Hello from Leuven, Belgium! I was so excited when I found out my project proposal had been accepted by the INBT/IRES program, and I can hardly believe we're here with the opportunity to work at IMEC! We've been so busy getting settled and starting work on our projects, but we've had a little time to explore the weekends. We arrived on May 31st, a day early for our June 1st orientation. Ascension, a Belgian national holiday, was observed on June 2nd, and since it fell on a Thursday, the following Friday was also generally not considered a work day. For us, this meant we had time to adjust to the time difference, which was made especially difficult by the long daylight hours here--the sun generally rises around 6:00 am, and it doesn't get dark until 10:00 pm! (We're six hours ahead of Baltimore, and twelve hours ahead of my hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii.)
Fiesta Europa, an organized festival that invites vendors from different European countries to set up an open market style event, happened to be in Leuven that weekend. It was set up in the center of the town at Ladeuzeplein, the large square behind the Katholieke University Library. At night there were pyrotechnic performances, fireworks, and a drum performance! The next day, we stumbled upon Circus & Co. in the park just North of the square just in time to watch some of the acrobatic performances. One of the routines we saw was entirely in Dutch, but humorous nonetheless.
In general, Leuven is a small city, the center of which is enclosed by a circular highway. Everywhere is reachable by bike, and for many of the large student population here (including ourselves), that's the primary mode of transportation. We bike to work, to go grocery shopping, and pretty much anytime we need to get around. After only two weeks here, I can't imagine not having my lime-green bike, and am very glad my Dad taught me to ride when I was little!
I'm on the JHU Fencing team, and in order to continue training thorughout the summer, I've found a fencing club in Leuven! At open fencing the other day, I learned that streets ending in 'straat' (street) refer to the part of that street that is inside the circular highway, and those ending in 'steenweg' refer to streets outside of the circle. 'Steenweg' comes from 'stone road', refering to roads that were not paved. It's little things like this that make me love Leuven more and more. Language has been an adjustment, but most people in Leuven are bilingual, speaking both Dutch and English, so we haven't encountered many problems. Many of the signs and labels, however, are dutch only, which leads to interesting grocery purchases. We've bought buttermilk and Speculoos, mistaking them for milk and peanut butter respectively. Speculoos is very good gingerbread spread, but a bit surprise if you're not expecting it!
Orientation consisted of a tour of the four buildings, as well as basic safety training. The exterior of IMEC is very pretty in summer. Sheltered by glass coverings, the open walkways connecting the buildings are flanked by greenery on either side. The inside of the IMEC facilities is nothing short of impressive. We work mainly at IMEC One, which houses offices, labs, and the research clean room. To get to lab every morning after stopping at our desks, we walk through the support floor of the clean room--an overwhelming labyrinth of pipes, valves, and gauges to supply the various manufacturing machines housed above.
The clean rooms are amazing: giant ballrooms filled with researchers quietly preparing silicon wafers for patterning amongst machines the size of an average bedroom. Protective, light plastic clothing, rubber shoe coverings, and eye protection is de riguer as they perform precisely choreographed protocols. One clean room is a Class 1 (One particle per cubic meter) while another more recently set up clean room is rated Class 1000. However, this is because the equipment is nearly completely automatic, and does not require the wafers to be exposed to the clean room environment while being transferred into the machine.
At IMEC, lab access is controlled by your keycard, or badge. The majority of the first week consisted of required safety training in the Convergence lab and Neuroelectronics lab to be given access, as well as training in tissue culture, confocal microscopy, and fluorescent microscopy. In order to use any equipment, you must first be granted access by the 'lab responsible', the person in charge of that tool.
My project here at IMEC is a continuation of work previously performed by Professor Sharon Gerecht's lab at JHU. I will be microcontact printing silicon micropillar substrates manufactured here at IMEC with components of the extracellular matrix, fibronectin and type IV collagen, in parallel patterns. Endothelial cells will first be cultured on the substrates, and then transferred to fibrin and type I collagen gels respectively via inversion of the substrates. The goal of the project is to enhance and control tubulogenesis.
Last week consisted mainly of test prints and optimization of the protocol to make sure the printing and fluorescent staining process were consistent. Joanna and I are using the same cell lines, and we thawed a vial of each this past week. Hopefully they will be confluent (Will have a cell density high enough that we can use them in experiments and pass them to a new flask to continue the culture) early next week, which means I could test the entire process!
I can't wait to see more of the city, and hopefully will be traveling more on weekends! I'd love to have more pictures to share with you!
Tot ziens voor nu,
(Bye for now)