IRB Barcelona alumni careers: The “Crazy About Biomedicine” who started an MD-PhD career abroad. An interview with Alina Ulezko.

Our Crazy about Biomedicine Alina Ulezko
Our Crazy about Biomedicine Alina Ulezko

Alina Ulezko Antonova (Almaty, Kazakhstan, 1997) joined IRB Barcelona in the 2014 edition of “Crazy About Biomedicine”, a mentoring programme addressed to secondary school students in their first year of baccalaureate with a goal to foster passion and vocation for scientific careers, organized by IRB Barcelona within the series "Crazy About Science" of the Fundació Catalunya La Pedrera.

When Alina finished her secondary education at the Puigcerver School in Reus (Spain), she moved to the US. She then received an Associate of Arts degree from Oxford College of Emory University and a Bachelor of Science from Emory University (Atlanta, GA) in 2019, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude in Biology and a minor in Physics. This autumn she will be enrolling in the MD-PhD programme at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (St. Louis, MO). 

IRB Barcelona was, in her words, her first real approximation to science, and it was there where she met some of her closest friends and most important mentors. Although she doesn't spend much time in Spain now, during her days in the country she gets to see her family, and she feels lucky to have had volunteer and observership experiences in the healthcare systems of both Spain and the United States. She enjoys doing outdoor activities like hiking and snowboarding and is very passionate about teaching younger generations anything from pure science to how to submit college applications.

What led you to enroll in the “Crazy About Biomedicine” programme?

A very kind biology teacher from the Puigcerver School, Ms. Dolors Sans, suggested that I apply to this program as a means to complete my High School senior year research project. This is a project that all students in Catalonia need to do in order to excel in the Spanish university-entrance system, and the topic can be in any field that the student wants as long as it fosters critical thinking. Even before the “Crazy” programme, my plan was to apply to medical school in Spain,so I asked to join a project that was medicine-related. I was given the opportunity to work in Dr. Marco Milan’s lab under the mentorship of Dr. Mariana Muzzopappa, and we investigated the relationship between chromosomal instability and cancer. It was a fun project!

 “At IRB Barcelona, I spoke to postdoctoral researchers who had trained in the USA and the UK, and this made me dream, for the first time in my life, of doing science as a career path and not just as a hobby that led me to an interest in medicine”.

 

What did you learn? What did you take away from this experience? 

My time at IRB Barcelona was pivotal in starting my journey in the US. It was in the labs and conference rooms of this amazing place that I first met scientists from all around the world who had ideas that surpassed the solid walls of medicine as I saw them then. At IRB Barcelona, I spoke to postdoctoral researchers who had trained in the US and the UK, and this made me dream, for the first time in my life, of doing science as a career path and not just as a hobby that led me to an interest in medicine.

 

"It was in the labs and conference rooms of this amazing place that I first met scientists from all around the world who had ideas that surpassed the solid walls of medicine as I saw them then”.

 

How important was IRB Barcelona in defining your career path? Were you mentored/helped in any way with respect to exploring a career in the field of sciences?

IRB Barcelona was, indeed, my first real approximation to science. It was there that I first got a glimpse of what it takes to ask the right questions and how to use my hands and available tools to answer them. Importantly, meeting scientists from such diverse fields, countries, and backgrounds made me understand that with enough passion and perseverance you can get to the place you want to be (and enjoy the science along the way).

In addition, after leaving IRB Barcelona in 2015, the support and encouragement I got from the institute, in particular from Dr. Joan Guinovart, were critical when I was applying for MD-PhD programmes-- which are very competitive in the US. Dr. Guinovart’s experience with the American system allowed him to give me the most informed advice, which, year after year, guided me throughout my research steps. I remember that one year I believed that if a specific university had 2 positions available, there was no way that I would ever be able to obtain one. And he would reply with comments like: “Well, if there are 2 positions, then one is for you and one is for another person. Don’t overthink it”. He was also the first person to tell me that if I didn’t get accepted the first year, I should wait another year. “If you live 100 years, losing one is just 1%,” he would say. It was thanks to these encouraging words, in big part, that I kept moving forward, and I will always be thankful to him for this.

Overall, everything I learned (and keep learning) at IRB Barcelona is something I value deep down, and I hope that future generations of the “Crazy” programme are able to take advantage of these amazing opportunities.

 

How do you feel about starting your MD-PhD at Washington University in St. Louis?

Getting to this point has been a difficult journey, and I understand that I have an even more challenging path ahead. The Immunology Programme at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is one of the best in the country, so I hope to be able to meet the many expectations that exist for any MSTP MD-PhD students in general, and for this programme in particular.

Moreover, I feel very excited about the PhD. I have already been working as a Research Technician in Dr. EynavKlechevsky’s lab at Washington University for a year, and the opportunity to work with her amazing group allowed me to see that their labs, faculty and facilities are among the best ones in the US. I can’t wait to start!

 

Can you tell us a bit about your research project?

Since we do not need to choose a research project until we begin the PhD phase following completion of the first two years of medical school, I have not decided on a PhD idea yet.

I hope to explore new scientific fields and acquire novel technical skills. Additionally, I would be happy to continue along the lines of my work at Emory, which aims to find clinically translatable methods to improve the outcomes and practices of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Previously, we had found that a specific type of immune cell present in the bone marrow of human stem cell donors, called plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDC), can contribute to attenuating graft-versus-host disease -- the major complication of a stem cell transplant. I find pDCs incredibly interesting, and I plan to study them either during my PhD or in a later phase in my training.

 

Are you still in contact with IRB Barcelona?

I am still in touch with Dr. Joan Guinovart, and I have recently become part of the IRB Barcelona Alumni Network. I also try to visit the Institute at least once a year. Thanks for all of your amazing efforts in fostering the IRB Barcelona community!

 

Do you have any special memories or anecdotes that you want to share with us?

I would like to share an insight that will hopefully provide some perspective to everyone who has a crazy dream-- be it in the field of sciences, medicine, or something completely unrelated:

During my first year in the US, I sent 36 emails to professors asking to join their labs at Emory. I only received 3 responses. Out of those 3, I had 2 interviews. The first professor told me that he did not think I was capable of working 10 hours/week in combination with my studies (although I eventually worked 25-40 hours/week), and the second decided to give me a chance. I stayed in the lab of the second professor for 4 years, and he is, to this day, one of the most important mentors to cross my path: Dr. Edmund K. Waller. So, my message to you is: at the start of your journey, you just need one person to believe in you. If you persevere and follow what your heart and intuition tell you, that someone will inevitably appear along your way. Then, just like the opportunity I was given at IRB Barcelona, it is up to you to take advantage of the chance that you are given and enjoy it to the full!