Tell us about yourself
My name is Veronika Cencen and I am a 22 year old M.Sc. graduate in biomedical engineering at the University of Ottawa. I was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, but due to my father’s job as a diplomat, we moved to Beijing when I was two. I spent a total of 9 years in Beijing, 2 in Moscow, and did a semester study exchange in Kaunas, Lithuania with “breaks” of coming home for a few years in between moves. I’ve experienced many different schooling systems and taken part in a variety of activities and societies in this time, but one that has been a major part of my life (and identity) for the longest is rhythmic gymnastics, which I started at the age of 3 and continue at a national competitive level today.
What is your research about?
My M.Sc. research project was to create a device that allows us to insert foreign material (usually proteins and DNA) into any cell type and size, while keeping them alive. Previous methods tended to have issues in efficiency, universality, or viability, all of which this method aims to overcome. This would be particularly useful for difficult to transfect cell types, such as stem cells, which happen to be gaining popularity in regenerative therapies and related research.
What have you enjoyed the most about your research?
I find it great when I can find someone that I can share and connect my project with, since at these tend to be highly specific at this stage and field. It is always exciting to share ideas and watch them interconnect and grow, and perhaps lead to some "accidental" discoveries!
What have you found most challenging about your research?
Research can sometimes be a lonely and tedious job; there are entire time periods when nothing seems to be moving forward, or tasks can become repetitive (e.g. cell culturing, setting up stock solutions, device fabrication...); it is important to maintain a vision of the future goal, keep track of failures and their potential reasons, and, if at all possible, make mini side-projects out of improving the efficiency or utility of "daily chores" in the lab!
How has your research experience influenced your career path?
Due to the highly interdisciplinary nature of my project, I was able to experience a variety of different "subfields"; I've moved from biotechnology to biomedical engineering and nanotechology, and have now discovered that computer programming would be a useful skill to develop further. I believe this is quite natural in the dynamic state of modern research, so I am willing to let my career turn in any direction that successful incorporates my experience, competence, and interests, with current trends that require them.
How has your research impacted the world?
Ideally, my project would provide a more accessible and efficient method of transfecting stem cells, thus accelerating both therapy and research that require them. This is highly applicable particularly for harder to treat illnesses (our collaborators, for example, are working on pulmonary arterial hypertension therapy with growth hormone transfected stem cells)
What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?
Developing a device for efficient transfection of stem cells is a relatively new idea as it is. I would find it very exciting if such a device was successfully used to treat a disease requiring transfected stem cell therapy for a real patient!
What motivates you to do research?
I discovered the potential applications of stem cells as a middle school student at the Western Academy of Beijing. In my second year of high school, I decided to do a brief work placement at the Beijing University Laboratory of Nucleic Acid Technology, and my increasing interest drove me to do my B.Sc. in Biotechnology at the University of Ljubljana. However, in this time, I started discovering more about the potentials of incorporation of engineering in biomedicine, which lead me to transition to Biomedical Engineering for my master’s. I became particularly fascinated in the possibility in treating something as complex as the human memory system, so I continue to look for opportunities for research in this area.
Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment
I was extremely excited when I first found I transfected a sample of our cells using the fabricated device. The fabrication, setup, and experimental planning took a lot of effort, as did the imaging, and seeing them glow green with the fluorescent molecule I inserted was very motivational