Meet the EMBL Events Team: Michelle

Meet Michelle, the Digital Strategy Officer in the EMBL-EBI Training team. She works with our European Commission funded projects such as BioExcel and CINECA. She is responsible for the social media and content for these projects along with organising scientific courses and conferences. Michelle has just returned back to the UK after spending 6 months with her family in Qatar due to the pandemic.

Michelle Mendonca, Digital Strategy Officer at EMBL-EBI

EMBL-EBI start date: August 2018
Number of organised events at EMBL-EBI: 12

What is your favourite place in Hinxton area?
The little nature walks spread across campus are my favourite. It is always refreshing to be able to take a break from work and be surrounded by greenery and beautiful flowers.

What is the first thing you do before a course starts and the first thing you do after a course finishes? 
The first thing I do before I start a course is making sure I am well organised and I have everything I need to get started. The first thing I do after a course is finished, is to congratulate everyone on the team and have a long nap.

What are the challenges/differences of organising a virtual course? 
I think one of the big differences for me is not to physically see if the delegates are finding everything alright. However, I do think virtual courses have opened up a whole new avenue for inclusivity and accessibility which means we get to reach a lot more people and that is always great.

You’ve been working from home for 13 months now; how have you adapted your role during this time? 
Adapting to the new role was challenging at first and it took a while to find a new routine and way of working. I am working on developing better ways of communication to maintain my interactions with colleagues.

PHOTO: Michelle in Qatar

If you weren’t a Digital Strategy Officer what would you be? 
I would be doing something in the creative or entrepreneurship field. So probably a YouTuber or a cafe owner in an alternate universe.

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have? 
I love the Marvel series and recently watched WandaVision. So my superpower would be moving objects with the mind like Scarlet Witch from the show.

What is your favourite movie? 
I don’t have a favourite movie but I am a big Bollywood fan, especially all the movies from the 90s and early 2000s.

Upcoming events that Michelle is organising:
EMBO Workshop: Advances and Challenges in Biomolecular Simulations , 18 – 21 October 2021, virtual.

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Friend or Foe: Transcription and RNA Meet DNA Replication and Repair

Event Report by Apoorva Baluapuri, University of Würzburg, Germany

RNA and DNA were first described by the Swiss biologist Friedrich Miescher in 1868. About 150 years later, we stand at crossroads of the two disciplines which have arisen as a result of dedicated research on both molecules. The first EMBL symposium on the connections between transcription and DNA replication/repair research was a major step forward in combining the progress from wide ranging topics, thus generating a consensus on how gene expression and DNA transactions cooperate.

The symposium, which was the second one from EMBL this year,  was scheduled just a day after International Women’s Day, and that aligned very well with the equally represented line-up of speakers and organisers!

The titular opening session was dedicated to transcription-associated genomic instability where all aspects of R-loops and ribonucleotide excision repair in transcription coupled DNA double strand break repair were covered. For example, Gaëlle Legube (CNRS – University of Toulouse, France) expanded in great detail on the influence of DSB-induced chromatin conformation and the strong potential of 3C-based technologies, while Elodie Hatchi (Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, USA) explained about her recent publication in Nature concerning the impact of BRCA1, RAD52 and PALB2 on small RNA-driven DNA repair.

Eventually, we switched over to a more translational theme with Rushad Pavri (IMP, Vienna, Austria) who spoke about the relation between DNA replication timing and frequency of oncogenic translocations.

This time around, the poster presentation sessions were equally dynamic with topics being covered from role of RBMX in RNA processing (Sara Luzzi, University of Newcastle) to role of MYCN in reconciling elevated transcription levels with DNA replication (Dimitrios Papadopoulos, University of Würzburg, Germany).

To end the first day, Philippe Pasero (CNRS, France) tried to answer the old question of the chicken or the egg in terms of toxic R-loops, if they are the cause or consequences of DNA replication stress, while Andrew Deans (St. Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, Australia) explained about fork re-modellers as a general mechanism of R-loop removal.

The second day started out on a high note by a talk on the consequences of DNA damage and heat shock on Pol II from Jesper Svejstrup. Prof Svejstrup recently moved his lab from the Francis Crick Institute in London to the University of Copenhagen (Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences).

To make things even more exciting at the symposium, Martin Eilers (University of Würzburg, Germany) spoke about conflict resolution by MYCN between “friends and foes”, i.e. Pol II and replication fork. This was followed by talk by Marco Foiani (University of Milan, Italy) who showed the role of ATR in nuclear integrity.

In between the breaks, the participants eagerly shared their setup of how they were joining the virtual conference:

Not only were the home setups on display, but we also got a glimpse of “add-on” participants at the conference:

https://twitter.com/luzzi_s/status/1369373077394644997

Along with this fun, the second day’s poster session continued with equally interesting topics as the previous day. The virtual conference platform provided by Engagez came across as a handy tool in coming as close as possible to the in-person poster presentations.

Frédéric Chédin (University of California, Davis, USA) closed the day by talking about interplay between splicing and R-loops.

In the next two days, a wide variety of topics and methods were covered. For example,  Nick Proudfoot (University of Oxford, UK) dazzled with correlation between R-loops and antisense transcription while Petra Beli (IMB, Mainz, Germany) moved the focus from genomics to proteomics with èlan. She spoke about a method called “RDProx” which maps R-loop proximal proteome in a native chromatin environment.

Also, junior group leaders like Marco Saponaro (University of Birmingham, UK) answered what happens to replication when it encounters transcription and Madzia Crossley (Stanford University, USA) showed CytoDRIP-blots to probe RNA-DNA hybrids on gels which showed that SETX and BRCA1 loss, along with splicing inhibition, results accumulation of RNA-DNA hybrids in cytoplasm!

All along the talks, whichever questions (which, by the way, were in majority from younger researchers) didn’t get answered, were posted and responded to in the “Forum” section: this actually became a valuable summary of quite a few topics.

The networking options were also in abundance, be it the Virtual Bar mixer, or Meet the Editors session on the online platform. Given that editors from elite journals like EMBO, PLoS Biology etc. were present, it gave a nice opportunity for the researchers to gauge where their next big story could find a good home.

In summary, the symposium gave the feeling of being cozy without being too small and specific in terms of the topics covered, and benefited both the experienced and young researchers in an equal way. It was a common understanding and expectation among the participants that this symposium would perhaps be held in person next time if possible.

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Looking back on a year of organising virtual events

Exactly one year ago, the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe. All on-site events had to be cancelled and we had to rethink our entire program. Our Course and Conference Officers worked really hard to create a virtual equivalent of EMBL’s on-site training offering.  We successfully launched our first virtual conference and many more followed. 

The learning curve was steep and so was the stress level. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Two of our Conference Officers, Nathalie and Diah, share with us their experience from being in the eye of the storm, the lessons they have learned and some tips for organising a virtual meeting.

Conference Officers Nathalie and Diah
Conference Officers Nathalie (left) and Diah

How does organising a virtual event compare to organising an on-site event?

Diah: “It is a different world, but equally fun! Organising a virtual event is harder than people think and often more challenging. Not getting to see anyone in person and mastering all sorts of virtual platforms can be quite tough.”

Nathalie: “Some of the milestones we have are the same, for example: preparing the website, programme, opening registration, emails with participants and invited speakers, abstract review and selection… But a huge bulk of the work is totally different: instead of booking buses and ordering catering, we are setting up Zoom webinars and populating the virtual platform.

The massive change has been adapting to the new tasks we have to do and how we should do them consistently for all our events. In our team we have numerous working groups looking at areas of event organisation and creating guidelines, procedures and templates that will help us all. It really is a whole team effort!”

Read: Why do we charge fees for virtual events?

What kind of feedback do you get from participants, speakers and organisers?

Nathalie: “The feedback I have received from speakers and participants has been great: they are so happy we converted our event to virtual instead of cancelling/postponing it. Initially a few speakers were disappointed for the event to turn virtual but the same people commented afterwards that they were impressed with how well it went. What is wonderful is that it is still so beneficial for them in their continued research.”

Diah: “Very humbling! Many agree that onsite face-to-face events are somehow irreplaceable but at the same time they are amazed at the number of benefits virtual events offer too! They give you more flexibility: you don’t have to travel across the world. Also, some people feel more comfortable asking questions in the virtual format. ”

What is the most important lesson you have learned about organising virtual events?

Nathalie: “It’s been necessary for us to turn to virtual events but the lessons we have learned are that virtual events are effective, valuable and have many advantages! We’ve noticed that participants feel more comfortable asking questions during Q&A, that virtual talks have had a wonderful response, that virtual networking works well and you can meet different people from all over the world just at your desk!

On a bigger scale, virtual events mean less travel and a lower carbon footprint and they are more inclusive as they allow some people to participate who couldn’t have done so before. This is hugely important and is a very positive outcome of this difficult situation and it will have an impact on how events are organised in the future.”

What do you miss most about on-site events?

Diah: “The buzz when everyone arrives and the ATC is full of people is very exciting – after all the planning, everyone is there! And my favourite moment is the end of the conference: everyone is smiling and happy and you wave goodbye to the buses that leave EMBL. That sense of relief and accomplishment at the same time. I miss that!”

Nathalie: “Parties! One of the best things about the onsite events is meeting the speakers and participants you’ve been in touch with for months and when it comes to the conference party, it is really fun to see everyone let their hair down and enjoy themselves! And taking silly pictures at the Photobooth with people is something I loved and a really cute memento of the conference. That is a small thing I miss too!”

What in your opinion makes virtual events better than on-site events?

Nathalie: “The inclusiveness: more participants can take part as there is not the same financial barrier (travel, accommodation) and people can join from anywhere in the world.”

Diah: “Virtual events are resilient. There is no need to cancel an event because of the weather or a disaster. Participants can attend the event from anywhere!”

Conference Officer Diah wearing a face mask in an empty auditorium during a virtual event
Conference Officer Diah working a shift in an empty Auditorium

A common criticism is that networking doesn’t work well in the virtual world. What is your experience with virtual social events?

Nathalie: “I think it is great to see how Zoom breakout rooms allow people to mix in small groups or 1-to-1. Particularly the speed networking translates very well.”

Diah: “It’s my favorite part of the programme and I am amazed at how well it has been accepted and running so far. We have had live-streamed concerts and participants love it. At one conference some of the scientific organisers even stayed for the whole duration of the social session and wanted to continue mingling even after it had finished.”

Read our blog on virtual speednetworking.

Top tips to keep in mind while organising a virtual event?

Nathalie: “First of all – be open-minded. There are so many new technologies out there and different things you can try!

Have clear guidelines and templates: you use so many different apps and systems that saving time when setting things up can be a lifesaver!”

Diah: “I would also say: Test, test and test. Glitches are always likely to happen, so be prepared and stay calm.”

Read our blog for more tips on how to organise a virtual event

How do you see the future of EMBL Events?

Nathalie: “I hope we will embrace this new world of virtual events and have effective hybrid events in the future: allowing for face-to-face interaction for those who want to come on-site, but also giving the opportunity for those who prefer to join virtually and get the benefit of being part of the event without having to leave their home!”

Diah: “I think hybrid events will take a central place in the format of EMBL Events in the future. But whatever the format will be, we will keep improving and finding the best way to support the scientific community.”

Looking back in general, what are your thoughts?

Diah and Nathalie: “It has been very rewarding during the last year to see how we at EMBL have been able to adapt to the situation we have found ourselves in and been able to ensure that we can still provide a platform for scientific exchange. The aim of EICAT is to provide excellent training to scientists, and, despite the challenges, this is being achieved virtually for the first time! We are really proud of being able to provide opportunities for this exchange of knowledge and research.

Personally, this time has also been one of continuous learning for all of us on the team. We have developed our skills and experience in a number of ways and massively increased our knowledge of online platforms and tools! It has truly been a time of teamwork as we have adapted into the virtual event world and we are grateful to everyone involved: our marketing team, our Photolab technicians, designers and scientific organisers. It has been a challenging but very valuable learning experience!”

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Meet the EMBL Events Team: Jane

PHOTO: Jane Reynolds

Today’s interview is with EMBL-EBI’s Jane Reynolds. Jane is one of the event organisers in the team, and joined in December 2020. Jane’s focus is on the on-site and virtual training courses.

At EMBL since: December 2020
Number of organised courses: 1

 Favourite place in Hinxton area? Having joined EMBL-EBI just before Christmas, I haven’t been able to explore Hinxton yet. I did enjoy a virtual tour of the conference centre though, which gave me an insight of where the course dinners take place.

What is the first thing you do before a course starts and the first thing you do after a course finishes? Before an event starts, I remind myself of the hard work and preparation that’s already been done and that the best thing I can do from here on in is be present and ready to deal with anything that might arise. After an event finished? Well, it sounds a bit dull but I usually make a quick list of things that could be improved (as well as those that went really well). Particularly working in new formats, it’s often only by running an event that you notice the small changes that can be made to improve the experiences of delegates or speakers. I like to capture these while they are fresh in my mind.

What are the challenges/differences of organising a virtual course? One of the major changes has been how big chunks of work have shifted closer to the start date of an event; for example, delegates tend to sign up later to online events than in-person events, even if they are advertised for the same length of time as usual, so the timeframe for dealing with the administration related to this is shorter.  The work definitely has a different rhythm to it and the tools and systems have changed but the reason we’re doing it is the same.  Remembering this has helped me to adapt.  Although I have to say I am really looking forward to meeting delegates (and my new colleagues!) in person when the time comes.

You’ve been working from home since you started your role at EMBL-EBI; how has this been for you? As well as working from home, I’ve been lucky enough to start a new role in the past year, and it’s been an interesting (hopefully once-in-a-lifetime!) experience.  Luckily the Training Team at EMBL-EBI have been wonderful in sharing their knowledge with me and given me a very warm virtual welcome.

If you weren’t a EMBL-EBI events organisers what would you be? Probably a teacher of some kind.  Before I started working in events and engagement, I worked as an English Language Assistant, which I really enjoyed, so ideally I’d combine teaching and travel.

PHOTO: weekend city break in Copenhagen May 2020

What is the strangest/funniest thing that has ever happened in a course? My birthday is in July and in my past jobs this has been the busiest time – either at Graduation events or summer events – so I have often spent it working, but never in an office!  I’ve been organising table plans in Liverpool Cathedral, at a Massive Attack concert in a disused train depot or hosting tours of new exhibitions…one of my favourite things about working in events is that there is rarely a dull moment!

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have?  I love learning languages but it’s hard to find the time…so definitely the ability to speak and understand different languages without having to learn verb tables!

What is your favourite TV show? Like everyone I’ve watched a lot more TV than usual over the past year, but The Sopranos – which has stood up to a rewatch or two – remains my favourite.

Upcoming events that Jane is organising: Cancer genomics 2021 – virtual 

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Best Poster Awards – EMBO|EMBL Symposium: Organoids 2020

The recent virtual EMBO|EMBL Symposium on Organ Development and Disease in 3D Culture saw the highest number of registrations we have had since we launched the format. A total of 880 researchers from around the world got together online to discuss recent developments in the formation and maintenance of organoids and their use in disease studies and regenerative medicine.

Out of the 200 digital posters that were presented at the three poster sessions, four were distinguished with a poster prize by a committee appointed by the scientific organisers. Here are the winners:

Organoids model transcriptional hallmarks of oncogenic KRAS activation in lung epithelial progenitor cells

PHOTO: Antonella Dost

Authors: Aaron Moye (1), Antonella Dost (1), Marall Vedaie (2), Linh Tran (5), Eileen Fung (5), Dar Heinze (2), Carlos Villacorta-Martin (2), Jessie Huang (2), Ryan Hekman (2), Julian Kwan Kwan (2), Benjamin Blum (2), Sharon Louie (1), Sam Rowbotham (1), Julio Sainz de Aja (1), Mary Piper (4), Preetida Bhetariya (4), Roderick Bronson (3), Andrew Emili (2), Gustavo Mostoslavsky (2), Gregory Fishbein (5), William Wallace (5), Kostyantyn Krysan (5), Steven Dubinett (5), Jane Yanagawa (5), Darrell Kotton (2), Carla Kim (1)

Presenter: Antonella Dost (1)

Mutant KRAS is the most common oncogenic driver of epithelial cancers. Nevertheless, the molecular changes induced by KRAS activation in primary epithelial cells beyond activation of proliferation remain elusive. Here, we determined transcriptional changes at single-cell resolution after KRAS activation in distal lung epithelial cell populations. We developed a new in vitro organoid system to define the early oncogenic KRAS transcriptional program and model early-stage lung adenocarcinoma (LUAD) using primary murine lung cells. Alveolar epithelial progenitor (AT2) cells expressing oncogenic KRAS lost their mature identity and acquired a transcriptional program similar to lung development and progenitor cells. Similar changes were observed in an early-stage LUAD mouse model, in human induced pluripotent stem cell derived AT2 cells, and in stage I lung cancer patient samples, validating our organoid model. While these events have been observed in advanced lung cancers in mice and humans, we show that KRAS induced dedifferentiation occurs in early-stage lung cancer. This work provides a new organoid tool to rapidly recapitulate lung cancer progression in vitro and a window into the transcriptional changes that immediately follow oncogenic KRAS expression in epithelial cells, revealing candidate targets for early intervention of KRAS-driven lung cancer.

View poster

View related paper

(1) Boston Children’s Hospital, United States of America
(2) Boston University, United States of America
(3) Harvard Medical School, United States of America
(4) Harvard T. C. Chan School of Public Health, United States of America
(5) University of California Los Angeles, United States of America


Using human pluripotent stem cell-derived organoids to investigate regional-specific features of the small intestine

PHOTO: Guillermo Sanchez

Authors: J Guillermo Sanchez, Heather McCauley, Jacob Enriquez, James Wells, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, United States of America

Presenter: J Guillermo Sanchez

The gastrointestinal tract is the largest endocrine organ in the body. Specialised nutrient sensing cells, called enteroendocrine cells, are embedded in the intestinal epithelium and secrete over 20 hormones that regulate processes such as satiety, gut motility and gastric emptying. Directed differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells into human intestinal organoids has been used to study and mimic intestinal development; however, most of these models generate intestinal tissue which resembles duodenum and proximal jejunum (Spence, et al 2011). The intestine displays distinct regional functions along the proximal-distal axis, with the ileum being important for unique enteroendocrine hormone secretion, bile acid resorption and interactions with the microbiome. It is known that major signaling pathways such as Wnt, FGF and BMP can affect the regional identity of the developing GI tract. Consistent with previous studies (Munera, Tsai) we found that manipulation of the exposure time of intestinal spheroids to these signaling pathways generated distal intestinal tissue by expression of epithelial markers, nutrient transporters, and hormone expression. These distally-patterned human intestinal organoids retain their regional identity after transplantation in vivo, and can be used to generate epithelial-only enteroid cultures. It remains unknown how diverse cellular types and functions are established along the proximal-distal axis of the small intestine. This model enables us to compare the early transcriptional changes involved in conferring regional-specific features, including enteroendocrine cell allocation, to the GI tract.

Poster currently not available


Recapitulating the somitogenesis in vitro to identify novel causative genes for congenital bone diseases

PHOTO: Marina Matsumiya

Authors: Marina Matsumiya (1), Mitsuhiro Matsuda (1), Nao Otomo (2), Yoshiro Yonezawa (2), Shiro Ikegawa (2), Miki Ebisuya (1)

Presenter: Marina Matsumiya

Somites are periodically formed though the segmentation of anterior parts of presomitic mesoderm (PSM) in embryos. This periodicity is controlled by the segmentation clock gene Hes7, which exhibits a wave-like oscillatory expression in the PSM. The periodical somite formation is a crucial event for body segment formation and abnormal somitogenesis leads to congenital bone diseases.

Spondylocostal dysostosis (SCD) is a bone malformation disease which is characterised by morphological abnormalities of vertebrae and ribs. Mutations in several somitogenesis-related genes, including HES7, are already known as the cause of SCD. As for 75% of SCD patients, however, the causative gene and at what stage of bone development the abnormality occurs are still unclear.

Thus, the aim of this study is to establish a method to recapitulate the somitogenesis in vitro and to identify novel a causative gene of SCD.

To recapitulate the somitogenesis in vitro, we previously reported a simple and efficient method to generate mouse embryonic stem (ES) cell-derived PSM-like tissues (Matsumiya et al., Development, 2018). In these tissues, Hes7 oscillation was synchronized among neighboring cells, the anterior-posterior axis was self-organised, and somite-like structures were observed. We are currently developing a similar method to recapitulate the human somitogenesis by using human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells instead mouse ES cells. Furthermore, by using human iPS cell lines that lack the candidate gene of SCD for the in vitro somitogenesis, we are trying to identify a novel causative gene of SCD.

Poster currently not available

(1) EMBL Barcelona, Spain
(2) RIKEN Center for Integrative Medical Sciences, Japan


Heme oxygenase 1 upregulation is induced by stress via alpha-synuclein aggregation in transgenic mice and in Parkinson’s disease derived brain organoids

PHOTO: Silke Frahm-Barske

Authors: Silke Frahm-Barske (2), Sebastian Diecke (2), Franz Theuring (1)

Presenter: Silke Frahm-Barske

Excessive accumulation of alpha-synuclein (a-syn) predisposes to the development of Parkinson’s disease (PD), a disorder characterised by neurodegeneration in the substantia nigra and concomitant motor impairments. It was previously shown that stress-induced release of glucocorticoids accelerates the progression of PD and that the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) is downregulated in several neurodegenerative as well as in stress-related diseases. The impact of altered a-syn protein levels on GR dysfunction and stress-related protein expression is largely unexplored, but may have severe implications for PD manifestation and disease progression. Therefore, we examined the effect of chronic stress in two models overexpressing human a-syn: a transgenic mouse model (h-a-synL62) and brain organoids derived from iPSCs of a PD patient. Wildtype mice that underwent daily restraint for 6 weeks presented typical chronic stress induced features, such as GR-deficiency and increased a-syn protein levels in prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Importantly, these molecular alterations were reproduced in forebrain organoids generated from healthy donors after treatment with the synthetic glucocorticoid Dexamethasone for 2 weeks. In contrast, glucocorticoid exposure had no effect on GR expression and normalised the level of a-syn in h-a-synL62 mice and PD brain organoids. Accordingly, heme oxygenase 1 (HO-1), an antioxidant protein that can be induced by soluble oligomers and protofibrils and that triggers proteosomal degradation of a-syn, was upregulated. Together, our work provides a new link between a-syn overexpression, GR-deficiency and oxidative stress and their contribution to the development and progression of PD. Further, we established and validated a human 3D tissue culture model that can be used to study stress related diseases, offering replacement of research animals exposed to disturbing procedures.

View poster

(1) Charité – University Medicine Berlin, Germany
(2) Max-Delbrück-Center, Germany


Working on your own conference poster? Then check out these 8 tips for preparing a digital poster that stands out from the crowd.

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