Year in review – 2022

This is Lauren writing our second annual progress report for the blog! Some ups and downs this year, but lots of progress as well. Heli and I attended the 14th Carbohydrate Bioengineering Meeting in Norway, and I presented our work both there and at a Treesearch Progress workshop in Sweden. Ioanna gave several presentations of her work, touring the lignin conference circuit as she prepares to settle in for the last year of her PhD. In some ways, getting people together was a main theme for the year, as we also managed to have our first proper lab Christmas party and Division Day since before the pandemic – lots of fun memories and photos!

A montage of photos taken at the KTH Glycoscience Division Day 2022. Also showing Ioanna and Lauren giving conference presentations.

Research

A big goal for this year was to publish data from the projects we have been working on for a while. So we worked hard to finalise the last few experiments for several projects, then to write up those papers, getting feedback from collaborators/co-authors, etc. There were several projects ready to be wrapped up simultaneously and the team has done a great job pushing multiple lines of research to completion! I am especially grateful to postdoc extraordinaire Heli for this, and to Alma, our former research engineer. As always though, these things took longer to finalise than hoped, so our papers aren’t out yet. But as I write this on December 30th, we have one paper accepted, two in review, and two ready to submit in the new year. I plan for a blog post discussing each paper as they are published.

Students

In the spring, two exchange students (Kasane from Tokyo Institute of Technology and Beatriz from Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon) submitted theses based on work they did with us in 2021-22. And in January we were joined by three KTH students on the Biotechnology Master’s programme who performed their final thesis projects with us: Emelie, Lova, and Vicky all defended successfully in early June! Emelie had been working with Ioanna on a green extraction procedure for lignin, contributing to our fundamental understanding of that important biopolymer. Meanwhile, Vicky and Lova were working with Heli on an enzyme discovery project, trying to figure out the impact of carbohydrate-binding modules on some enzymes from environmental bacteria. They stayed on as paid research interns through the summer, and generated a lot of excellent data in the process.

Theresa Schaufler from BOKU, Vienna, joined us in October with support from the Erasmus programme, to perform her Master’s thesis project in our group. She is performing the first life cycle analysis of our hydrogel biomaterial and will help us to optimise the sustainable process! I also supervised a group of five students for a project course on Biopolymers, and they helped us to understand the interactions happening in our protein-carbohydrate hydrogel system. Now we know a lot more about the properties the polysaccharide needs to have in order to work correctly in our cross-linking system.

A PhD student I was co-supervising, Salla Koskela, successfully defended her thesis in June, and it was wonderful that her supervisor Prof Qi Zhou, the examiner, and the whole defence committee were there in person. Salla’s work had focussed on enzymes called lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases and how they can be used to make nanocellulose, and you can read it at this link. Congratulations Salla! And thank you again for your important contributions to our polysaccharide hydrogel project.

This year I also really enjoyed taking part in several PhD defences, as I sat on two committees in Sweden, and was the examiner for Dr Hannah Gibson at Newcastle University, UK. Topics ranged from bacterial polysaccharide characterisation to the intricacies of CAZyme mechanisms, and all of the students were very impressive.

Photo taken by Dr Shennan Wang after the successful PhD defence of Dr Salla Koskela, third from left.

Recruitment

Our brilliant research engineer Alma Kvammen left us in July to work for an exciting company in Tromsø, Norway. Lova and Vicky were hired as laboratory assistants for three months over the summer, after finishing their respective thesis projects in the spring. I am happy to say that we are in the process of recruiting a PhD student thanks to financial support from the Wallenberg Wood Science Centre (WWSC). The application deadline for this position was a couple of weeks ago, and I plan to conduct the first interviews in January. In addition, I will be recruiting a post-doc for our hydrogel project in spring or summer 2023, so stay tuned.

Funding

This was a big year for proposal writing and we have had some notable successes, as well as a few disappointments. In early July, Heli was awarded 500 kSEK from the ÅForsk foundation for a new project on transglycosylating enzymes! We are using these funds to invest in some equipment that will speed up our enzyme discovery work. Around the same time, Ioanna was awarded two foundation grants to support her plant cell transcriptomics experiments. The awards totalled almost 200 kSEK, letting us cover the full costs of the project and related publications! As mentioned above, I was awarded financial support for a PhD project by the WWSC, and I’m excited to start this new line of investigation in 2023. New funds from the Carl Trygger foundation will be used to recruit a post-doc for the hydrogel project later in the year! As always, you can read details about all of our financing at this link.

Innovation

This was again a major focus area for me this year, and I have learned so much about the challenging journey of translating academic research into a commercial venture.

Working with my colleague Amparo, I completed the KTH Innovation Pre-Incubator Programme with our concept MycOligo. In a 12-month programme of seminars and workshops, we learned how to found a spin-off start-up company. We were awarded funds from KTH Innovation to conduct a market research survey of customer interest in our idea, and I’m looking forwards to seeing how far we can push MycOligo in the months and years to come. The photo montage below shows some highlights from our innovation journey, including Demo Day and presenting our idea to King Carl XVI Gustaf and Prince Daniel of Sweden!

My own early-stage start-up company Glycolink, of which I am the CEO, made some great progress this year. The biomaterial we are developing was recognised by the IVA as an important sustainable innovation, and in the autumn we received funding from the Vinnova research council in their Innovative Impact Startups programme! This is an important step for our young company, and will help us with product validation, up-scaling, safety testing, and sustainability assessment. I made my first commercial pitch of Glycolink to an investor group in December, and hope I can share some details in the new year! Lots to look forward to here 🙂

A montage of photos of Lauren and Amparo taken at KTH Innovation during two special events: a visit from th King of Sweden, and Demo Day for the pre-incubator programme.

Looking ahead

All in all, this year was a heavy one, with lots of pressure, but with successes to celebrate as well. A lot of special events bringing people together, several new projects to get excited about, and a completion to some long-term initiatives. We have much to be proud of this year and I hope we can keep up the momentum for 2023. I look forward to welcoming four new Master’s thesis students in the spring and can’t wait to see what you can do, Rasmus, Felise, Ida, and Piltan!

A special event in the coming year will be the PhD defence of Ioanna Sapouna – stay tuned for details! Now that she has several good publications on the way, she will be working on her thesis throughout the spring.

I want to say an extra special thank you to Alma Kvammen, our talented former research engineer who is now working in Norway, but whose incredible work ethic and scientific rigour pushed multiple projects to completion and kick-started several others. We miss you but wish you the very best of luck!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s