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Diverse Perspectives in Stem Cell Science: A Q&A with Lund Stem Cell Center's DEI Leaders

Written by Alexis Luis

Photo of Nicholas Leigh (left) and Sofie Mohlin (right)
Sofie Mohlin (right) and Nicholas Leigh (left) are Associate Professors at Lund University and co-chairs of the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) committee at Lund Stem Cell Center.

In this interview, we explore the research journeys of Sofie Mohlin and Nicholas Leigh, Associate Professors at Lund University and co-chairs of the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) committee at Lund Stem Cell Center. They discuss their unique paths into stem cell and regenerative medicine research, the challenges they have encountered, and their aspirations for fostering a more diverse and inclusive scientific community.

Q: What inspired you to start a career in academic research?

Sofie Mohlin:

I am an engineer by training and was not exposed to the lab much. So, I have no idea why, but after three years, I felt an urge to be in the lab. I randomly emailed a place in Malmö asking for a summer internship. Someone answered, and on the first day, I realized I wanted to do research for the rest of my life. It was an unexpected epiphany. I sometimes joke that maybe it was the celebratory atmosphere - with numerous champagne toasts during my initial weeks coinciding with a spikning and two PhD thesis defenses. After my summer internship, I returned for my master’s thesis in the pathology department at Lund University in Malmö. I stayed in the same lab for my PhD. My supervisor created a perfect environment for me, giving me freedom and support. After that, I did a combined postdoctoral position in the US and Lund, which allowed me to establish my lab in Lund early on and be more independent.

Nicholas Leigh:

I've always been fascinated by antlers. I wanted to study them from an early age, maybe 10 or 12 years old. This fascination drove me to pursue a biology degree as an undergraduate. Later on, I realized that in order to study antlers, I needed to attend graduate school and that led me down this path. 

When it came time to decide on a graduate school, I decided to wait a year to apply. But a serendipitous meeting with a professor led to an opportunity to join an immunology program. Despite having no background in immunology or cancer, I decided to go for it—mainly to have a job. I initially planned to leave with a master’s degree and then decide on my next steps, but I ended up doing well and stayed on for a PhD. Then, I applied to a postdoc and eventually made my way to Sweden to start my research group, combining immunology and regeneration and using salamanders as our model system.

Q: What impact do you hope to make with your research?

Nicholas Leigh:

We aim to understand how immune systems work in animals that are exceptional at regenerating. There's evidence that the immune response to injury impacts healing outcomes. However, I am also passionate about changing how science is done—promoting open data sharing, and reproducibility, and making science more accessible at university, national, and international levels. I want to use my research group as an example of how a collaborative and kind environment can foster better science.

Sofie Mohlin:

At the end of my PhD, I again got this epiphany that I wanted to understand how children can develop cancer when they are still a fetus. This question still drives my research. My goal is to unravel this puzzle, using suitable and sustainable model systems, inspired by my postdoc mentor, Marianne. 

Q: Have you faced any unique challenges as scientists in academia?

Sofie Mohlin:

One significant challenge was transitioning from a very junior PI to leading a larger group. When I started receiving funding to support a larger group, I, surprisingly for me at the time, encountered resistance and felt discriminated as a woman. 

Another challenge that I enjoy sharing with students, to let them know that we all encounter failures, was during my PhD when we discovered that a cell population, we had been working on was overgrown by immune cells, rendering two years of work unusable. I found this out right before my halftime and had to start back at the drawing board. It was tough, but I made it through and learned a lot from it in the process.

Nicholas Leigh:

For me, scientifically, as a postdoc, we faced a significant setback when we discovered six months of data analysis was spent on the wrong samples due to a mix-up at the core facility. It was frustrating, but it taught me the importance of having clear protocols in place. Otherwise, I have been privileged in many ways, but I have seen close friends face severe challenges in academia, motivating my DEI work. In general, there are huge systemic issues within science that need to change, both in how people are treated and how science is done.

Q: How do you foster a research environment that embraces diversity and inclusivity?

Sofie Mohlin:

Creating an inclusive atmosphere is one of my main priorities. Everyone in my lab, regardless of their position, should feel included and valued. It’s essential that everyone feels they can share and collaborate openly. I think as the PI it is our responsibility to provide that foundation, then it is important that the individuals in the group contribute as well.

In my group, I have been lucky that people, from many different countries have applied to the lab – I always wonder how they find us and am so happy they do. Currently, we have eight nationalities represented, and I actively try to be as unbiased as possible during recruitment. What’s most important is that a newcomer fits well with the group and fosters the environment; their publication record comes second.

Nicholas Leigh:

Clear documentation and communication are crucial. Our lab manual outlines our values and code of conduct. Then, when I have decided to bring someone in, that is also something that I take the time to talk about at the introductory meeting. Our group’s website also clearly states our values. I have received emails from people saying one of the reasons they were attracted to our lab is because of our interest in inclusivity. 

So, I think being clear in the documentation and trying to lead by example, being kind and patient and inclusive, and ensuring these values are reflected in daily interactions. Also, checking in on people, especially those from abroad, helps them feel supported. It has a lot to do with saying these things out loud and creating a welcoming environment.

Q: What inspired you to champion DEI work at the Center?

Sofie Mohlin:

I am passionate about these matters, as I believe there are numerous issues to address. For instance, my closest friend from my PhD studies is born in Sweden, with parents from Iran. The experiences he has of discrimination in Sweden, makes me really sad and angry. Reflecting on my own experiences as a white woman in Sweden, I can only imagine the challenges faced by minority groups. I am eager to contribute in any way I can and joining a larger group is more effective than working alone. So, when offered the opportunity to co-chair with Nick, I felt that it could be a chance to make a change, to make a difference. 

Nicholas Leigh:

For me, I always think back to my high school, which was very diverse. It's been disappointing to see less diversity each step of the way as I've progressed in academia. I want to work towards an environment where classrooms and labs reflect the diversity of the community. How can we, in 20 years, get the University classroom in Sweden to look like it does on the street in Sweden? Engaging students early and sparking their interest in science is crucial for long-term change. We need to inspire young students before they choose their career paths, showing them that science is accessible and exciting. Sweden is a great country in this regard because education is free, so it’s really about student’s interest and drawing them into the sciences. 

Q: What changes do you foresee at the Center and in the broader scientific community?

Sofie Mohlin:

Our DEI efforts aim to make long-term changes within our network and other parts of the University.  Soon after the committee's formation, we swiftly got to work, integrating DEI perspectives into the case study segment of the supervision course - a course geared towards all supervision levels at the University. While this is just a small step, we hope to incorporate DEI perspectives into more courses and even advocate for a dedicated course focused on these topics. This is just one example of all the activities we have going, and I’m really proud of our work. 

By starting within our network and demonstrating the demand for such activities, we hope to see these practices spread across different levels within the University. I believe this long-term approach could have a significant impact.

Nicholas Leigh:

Expanding on this, our Stem Cell Center's agility allows us to be creative and offer training opportunities on various topics to our researchers. As part of the DEI committee, we can also provide input on what the Center should prioritize or provide, independent of, or in addition to, the University's offerings. The presence of the DEI committee and its activities signals the Center's continuous efforts to ensure everyone feels valued and included. By fostering an inclusive atmosphere and supporting diverse talent, we can set an example for the broader scientific community. 

Q: Anything else you both would like to highlight?

Nicholas Leigh:

It's worth noting how incredibly engaged the members of the DEI committee are. They devote a significant amount of time and effort to this cause, reflecting their commitment and passion. This committee stands out to me as one of the most involved I have been a part of, with no external incentives for joining. Each member participates willingly, driven solely by the desire to enhance the environment for all. I find that aspect quite remarkable.

Sofie Mohlin:

That's a great point to highlight. Conversely, one demographic group currently underrepresented in the DEI committee is white males, particularly Swedish white males. This underlines the importance of having a DEI committee – to raise awareness that diversity, equity, and inclusion are collective responsibilities. These issues concern everyone, not just those directly affected by inequity, inequality, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and so on. So, we are working on ways to engage this group more going forward.

About Sofie Mohlin & Nicholas Leigh

Sofie Mohlin, an associate professor at Lund University Faculty of Medicine, heads the Molecular Physiology Research group. The group is associated with Lund Stem Cell Center and the Lund University Cancer Centre. Additionally, she holds the position of co-chair on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee at Lund Stem Cell Center.

Sofie Mohlin's Profile in the LU Research Portal

Nicholas Leigh, an associate professor at Lund University Faculty of Medicine, heads the Regenerative Immunology Research group. The group is associated with Lund Stem Cell Center, the Division of Molecular Medicine and Gene Therapy, and the Wallenberg Center for Molecular Medicine. Additionally, he holds the position of co-chair on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee at Lund Stem Cell Center.

Nicholas Leigh's Profile in the LU Research Portal

About the DEI Committee at Lund Stem Cell Center

At Lund Stem Cell Center, we believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital for promoting scientific progress and forming the foundation of a flourishing and supportive academic research environment. 

To drive positive change, our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee is responsible for developing and implementing initiatives that promote DEI principles within our scientific network.

DEI Committee Members:

  • Nicholas Leigh
  • Sofie Mohlin
  • Claire McKay
  • Abigail Altman
  • Jenny Hansson
  • Iran Augusto Silva
  • Nils-Bjarne Woods
  • Malin Parmar
  • Alexis Bento Luis
  • Marie Jönsson
  • Christine Karlsson
  • Malavika Sreekumar Nair
  • Nika Gvazava
  • Xiaojie Xian
  • Franziska Olm
  • Vivien Horvath
  • Pia Johansson

For more information about the group and their work:

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Lund Stem Cell Center