Year in review – 2021

Hi! This is Lauren, writing our group’s first (hopefully) annual review blog! Despite *everything* I feel quite positive looking back at 2021. There have certainly been some hurdles, delays, and setbacks, due to the *everything* going on in the world. And we have all faced problems now and then, or been distracted by concerns back home. But I feel strongly that this was the year that a research group really coalesced – I love being part of this team, I am immensely proud of what we have achieved this year, and I can’t wait to capitalise on all the work we’ve done and share it with the world in 2022. I started this website in the summer when I began to feel a group identity coming to life. I want this site to be a place that brings visibility to everyone in the group, and I have been pleased that several members have taken the chance to write updates and reflective pieces for this blog! The blog is also something you can browse through to catch up on what we and our students have been doing, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. Don’t forget that if you ever have questions about us or our work, you can get in touch with me via this website, or you can find my contact details at my KTH profile page.

Research

We made solid progress in all of our major lines of experimentation this year. Mengshu’s hydrogel research is especially well advanced: we now understand how the material forms, and are beginning to assess its basic properties so we can hopefully design some applications for it. Already, Heli has established new methods for protein analysis in our lab, and her work on thermostable enzymes has some interesting results that we will build on in the spring. And Ioanna’s lignin-focussed projects have continued to become more and more interdisciplinary, as she steps outside of her chemistry comfort zone and starts to learn more about plant biology and molecular biology techniques. We are now working on manuscripts relating to all of these projects, while research continues into the new year.

Students

Supervising Master’s students for their final thesis projects is a major part of working in this lab, and 2021 was no exception. In fact, because the pandemic meant a shortage of available jobs, there were more students looking for thesis projects in the university than I ever remember! As a group, we took on four KTH students who worked January-June, and another who worked from March-September. We also had two guest students from other Swedish universities who completed 12-month thesis projects in 2021: Zijia and Amrutha both worked on some aspect of biocontrol, investigating different bacterial species to see if they might be valuable tools to suppress plant diseases.

Busy times! The KTH students worked on diverse aspects of biomaterials, bioremediation, biocontrol, and biorefinery, and I admit I found it tough to keep up with everyone’s work, so I was happy to have effective co-supervisors for all students. We also had two student interns work with Mengshu and Heli for about seven weeks. Most of our student projects were very fruitful, although some were frustrating – Amrutha learned some lessons about coping with “negative data” while still producing a fantastic thesis on plant protection.

This year I was most happy to welcome two students whose time in our lab had been long-planned and delayed by Covid restrictions! Kasane from Tokyo Institute of Technology and Beatriz from Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon finally joined us to perform thesis projects as exchange students at KTH. Beatriz is working with Mengshu on a hydrogels project, and Kasane is working with Heli and Amparo Jimenez Quero on a biorefinery project. I’m so happy to have them both here! They will be with us until early 2022.

Recruitment

Our group has expanded quite a lot in 2021. We had several master’s thesis students in the spring-summer, but we were also joined by three longer-term members through the year. Ioanna joined our group in April, and I will be her main supervisor for the rest of her PhD. Heli also joined us in April, for a postdoc expected to last at least two years. And in October, Alma started her position as a research engineer with our team, and I hope she will stay for at least a year, as she is already making very valuable contributions to all of our projects. Right now, we have no plans for new recruitments any time soon, although the funding landscape can change, and I am happy to discuss with anyone who can bring their own funding.

Funding

Heli wrote and submitted her first major grant application this year, a daunting but important step for any early career researcher. Fingers crossed for good news in 2022! Ioanna and Mengshu also each wrote a small proposal for an internal funding call at KTH, which was a first experience for them. I was happy in late 2021 to be awarded funds from the Carl Trygger Foundation to support the purchase of some much needed equipment for analysing hydrogels. And I was very pleased that my good friend Johan Larsbrink at Chalmers University, Gothenburg received project funding from Novo Nordisk Fonden – Ioanna and I will contribute to that exciting project in a small way, and I am always happy to have a chance to work with Johan.

Innovation

I learned a lot this year about “innovation” and the commercialisation of research: specifically, about how academic research can be translated into real industrial output, either through partnerships or via the founding of new companies. At the beginning of the year, I was one of the first cohort of KTH researchers to take part in a mentorship programme, where I was matched with a mentor who had founded his own company after doing a postdoc in Sweden, and has since gone on to start several successful biotech firms. He gave me a great practical education in how to determine whether a ‘research project’ can become a ‘business idea’, and I learned a lot from this scheme about how to talk about innovation, and about all of the non-scientific skills I would be able to transfer from my life in academia into the start-up ecosystem.

Then, later in the year, together with my friend and colleague Amparo, I joined a pre-incubator programme at KTH, where we are exploring the commercial potential of one of our joint research lines. Our ‘batch’ of start-up concepts meets on Thursday lunchtime every week, and we discuss everything from financing, business management, and branding, to project planning, building a strong team, and giving effective feedback. It has been extremely cool to hang out with a large group of innovators from fields ranging from AI and games/app development to biotech and space exploration, and it is especially rewarding to hear that these diverse teams are facing such similar challenges to our own. It has been a crash course in “business speak“, for sure, but by now we’re comfortable in the group, and are able to think and communicate coherently about our hopes and plans for the next few years. Amparo also recently joined the mentor programme to get an additional perspective on what we are doing, and you can read about both of our experiences in this interview.

In related news, Mengshu and I also have an exciting initiative in the works, but that announcement will come later…!

Looking ahead

As a group, we have mostly been initiating major new projects this year, and so we didn’t publish a lot of papers in 2021, although some Covid-delayed collaborations with other groups did see papers coming out, which was very nice. I also published an invited review in Environmental Microbiology Reports, co-written with colleagues in Gothenburg and Norway. All of our research projects are in full swing now so a big priority for early 2022 is to start publishing our work! We have two near-complete manuscripts that I want to submit in January, and advanced plans for at least two more we’ll be working on in the spring, so I hope you’ll get to read those in the not-too distant future. Working on these papers feels like an important step for the group, as they will represent our first joint accomplishments. As Ioanna has just passed her half-time evaluation, we also need to focus on guiding her towards PhD completion, wrapping up the projects that she has been advancing this year, and starting to work on the publications needed for a defence at KTH.

January-March is always a very busy time. I will have a heavy teaching load and at least three significant research grants to write, so I am happy to know that our experimental work is in the best of hands. Both Heli and Ioanna will be joined in their projects by Master’s thesis students, and I will supervise a group of students through a smaller project for a biopolymers-related course. I’m looking forward to meeting them, and giving them their first hands-on lab experience since pre-pandemic! I also hope that the world will open up enough that we can travel safely, so that we can attend at least one conference as a group. Maybe see you there 🙂

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