MIMS Spotlight Series: Nóra meets Ionut Sebastian Mihai
Nóra Lehotai had a chat with Ionut Sebastian Mihai, who joined MIMS in 2019 as a doctoral student in the research group of Johan Henriksson. He is also one of the students currently participating in the Industrial Doctoral School offered at Umeå University.
Text: Nóra Lehotai
Ionut Sebastian Mihai is a PhD student at the Department of Molecular Biologi and affiliated to MIMS and the Industrial Doctoral School.
I have the opportunity to learn from Sartorius 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 idea of the Industrial Doctoral School at Umeå University is to create strong bonds between the academia and the private and public sectors by connecting doctoral students via shared projects. Every doctoral student in the programme is supervised by a university researcher and mentored by an employee of an external party.
How would you describe the Industrial Doctoral School?
“It is a PhD school that the university created to connect different disciplines. The idea is that the PhD student has an external partner anywhere in Sweden, outside of academia, which in my case is the company in Umeå called Sartorius, forming an interaction between academia and industry”.
“The participating students have diverse backgrounds. I am the only one in my cohort coming from the Department of Molecular Biology. I have the feeling that especially in my field, this interaction between academia and industry is often overlooked.”
“Together with the other participants in my cohort 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”.
In the frame of the programme, you have a 3-month training period at Sartorius, can you describe this?
“At Sartorius, I join a project which is somewhat different from my own research project. My skillset is a mixture of wet lab and computational skills (under improvement). I have the opportunity to learn from Sartorius 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.”
Can you tell us about your research project at MIMS?
“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”.
“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. We extract the T cells from the blood, activate and differentiate them, so we can study which genes are involved in these processes.”
“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 such as which genes are relevant for activation and differentiation need to be elucidated, making use of state-of-the-art sequencing and computing technologies.”
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 proposed 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”.
Ionut Sebastian Mihai in the lab together with his supervisor Johan Henriksson, researcher at the Department of Molecular Biology and MIMS.
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?
“I like going to the gym, reading on a wide range of topics - from economics and history to psychology -, playing video games, and going on car trips. I am trying to self-learn how to play on the guitar. It is good to have several types of hobbies to relax”.
“I like living in Sweden. I very much appreciate the work ethics and the conditions here and 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 in winter is quite challenging, and without the external input of physical exercise, the circadian rhythm drifts very easily.”
Is there a little known fact about yourself?
“I got into Muay Thai as a kid. When I moved to Spain with my family from Tibanesti, Iasi in Romania where I was born, I started to do judo, but I found it boring and a little too easy. I tried football and other sports but fell in love with the thrill of Muay Thai.”