Researchers from many disciplines use imaging techniques to explore questions in the biomedical, physical, material and environmental sciences. Starting this year, up-and-coming scientists will be able to tap more into the knowledge of leading imaging experts from other research fields:“imaging from the NAno to the MESo”, or iNAMES for short, is the name of the new Helmholtz International Research School coordinated by the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). Partners are Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS) in Rehovot, Israel. Associated partner is Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU). The MDC will receive €1.8 million from the Helmholtz Association’s Initiative and Networking Fund over the next six years to establish the international research school.
“With iNAMES, we will provide training in imaging and data science to the next generation of researchers while also fostering long-term collaboration with leading partners in a multidisciplinary environment,” says Professor Thoralf Niendorf, who is the initiator and scientific director of the project and a lab head at the MDC. Professor Niendorf, Professors Michal Neeman and Lucio Frydman from the WIS, and other colleagues from all participating institutions conceived the training program with the help of students in Germany and Israel.
A diverse training program
Each year some 600 to 800 students apply for a PhD program at the MDC. In September 2020, the participating research labs will jointly select the first doctoral candidates for iNAMES. “Suitable applicants should enjoy designing projects independently and bring with them a curiosity about the unfamiliar,” says Dr. Michaela Herzig, head of the MDC’s PhD program. “Curiosity about other disciplines and openness to other cultures and to making international contacts are especially important in an international program like iNAMES.”
All doctoral candidates will conduct research at the WIS and at the MDC/Charité and will be jointly supervised by two mentors. During their doctoral phase, PhD students in the iNAMES program will benefit from several research stays overseas (both short- and long-term) and from work shadowing opportunities at industry partners, as well as from summer schools, networking events, workshops, lectures and seminars. Possible research activities of the young scientists range from high-resolution molecular imaging, new optical imaging techniques, new developments and applications in ultrahigh field magnetic resonance tomography to research into artificial intelligence and machine learning capable of producing images of biological structures.
From PhD students for PhD students
The impetus for establishing an international research school, Niendorf recalls, was the personal experiences of students during their research stays in Israel. Ludger Starke, who is currently doing his PhD in Niendorf’s lab at the MDC, reported in the grant application for the Helmholtz’s Networking Fund of his stay at the WIS and how he brought a new MRI technique to Rehovot.
Starke had been working in Berlin on a way to improve the use of the chemical element fluorine as a biomarker to track cells and drugs using MRI. “The problem with fluorine is that we can only introduce a small number of molecules of this element into the body, and that the in vivo MRI signal is just barely above the detection threshold,” Starke explains. To compensate for the weak signal, he generated more images overall but each of these images contained less data. He then improved the overall image quality by supplementing the missing data with statistical assumptions. He adapted a technique that had previously worked with fluorine nanoparticles at the MDC so that it could be used to track a fluorinated anesthetic at the WIS. Dr. Amnon Bar-Shir’s lab at the WIS is now using Starke’s calculations in their own investigations. “This project shows how important it is to think outside the box and to learn from one another,” Niendorf says.
Fruitful research collaborations
Similar to the new Helmholtz Imaging Platform (HIP), iNAMES aims to build bridges between different disciplines. The program therefore includes research collaborations with groups from advanced physics and the computer and engineering sciences. By establishing interdisciplinary projects, the MDC, Charité and the WIS hope to learn more about fundamental biological functions and diseases in order to enable the development of personalized therapeutic approaches for patients.