Meet Roksana Pirzgalska – ECN Best Thesis Award Winner 2020

Meet Roksana Pirzgalska – ECN Best Thesis Award Winner 2020

At the 2020 Early Career Network Winter School we were delighted to hear presentations from the finalist candidates for the EASO Early Career Network Best Thesis of the year award, and to announce the 2020 ECN Best Thesis Award winner, Roksana Pirzgalska

Roksana, it is lovely to meet you. Congratulations! Please tell us a bit about yourself.

Thank you very much Sheree. It was great to meet you at the NIU Winter School this year!

I graduated in Biotechnology from Gdansk University of Technology, so I’m an engineer by training. Then, during my PhD training at the MIT-Portugal Program, I tried to combine my interests in novel technologies and metabolic diseases. This work was developed at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC, Oeiras, Portugal), under the supervision of Dr. Ana Domingos. Dr. Domingos had just established the Obesity lab at the IGC, so it was really a team effort to get things working in the beginning. I learned a lot during the process!

I’m now a post-doctoral researcher at the Champalimaud Foundation (Lisbon, Portugal), in the lab of Dr. Henrique Veiga-Fernandes. My current work explores the intersection between the neuroepithelial and neuroimmune circuits in the intestine, under an integrated basic and clinical research perspective.

Where did you grow up, and where do you live now?

I was born and raised in Więcbork, a small picturesque town in the north of Poland. I live in Lisbon now.

How did you come to enter this field and what made you interested in obesity science?

My way into obesity science began with my interest in its associated translational aspects. My first research experience was in the lab of Dr Eugenia Carvalho (CNC, Coimbra, Portugal), supported by an A.Renold Travel Fellowship from EASD (European Association for the Study of Diabetes).

Later on, during my PhD in the lab of Dr Ana Domingos, I was exposed to  world-class obesity science and scientists. I met numerous scientists in the IGC PhD course and just loved the interactions. It was during that time I realized that I really wanted to continue in this field of research.

You work in a top lab in Portugal. Please tell us about your lab.

I’m developing my post-doctoral project in the lab of Dr Henrique Veiga-Fernandes and I must say that I feel very lucky to be part of his team. Henrique is a world-leading scientist in the area of neuroimmunology and I’m currently exploring that angle in the context of nutrient absorption and obesity. We are a very diverse group of people working on many different aspects of neuroimmune regulation in various tissues, so we get to learn a lot from each other.

On top of that, the Champalimaud Foundation is a very unique place to work in, as it combines both a research institute and a clinical centre. Here I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge our clinical collaborator Dr Ricardo Rio-Tinto, who is an amazing gastroenterologist and a very valuable collaborator.

Has the global COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on your work?

The COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact on our lives and work. When Portugal entered a state of emergency, I had to substantially reorganize and reduce my experimental work. I tried to invest that time in reading, conceptualizing my ideas and writing project grants. Luckily two of the projects I wrote during that time were recently accepted for funding.

You were awarded the Best Thesis prize as a result of your new contributions. Please tell us about your thesis and recent research.

During my PhD I worked on neuroimmune communication in the adipose tissue. From that work, I would like to point out two major contributions to obesity research. First, we discovered that sympathetic innervation in the adipose tissue is one of the main drivers of leptin-induced lipolysis (2015: Cell 163, 84–94). Therefore direct activation of sympathetic inputs to adipose tissues may, in the future, represent an alternative approach to induce fat loss, bypassing central leptin resistance. Second, we identified the first functional neuroimmune component in the adipose tissue: the sympathetic neuron-associated macrophages (SAMs). By using RNA-sequencing, imaging approaches and genetic mouse models we have uncovered that SAMs possess the machinery to take up and metabolize norepinephrine (2017: Nature Medicine 23, 1309-1318). Thus, the reduced levels of Norepinephrine-driven lipolysis in obesity might be associated with the accumulation of SAMs. Overall, our results identified SAMs as a potential new molecular and cellular target for obesity therapy.

More recently, I have started exploring neuroepithelial regulation of nutrient absorption and immune responses in the gut in the context of obesity. Given the remarkable health improvements in patients who experience obesity and underwent bariatric surgery, I think there is still a lot to uncover in terms of gastrointestinal neuroimmune and neuroepithelial circuits.

What are your future career plans?

I would like to become a Principal Investigator in the area of neuroimmunology and metabolic diseases.

In addition to your professional interests, how do you spend your free time? What are your hobbies and other interests?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic I would spend more time outdoors – swimming, hiking etc. Nowadays, I just grab a good book and sometimes play a keyboard piano in my free time.

Do you have any reflections to share on the 2020 New Investigators United Winter School?

I enjoyed the 2020 NIU Winter School very much! What makes it so special is probably the diverse spectrum of speakers and attendees that are interested in addressing the same problem – obesity. I think there should be more initiatives like this one!

I actually learned about the New Investigator United from Gabriela Ribeiro, a PhD student from the Neuropsychiatry Unit at the Champalimaud Foundation. About 2 years ago Gabriela approached me with the idea of  organizing a workshop that would combine our interests in basic and translational obesity research … and this is how our yearly initiative – workshop “obesity at the interface of neuroscience of physiology” came to be.