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Diverse Perspectives in Stem Cell Science: A Q&A with Chimezie Harrison Umeano

Written by Abigail Altman

Photo of Mezie during a UniStem Day 2023 workshop.
Chimezie Harrison Umeano (right), a doctoral student in the Regenerative Immunology Research Group, is captured here engaging high school students during UniStem Day 2023.

Meet Chimezie Harrison Umeano, a doctoral student at Lund University, exploring the intersection of regeneration and cancer biology. In this interview, he discusses his scientific work, the camaraderie in his lab, and the unique experiences that come with being an international student in the heart of Scandinavia.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in science? 

A: I've been living in Sweden for the past nine years. I came to study my Masters in Biomedicine here in Sweden, at the University of Skövde. Then I was hoping to return to Nigeria after my masters, but I was considering whether to start my career here in Sweden instead of flying back to Nigeria, where I did not know if I might have positions [available] for me with my studies. So, I stayed behind in Sweden and worked at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm after doing an internship at Gothenburg University. After being at Karolinska Institutet, I found myself at Lund University as a PhD student. 

Q: Did you always know that you wanted to do a PhD? 

A: Yes, I wanted to do my PhD first in cancer biology or tumor biology because that is what my master’s thesis focused on, but it seemed like the positions were not always available. It is like a very hot cake of which everybody wants a slice, so there are fewer positions for many applicants. And I had not been successful in being among [those] selected, in all the applications that I had sent it. Then I found a job working as a technician and met my soon-to-be Principal Investigator, Nick Leigh. We were discussing regeneration and cancer and that's where our interests met. And then we thought, OK, it is a good thing if I can come to Lund to do my PhD. 

Q: What is your current research focus? 

A: My general project is how the immune system affects complex multi-tissue regeneration, using salamanders as the model organism. My project focuses on how the adaptive immune system contributes to limb regeneration in salamanders. I have tried to knock out different genes. My first project is trying to knock out the RAG1 gene that is responsible for the VDJ recombination and maturation of the adaptive immune cells, B and T cells. Then we will conduct a regeneration experiment to see if these salamanders regenerate their limbs. 

The lack of specific antibodies and tools for this species makes it [hard], but we mainly look at the transcript of these animals during that experimental point. We use this technique, HCR FISH, hybridization chain reaction, to localize gene expression and design CRISPR guides, which is not easy for a species that is not as common. 

Q: In a few sentences, can you tell us about the research group you work with? 

A: So, our group is relatively small, we have our group leader, two PhD students, a postdoc, two master students, one technician. It is a dynamic group. I will say, it is small and yet it still has a lot of diversity. We have Asians, we have Africans, we have Europeans, and we have Americans. I think we may be the most diverse group [at the Center]. 

Scientifically in the lab, most of our project's stem from the regeneration and the immune system connection and then it goes out as a web, so everybody in the lab has many connections to other projects. At any one point in time, one has a cross link with another project, and one communicates with others, and we learn from each other. Then because of that it makes us work more like siblings because at one point in time one needs somebody's help, or one might have to teach somebody something. There’s [lots of] intermingling I would say, everybody gets to work side by side and make themself available to help others in the group or assist in another experiment where two or three persons are needed for the experiment. 

Q: What do you feel contributes to this high level of collaboration in the lab environment that you are in? 

A: I think it is the groundwork that our group leader has put for the members of the lab and the earlier members of the lab trying to continue in this tradition of making everybody follow. It does not look like some people are better than others. The group leader has to make the lab in such a way that there is no sense of hierarchy.  

Q: How do you personally contribute to fostering a good environment within your research team?  

A: I try to enjoy the positive sides of our diverse backgrounds and then bring it into the lab and make fun with each other and use it to everyone’s advantage. 

Q: As you approach the completion of your first year in the PhD program, could you share how you have been managing the academic demands? Have there been specific pressures or challenges that stand out? 

A: Yes, I am already feeling it. I have felt it throughout my first year already, but I try not to let this pressure get to me. I want to do things according to my own time. According to my capability, I do not want to stress myself because if I stress out, I burn out and then I cannot complete stuff I am supposed to. The other thing is that there are a lot of requirements from the different organizations we belong to. [As a] PhD student, you have to make presentations, weekly updates and join floor or project meetings and journal clubs. You have to dedicate your time to these, read papers and go out to more activities like seminars and talks. It can sometimes be demanding to fit all these things into the schedule. 

Of course, people usually say we PhD students are meant to be stressed out, we have to work it out, but I do not think it is good for mental health and in my opinion, it breeds a toxic cycle. That is why I want to work normally and just finish my work in the stipulated time for the day and then enjoy my personal life. Sometimes I forget to prioritize myself, sometimes I get carried away by the work, by the activities, and then I will be like, “oh,” and remember that I have to prioritize myself too. 

Q: How do you keep yourself motivated?  

A: I am still alive, and I am not in pain, that is my motivation. Once I have life, it is enough for me. I have my freedom and that gives me my best motivation every day to continue what I want to do. Most importantly, I have my sanity. You know, it is the basic things we have, but most times we do not appreciate it, or we are looking for superior things. But for me? As far as I have my life, my sanity, and my freedom, I am good. 

Q: Thinking of students just starting out in academia, do you have any tips or advice for working in an international and culturally diverse environment? 

A: I think everybody should relate with everybody in a personal way. I try to take an individualistic approach where I relate with each person based on their own personality. For example, I won't relate to you the same way I relate to [someone else]. I cannot take up [the same] joke and talk to [anyone] in my lab about it. I have to get on their level. I get to understand them personally and I make a joke personalized to them. I communicate with them in a personalized way so that we do not offend each other. That is how I see it, more about a personalized approach to everybody. 

About Chimezie Harrison Umeano

Photo of Mezie.

Chimezie Harrison Umeano is currently a doctoral student in the Regenerative Immunology Research Group led by Nicholas Leigh at the Lund University Faculty of Medicine. The group is affiliated with the Wallenberg Center for Molecular Medicine, the Lund University Cancer Centre, and Lund Stem Cell Center. 

Professional Background: Master's Degree in Biomedicine from the University of Skövde, Doctoral Candidate at Lund University 

Chimezie Harrison Umeano’s Profile in the Research Portal