From Skiing to Zebrafish, Maria Christou share's her PhD experience at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences

Hello everyone,

My name is Maria Christou and I am one of the 15 PhD students working on the ITN European funded network called ProtectED (Protection against endocrine disrupting chemicals). I am employed by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) in Oslo. My research focuses on the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals on fish welfare. More specifically, we want to investigate whether early life exposure has an effect on the later stages of development in an animal, which has been used a lot as a model, the small but very prominent, zebrafish. During these experiments, we will build population dynamics models and perform molecular, behavioral and reproductive tests on the adult zebrafish.

After some preparatory months setting up the fish facility where the fish are going to be held, I am now in the process of starting my main experiments from which my PhD is going to be based on. Zebrafish larvae are very sensitive so we try to provide the best care and environment we can so they can grow and be as much as possible healthy despite their early life exposure to pollutants.

Outside of work I had my first opportunity in trying the national sport of Norway, cross country skiing. Norwegians love cross country and they even say that they learn ski well before they can walk. I went with a friend and colleague, Silje, in Sognsvann, a popular place for skiing and there I had my first lesson. I cannot say that it went very good, seeing that I fell multiple times, but all in all it was a very nice experience and I would like to improve my technique so I can reach at least the skill level of a 3 year old Norwegian.

In addition, we had some very cold days the past week with temperatures dropping as low an -20 degrees Celsius. It was so cold at some points that even Norwegians were complaining that it was too cold! As they told me, this winter has been one of the worst winters in many years and I was very ‘fortunate’ to be here and experience that. But on the other site Norwegians say that they have seen more snow this winter than the previous winters and for that they are happy!

I look forward to seeing all of you in Belfast this May for the summer school!



My Four Weeks in Norway

Hello everyone! My name is Alana Cutliffe and I am one of the Early-Stage Researchers on the “Protection against Endocrine Disruptors” or “ProtectED” Project. The Project aims to further research the effects of certain chemicals – termed “endocrine disruptors” – that have the ability to interfere with our hormones.

I am based at Queen’s University Belfast but have just recently returned from a four-week epidemiology secondment at the Norwegian Institute for Public Health (a Partner Institution of the Project) in Oslo. Under the tutelage of Dr. Merete Eggesbø, I got an insight into what an epidemiologist does – in the context of the studying the effect of maternal exposure to chemicals on offspring health. The skills I learned here will help me better critique human studies on the topic of endocrine-disruption.

The secondment was more than the just the acquisition of technical skills, however: it was four weeks full of adventure, funny moments and friendly people. And, of course, LOTS OF SNOW!!! When I first arrived, it was minus 10 degrees Celsius – the lowest temperature I’ve ever experienced – and there was inches upon inches of snow. My two layers of Belfast-bought gloves didn’t quite do the business at keeping me warm and I spent the first few days slipping and sliding about the place. Thankfully, my “AirBnB” Host was very helpful, and I soon got kitted out with gloves, hats and shoe-spikes (to give more grip when walking) at a well-known outdoor shop called “XXL”.

Norwegians seem to spend more time outside than they do inside. Despite very comfortable heated floors and heaters indoors, and irrespective of the weather, people always seemed to be out and about. When I first arrived at my apartment, I was greeted a by a seven-year-old – ski’s attached to his feet – jumping on a trampoline (this is some form of ski practice, apparently). Instead of being in prams, small children were often pulled-along by their parents in tray-like sleighs. One day, I came back to see AN ADULT lying with her iPad in the ten-inch-deep snow, without a care in the world (in Ireland, this practice is usually reserved for sunny weather).

The city was very clean and the people very friendly. I wasn’t sure where I was going when I first arrived, but easily got directions. At one stage, a guy noticed I misinterpreted his directions – so that I was about to step on the wrong bus – and he ran several yards after me to make sure I went the right way. My “AirBnB” Host was equally friendly and helped me get oriented once I arrived; she also helped me plan some entertainment for the weekend my sister and mother were due to arrive.

The workplace had equally friendly people, with a strong “work-life balance” attitude.They were quite an international bunch and I got to know them at lunch (usually taken at 11.00), at “Friday Cake” and at Department Meetings. I had a great colleague and friend in my fellow ESR, Anteneh, with whom I shared an office (I’m used to sharing an office with fifteen people, so this was a bit of change). My supervisor, Merete, also organized several social occasions such as sleighing (followed by hot chocolate and cream), a walk up a snowy hill (to see the views of Oslo) and dinner at her house; at the latter occasion, we had a special minimally-polluted fish (“Skri”) that only is available around February-time.

While the working language was English (and most Norwegians also spoke English on the streets), I did happen to find myself in all-Norwegian settings now and then: most notably, the day-long logistic regression course I took turned-out to be delivered entirely in Norwegian (with the slides being English)!! So, while I’m not sure on the words for “hello” and “goodbye”, I now can recognise technical words such as “exposure group” (“eksponeringsgruppe”) and outcome (“utfall”). This was an experience, to say the least: Anteneh said he would have left after five minutes!

Outside of the office, I also did my own exploring. Along with two other ESRs (Maria and Vittoria), I went to a well-known Jazz Club (“Blå”) in the City Centre where the quirky jazz band has been playing every Sunday for the past ten years. Maria also invited me to have drinks with her colleagues and to go see “Three Billboards” (in English, subtitled in Norwegian) in the cinema (called the “Colosseum”, because of its huge screen). We ate at an Indian Restaurant (“Curry and Ketchup”) and had chocolate covered crisps (called “Smash”) during the film (I only had a few, because I wasn’t too fond of them). On my last weekend, my sister and my mother came to visit; we had a jam-packed day of Fjord tours, a visit to the Viking Museum, a visit to the Vigeland Sculpture Park and fine dining along the pier (“Aker Brygge”)!

Overall, the experience was eye-opening and highly enjoyable. I was sad to leave and am looking forward to visiting again (all fifteen early-stage researchers will be attending a Winter School in December).

“Tusen takk” (“thank you very much”) to all the staff at QUB and NIPH for this amazing opportunity!



Challenging and rewarding - Anteneh Desalegn’s experience setting out as an ESR at NIPH, Oslo

Hello! This is Anteneh Desalegn, an Early Stage Researcher with the PROTECTED project. The PROTECTED project is one of the Innovative Training Networks (ITN) under Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) that received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. The network is comprised of 12 training sites at academia, research centers, and small and medium-size enterprises. I am currently employed as an ESR at Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) in Oslo, Norway. I arrived in Oslo during the summer in 2017. I came from Ethiopia, and it took me about 2 months to get a residence permit in Norway.

The summer in Norway has incredible scenery and natural beauty. The summer also has exceptionally long days and warm weather to enjoy—especially when it is sunny, almost everyone is Oslo will be outside, just sunbathing and barbecuing in the parks. I am glad that I moved in during the summer.

However, finding an accommodation in Oslo was very challenging. You need to have a reference and be ready to pay three months’ rent as a deposit. In my case, I had to send about 60 applications on Finn (a Norwegian classified advertisements website) before I got my current accommodation, but I am now accompanied by my wife and 3 year old daughter in Oslo.

The weather has, of course, changed very much since I arrived in Oslo and has been replaced with long, dark and cold days. I have survived my first winter in Oslo so far even though this not my first time facing the Scandinavian winter. I have yet to learn how to ski, but I have enjoyed sledding very much thanks to my supervisor who made my first experience with sledding possible. In general, I am enjoying the winter very well and it is beautiful with so much snow, especially this winter. I am sure most of the ESRs in the PROTECTED project will experience the next winter during the “summer” school in Oslo, and will perhaps agree with me.

It has now been about 8 months since I joined the NIPH. My first task was to get admitted to the PhD program at University of Oslo (UiO). I needed to submit mainly a project description along with tentative project plan, copies of diploma and transcript, and employment contract, but I have now been admitted to a PhD program in Epidemiology. The PhD program at UiO is 3 years full-time study, and has education component of 30 credits. I will start taking some courses this semester and am looking forward to my first secondment in the Netherlands this semester.

My role as an ESR in the PROTECTED project is to identify mixtures of contaminants associated with adverse child health outcomes using the Norwegian Human Milk Study (HUMIS) cohort. I will have to do some of the projects at my host institution, and others in collaboration with other ESRs in the network. I am currently working on my fist objective to see the association between endocrine disrupting chemicals in the prenatal and postnatal period with reproductive toxicity in boys (Cryptorchidism), and also neurodevelopmental toxicities using the HUMIS cohort.

Stay tuned for my next blog post where I will discuss about the outcome of my work so far and other events!


ESR Ajay Yadav embarks on PhD at Norwegian University of Life Sciences

I am a PhD candidate working at NMBU Oslo in collaboration with University of Oslo (UiO). My research focuses on the effects of defined realistic mixtures of POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) on neurodevelopment in a chicken embryo model.

So far, I have done some pilot studies with POPs on forebrain neurons from chicken embryo and PC12 cells. I have attended the FELASA C "Course in Laboratory Animal Science for Research Workers" and got the opportunity to learn the basics of laboratory animal science, for example, biology, handling, anesthesia, euthanasia, ethics, humane endpoints etc. This course gives us a permit to work with laboratory animals in most of the European countries.

Something special about Oslo: in Oslo you will not only experience the beautiful nature, but you will soon realize that the people here are very friendly and happy to speak English with newcomers. I was totally surprised when I arrived for the first time to Oslo in June and noticed that the sun sets only for a couple of hours and the sky never goes completely dark. Besides that, the research facilities of the laboratory are well equipped and there are a lot of training and networking opportunities.

I am looking forward to attending the summer school at Queen’s University Belfast and meeting new colleagues and supervisors from ITN networks.

Thanking You


ESR Chiara Talia attends fertility conference in Liverpool

I had the great opportunity to attend The Fertility 2018 Conference (4-6 January) which took place in Liverpool. The Joint Fertility Conference is an annual event hosted by the Association of Clinical Embryologists, British Fertility Society and the Society for Reproduction and Fertility.

The main topic of this year’s conference was “Environmental influences of reproduction” and, indeed, endocrine disruptors were mentioned in several sessions and presentations. Furthermore, Prof. Paul Fowler, my supervisor, gave a talk during the scientific update session about periconceptional health on the “Effect of prenatal exposures to environmental toxins on female reproduction”.

This was the first conference I have attended and it was indeed a good way to start the year with science!


A great 1st Network Meeting!

And finally, the time has come for all the ESRs, supervisors and project management team to meet.
Just a few days ago, on the 13th and 14th of this month, the 1st Network Meeting of PROTECTED took place at the beautiful Queen’s University Belfast.

Two wonderfully busy days, full of presentations, meetings, workshops and of course social events, like the lovely dinner we had at Molly’s yard.

After the opening of the project meeting and welcome from the project coordinator, Dr Lisa Connolly, it was the ESRs turn to give a brief presentation about their projects. It was so interesting to hear more about each project, and I have seriously realized how broad and varied the PROTECTED network is.

As ESRs, we also had out first committee meeting, where we elected two members to represent us at the supervisory board and also discussed various topics and gave suggestions to improve our experience.

We had introduction training about business by Dr Van der Burg. We are going to develop business ideas and plans, working in small groups. This is going to be challenging, as many of us have never thought about it, but it is also really important to develop a new set of skills. Moreover, Prof Moira Dean delivered a lecture on Risk Communication, followed by the practical exercise of realizing a poster for general public.

2018 is going to be a year full of events. We will meet again soon in Belfast for the ASSET Conference—one of the themes is “Human exposure to chemical cocktails present in foods”—and for our first summer school.

This first meeting made me even happier and more grateful for the opportunity of being part of this amazing project.

And to end my first article for the blog, I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year sharing with you our first ESRs’ selfie!


My PhD training so far..

I started my PhD. (“Consumer Perceptions of Endocrine Disruptors in the Food Chain and the Environment”) on 5th June 2017. Having only completed a BSc. to date, I was a bit concerned that I would have the same level of research skills as my peers.

Thankfully, there is a wide range of support provided by Queen’s University Belfast to ensure all researchers brush-up on the skills they need to complete their PhD. Indeed, it is a mandatory requirement that every student completes ten “training days” (i.e. the likes of conferences, workshops or lectures) tailored to his / her individual requirements.

So far, I’ve attended the following sessions: workshops on conducting keyword searches; lectures on how to carry-out systematic reviews; and presentations delivered by current PhD. Students. By Christmas, I will have been trained in how to conduct focus groups and questionnaires (i.e. the core of my PhD.), and I will have also completed a module in Medical Statistics.

All of the above support-activities have really boosted my confidence in my ability to complete my PhD. Equipped with these newly-learned skills, I look forward to moving-on to the data-collection and analysis stages of my first study.


Presenting at FARAH Day, University of Liège

The 4th annual FARAH conferences gave me a chance to highlight the health impacts of exposure to mixtures of endocrine disrupting chemicals by studying the transactivities of the Aryl hydrocarbon Receptor (AhR) in vitro assays. That was quite a challenge for me as this is the first time I had presented at a conference with both experts and non-specialised audiences. From the conference, I learned how to talk simply and better communicate with the audiences through enthusiasm.

The Department of Fundamental and Applied Research for Animals and Health (FARAH) in the University of Liège organizes an annual scientific day called the FARAH Day. This meeting offers an opportunity for all academics, scientists, technical, administrative staff and young students to interact and exchange their research interests, and also promotes the social life within the FARAH.

Endocrine disruptors have been associated with many kinds of cancers, as well as dysfunctional reproductive systems or offspring abnormal developments. We often see the toxicity of an endocrine disruptor (e.g. dioxins) as its single effect. But humans nowadays are exposed to a ‘cocktail’ of endocrine disruptors at the same time, rather than to one compound then to the others. In this study, we found that in vitro exposure to a mixture of 29 persistent organic pollutants reduced significantly AhR activities. Particularly, the effect is profound when the mixture concentration is 75 times higher than their levels in the human blood. That can lead to an adverse effect on human health and also a possible impact on the activities of other signaling pathways, including those mediated by estrogen receptors.

Evaluation the AhR activities of individual compounds in the mixture showed that the mixture activity is much higher than the activities of each component. In other words, taking the effect of one single compound into account at once is not sufficient to study their health impact. Therefore, we need to understand the toxicity of pollutants in their natural mixture, where they act with each other to produce these cocktail effects. The study contributes to the understanding of why we should focus on the mixture effect: because of its relevance to human exposure routes and its certain effect on human health.



On 19th October I attended the first international workshop of the LIFE COMBASE Project Project (COMputational tool for the assessment and substitution of Biocidal Active substanceS of Ecotoxicological concern) where speakers representing regulatory agencies, research institutions and Universities in the area of knowledge of non-testing predictive methods where invited to participate. The LIFE-COMBASE PROJECT aims to promote the sustainable use of biocidal active substances from a life cycle perspective, which it seeks to achieve through the implementation of an online information system based on the combination of evidence-based decision support systems (EBDSS) and proven computational toxicology modelling approaches. I found the workshop to be an important training and networking opportunity, particularly as my work is focused on modelling the endocrine disruption activity using computational predictive methods.