship.


How do you feel about the award? Do you want to send a message to those who donated to the campaign?

I want to express my most sincere gratitude to those people who have generously placed their trust in someone they don’t know, allowing that person to pursue science. I would like to tell those who have acknowledged the importance of science by giving donations that they are examples of altruism to be followed.


With respect to initiatives of this kind, do you think it is important to promote science?

Yes, it is crucial to raise awareness of the importance of science as an engine that drives society. I didn’t know of any similar initiative and I would like more people to be moved by the "Futur" campaign and other similar campaigns in the future.


What do you think your PhD training is going to be like?

I am going to have the opportunity to learn a great deal in the next four years because of the dynamic scientific environment at IRB Barcelona. I also hope I will be able to contribute my knowledge to the research community and to reach conclusions that may in the future lead to improvements in regenerative medicine.


What are your first impressions of IRB?

There is a positive environment in Manuel’s lab. I have also been able to find out about some of the events, such as the Student Retreat and Cool-Off sessions. Activities like this let people know what others are up to and allow people to share ideas. I would also really like to get involved in the public engagement activities run by the Institute, which I consider not only interesting but necessary. I think public engagement has to start at a very young age because it is precisely the little kids of today who will contribute to keeping research going.


Give us an idea about what you are like, how would you describe yourself?

I think I am a sensitive, enthusiastic, tenacious and inquisitive person. I plough all my energy into everything I do and I am always asking things like “why is this happening?” and “why don’t I understand this?” I think questioning everything is great start to a future in research.


And, outside the lab, what do you like to do in your spare time?

When I have spare time I like to spend time with my friends and family. I also like hiking in the countryside so that I can disconnect, and going for bike rides.


Reflecting on how you got here, what advice would you give to those in your old biology teacher’s class who are thinking “I would like get involved in research”?

I would encourage them to always be inquisitive and to keep looking for answers to things that they don’t understand. Above all, they shouldn’t give up when things don’t go the way they expect. In science, the first time you do something it often doesn’t work out. It might not go right the second or third time either, but you have to be determined. And when things go well, the satisfaction is well worth the effort.