Maria Juul Deikmann has always had a huge passion for human health. She was always interested in infectious diseases and especially how to prevent them or treat patients that become infected. This is what motivated her to study medicaland molecular biology at the University of Roskilde in Denmark and to choose research projects on cancer and bacterial human pathogens as training activities during her Master’s degree. “Many of my colleagues wanted to do these experiences in big Pharma companies but I wanted to see how research works,” she says. This same passion moved her toward the Tick-Borne Flaviviruses network project. “I knew what ticks were and that they can carry some diseases, but I had no idea how harmful tick-borne flaviviruses can be”.
Mainland Denmark is not endemic for Tick-Borne Flaviviruses however Bornholm is considered endemic since early 1960s. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, almost zero TBE cases are reported in the mainland annually. A notable exception is Bronholm island where an incidence between 4 and 8 cases per 100,000 inhabitants are reported. This is probably why there are very few research groups that study these diseases in the country.
When Maria had to decide the topic for her Master’s thesis she came into contact with the research field of tick-borne encephalitis virus. “I went to speak with my former professor, Karen Angeliki Krogfelt, at the University of Roskilde and discussed options for a research internship. She has a big network of scientist among her contacts, and I thought she could suggest someone that was doing research that could be interesting for me. Among all the colleagues she mentioned suddenly it was there: a research group in Norway was studying tick-borne encephalitis virus. Tick-Borne Encephalitis virus is endemic in Norway along the coastline with 20-70 cases annually. That was a breakthrough moment for me, I thought: what is this? A virus that through a tick’s bite can enter the brain? That was impressive, and I thought that was what I wanted to study!” But there was a problem: Maria needed to move abroad to Oslo, to the Norway Institute of Health to study what she was interested in.
“When I was at University, I saw my friends coming back from their Erasmus experiences in Scotland, Spain or elsewhere, and they were so enthusiastic. I saw them so changed and grown, and with so many experiences lived through in just six months. I think I was envious in a kind of way, but I was also scared to do the same. What if I went abroad and then could not find a way to come back to my home country in the future? Or worse, if I went away and discovered that science is not what I want to do in life? These thoughts blocked me in away from taking an Erasmus during my whole study period. But then at some point the time came to decide my Master thesis internship. My professor told me about this excellent team working on tick-borne encephalitis in Oslo. Well, I thought that it was the right moment to take courage and at least try going abroad.”
Erasmus+ is the most known exchange program for students in the European Union. It is the only one funded directly by the European Commission and under this umbrella students at all stages and from all disciplines can have an educational experience abroad. The year 2022 marks the 35th anniversary of this successful program that over the years has had more than 10 million participants. This is a massive number of people that though the years have experienced studying or volunteering abroad. In 2021 alone there were 640,000 people who took this opportunity.
In the framework of the TBFVnet project many student exchanges between the partners had been planned. This is pivotal to exchange expertise between the different research groups. Who is better trained than graduate and undergraduate students to learn quickly? Maria was in fact meant to take part in an exchange program between the Norway Institute of Health and the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). “I was supposed to go to Trieste, Italy (where ICGEB headquarters is located) to learn more about the diagnostic tools for tick-borne flaviviruses. But then COVID-19 came and everything stopped”. Maria was just one of the students that was meant to do an exchange period between the different project partners. In line with the vision of the Erasmus program and with the idea that exchanging knowledge is at the basis of scientific research, many students had planned to move to different project partners. With COVID-19 all such travel was limited but with the easing of the pandemic this exchange program is back. Some students will go from Trieste to Oslo and Prague, in the Czech Republic, others will go from Chisinau, in the Republic of Moldova, to Trieste. These exchange periods will last only a few months but will constitute a breakthrough for each of the students and for their research projects on tick-borne flaviviruses.
In spring 2023 there will also be a regional seminar to gather all project partners, group leaders and students. This will be a great occasion to meet collectively and share knowledge and updates. Moreover, top scientists in the field of flaviviruses will be invited to present a broad and up to date view of this evolving research filed.
Maria graduated in January this year with a thesis on tick-borne encephalitis virus spread in Larvik, Norway. This is a suspected endemic area for TBEV in Norway. The research group found out that there are some relations between the climatic changes in the area and the distribution of TBEV. In particular, it seems that a high temperature and low humidity in the environment resulted in a lack of detectable TBEV among the collected ticks. Moreover, she established a method to improve the diagnostic tools in order to distinguish between samples from vaccinated and infected patient. Maria will present the results of her Master’s thesis at the annual TBE conference in Vienna November 2022 (ISW-TBE 2022). Now she is applying for a PhD to continue her studies next year on TBE and the improvement of Tick-Borne Encephalitis diagnostic tools. Somehow, she has changed her mind about studying abroad. “I definitely recommend doing a period abroad for graduate or undergraduate students. I learned a lot in Oslo, also because I think there are many ways to perform science, many more than the only one you can experience by staying within your University where you grew upas a student. In the end, I believe that with this experience I have grown, not only as a scientist but also as a person compared to who I was before.”
Fabio De Pascale – Tick-Borne Flaviviruses network