Nina Cabezas-Wallscheid

Science is a team sport

Nina Cabezas-Wallscheid Lab focuses on understanding and maintaining a healthy hematopoietic system through dormancy regulation, integrating omics analyses and bioinformatics. Her career, initially tethered to leukemia, expanded her horizons, leading to new insights on how dietary elements like vitamin A could influence stem cell fate and blood system health. In this interview, she talks about her leadership philosophy that wants to cultivate teamwork, transparent communication, and inclusive decision-making in the lab to foster a supportive environment and prepare the next generation of scientists. Nina climbed Kilimanjaro. From this very special experience, she draws parallels between the scientific pursuit and mountain climbing: enjoy the beauty of the journey and the significance of celebrating every step.

Please tell us about the research and how your research focus has evolved over the years?

My lab focuses on understanding the regulation of dormancy with the goal of maintaining a healthy hematopoietic system over time. We are particularly interested in pursuing interdisciplinary projects that span from analyzing human patient samples to investigating dietary treatments. Our work heavily involves the establishment of omics technologies especially due to the scarcity of stem cells, integrated with bioinformatics tools. Ultimately, our goal is to develop nutritional strategies – essentially the perfect diet – to sustain a healthy hematopoietic system over time.

During my PhD, my initial focus was on leukemia. Later, I went kind of back to the healthy condition to gain a deeper understanding of hematopoietic stem cell regulation before returning to study leukemia again. One of our discoveries encouraged us to think that maybe some dietary habits, like in this case, vitamin A, could influence stem cells. This insight prompted further research into vitamin A, revealing the profound impact of nutrition on stem cell function and how our blood system works. This journey unfolded like a domino effect, where one discovery or insight led to another, ultimately shaping our research direction.

Going back in time even a little bit more, was it always clear to you to become a scientist?

As a child, I was always fascinated by nature, and I enjoyed science kits for children, like those with microscopes or chemistry sets. However, it wasn't that I had always dreamed of becoming a scientist. My interests were quite broad and I was uncertain about which path to choose. Then, I started studying biotechnology attracted by its challenges. At the time, biotechnology was a relatively new field in Spain, almost nobody knew what it was. But the real "wow" moment came with my PhD: the hands-on research and the opportunity to design my experiments brought a new level of excitement. The chance to meet people from around the globe and the possibility of making a difference in people's lives were really inspiring. The idea of discovering something that could eventually be used in clinical practice motivates me until today.

You're super successful with your group - are there any things where you think this was really critical for achieving what I've achieved now?

I've always tried to create an atmosphere in the lab where teamwork and team spirit can flourish. People should help each other to create a kind of find a win-win situation for everyone. For example, helping someone can lead to a co-authorship. We also do a lot of brainstorming sessions. If somebody stumbles with a challenge or faces an issue, we sit down together and try to find a way forward. What I've been also actively doing is trying to be as transparent as possible in my communication with my lab. When things happen of a particular reason, then I try to make sure everyone understands the context. I also involve my team in decision-making processes, for example, who we are going to hire? I consider the feedback from my lab members as extremely important. Their judgement and satisfaction are crucial for me because after all, we spend a lot of time in the lab and invest a lot of energy and effort into each project. This is also a very effective way to prepare the next generation of scientists. Because it exposes them to very valuable insights and they gain firsthand experience.

We know from following you on Twitter, you're traveling a lot for talks worldwide. Are you still nervous before you go to the lecture hall and present your science?

Always. I mean, the minute before, always. Still, presenting research is super rewarding because you always learn something from the different questions you get depending on where you are. You receive input from various fields and different people, which invariably contributes to your learning. The questions raised can then be explored in the lab, prompting us to consider various aspects of our research.

Looking back, is there any advice you would give your younger self?

There is one crucial detail that I wasn’t aware of: in Europe, the defense date is where the clock starts to tick because it marks the beginning of the eligibility period for many grants. Therefore, if you plan to stay in academia you might consider to defend your thesis as late as possible.

Do you have a specific strategy that you think is essential for success in a scientific environment?

My advice is to persist and maintain a positive outlook. I often draw a parallel to my experience climbing the Kilimanjaro. You must take the summit considering one step at a time, especially when you in thin air. Along the way you are questioning your decision to challenge yourself in this way, especially as a hobby. However, it is crucial to focus on the path directly in front of you rather than comparing your progress to others who may seem further ahead, as this can lead to frustration. Instead, savor each moment and persistently move forward. Enjoy the journey, and eventually, you'll reach the summit. Celebrate every step, because each one is a victory in itself.

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