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Blood stem cell dynamics during regenerative stress: A Ph.D. Interview with Anna Rydström

Image collage of Anna Rydström (right) and her thesis cover (left)
Anna Rydström will defend her Ph.D. thesis “Hematopoietic stem cell dynamics during regenerative stress" on Thursday, January 18th at 09:00 in Belfragesalen, BMC D15.

Anna Rydström, a research engineer and Ph.D. student at Lund University, will defend her thesis on January 18, 2024. Anna’s scientific curiosity has led her to explore the regenerative dynamics of hematopoietic stem cells, also known as blood stem cells. Her primary focus has been to understand the genes involved in the regenerative process, and she has made significant strides in this area, discovering a new marker that can be used to identify activated stem cells.

In this interview, Anna discusses her research and shares her research journey, highlighting her achievements and challenges while offering valuable advice to aspiring students looking to follow a similar path.

What have your Ph.D. studies focused on?

“My focus has been on hematopoietic stem cells and how they respond to different kinds of stress. In principle, we've focused on the stress that they encounter when they are transplanted. 

Hematopoietic stem cells are the stem cells that give rise to all other blood cells in the body. When it comes to hematopoietic stem cell transplantations, these are the important cells. This type of transplantation, also known as a bone marrow transplant, is one of the common treatments used to treat several blood malignancies. If it weren't for the hematopoietic stem cells, this transplant would only be a transient therapy meaning its effects would only last a short time. It is because of these stem cells and their capacity to regenerate and rebuild the entire hematopoietic (blood) system that makes transplantation a promising therapy. 

While my research has not focused on these clinical aspects, we have used a mouse model to understand the dynamics of the regenerative process, looking closely at the genes that are involved. In doing so, we've identified a new marker that you can use to identify specifically activated stem cells. This discovery is important as stem cells, when activated, change their surface markers making them more difficult to identify. This new marker can be used to specifically identify functionally potent hematopoietic stem cells during the regenerative process. That, I would say is the key paper of my thesis. 

I'm also a co-author of a paper focusing more on the stem cell niche. When you perform a bone marrow transplant you need to prepare the host beforehand, clearing the stem cell niche from the cells that are already there to create space for the transplanted cells. This both gives the new cells room to grow and ensures that they will not be outnumbered by the already existing cells. So, we explored and developed a mouse model that can be modified when you want to do this type of depletion, or conditioning as it's called. This allows us to investigate different aspects of the stem cells. For example, depending on when and how you do this conditioning you might get a readout on the stem cells' proliferative capacity, and if you do it in another way, maybe you have a better understanding of how good they are at finding their way to the bone marrow.  

One thing, I’d like to highlight is that the work described in my Ph.D. thesis was not done alone, this has very much been a collaborative effort,” explains Anna.  

How did you end up doing a Ph.D. at Lund Stem Cell Center?

“Looking back, I've always loved science and have managed to stay in the scientific world in different ways. I started off doing my undergrad studies in Umeå, in the north of Sweden and started my first Ph.D. there as well. That didn't go quite as planned, it was in neural development – a completely different subject than what my current thesis focuses on. From there, me and my former husband moved to France. He's also in science and while he did his postdoc there, I found a position as a research engineer in a lab, working with cell-penetrating peptides – basically vehicles that transport stuff in and out of cells, across the cell membrane. 

 Then we returned to Sweden, landing in this corner of the country and I started in another lab here at BMC. I worked there for a few years before I finally ended up in Jonas Larsson’s lab. It was a bit of a coincidence, I had never worked with stem cells before, but had a connection who knew about this position. They thought it would suit me and suggested that I should apply. At the time, I thought no, I don't have the qualifications for that. I don't have a Ph.D.; I haven't worked with animals. But in the end, I decided to give it a try. I met with Jonas, and we had a very informal interview. He must have felt that maybe this girl could do the job because I got the position and was employed as a research engineer in his lab back in 2015. 

As time went on, he asked what I thought about doing a Ph.D. I was hesitant at first given my previous experience, but he convinced me that this would be different and that it wasn’t much extra work compared to what I was already doing. It was writing the thesis, defending, and taking the Ph.D. courses that would be added. Otherwise, I would be doing the same thing with the bonus of getting a Ph.D. out of it. So, I started my Ph.D. in 2019,” reflects Anna.

Can you tell us about the cover of your thesis?

“My cover was my last priority. People were asking me a long time ago, ‘So what's your cover going to be of?’ At the time, I didn't even know if I was going to have one, I would have been fine with having a plain beige cover as long as the content inside was the best it could be. But then one day before printing, I decided to give designing the cover a go. I had an idea in my head and wanted this sort of chalkboard-inspired backdrop. 

What you see there in white are some scribbles from my notebooks, basically FACS plots (I love FACS) a representation of some of the key things I’ve been working with, and the abbreviations of the three projects that are in the thesis. You can see we've got the niche represented and the new marker we identified and then the KAW represents the funding agency that funded the first project. I also added a little Mumin character that I have on my favorite coffee mug too,” describes Anna.

What have you found most enjoyable during your Ph.D. studies? 

This is a difficult question, there are so many things I’ve enjoyed. I'm very much a lab person. I love working in the lab, designing projects, designing experiments, working with people, and preparing for these 20-hour experiments that we sometimes must do and which I kind of weirdly enjoy.

 I also really like the research environment. I like the group; the environment there is very good and supportive. You can always find people who can help you with ideas or with practical questions. I enjoy working in this environment where you have quite a lot of people within the same research area. It allows for interactions and feedback on what you're doing, and I think that's great. Then, if you think even bigger, there is the whole Stem Cell Center and all the talks and events we can join, there are just so many opportunities here,” highlights Anna.

What has been the most challenging aspect?

“The writing. I'm not a writer, so I have to push every word out onto the screen, but it's a learning process, and also an exercise in prioritizing and focusing.  

Also, bioinformatics is very tricky, but I saw this as a challenge and pushed myself in this area. I knew that I was not the best with bioinformatics for example, so I took extra courses and tried to do as much of the analysis myself with help from my bioinformatician colleagues rather than just handing off my data to them and getting the results back. I tried to look at it more as a learning opportunity. But it has been very challenging,” notes Anna. 

What are your plans following your Ph.D. defense?

“I have not yet made up my mind and I do not need to immediately since I have a permanent position as a research engineer here at the university. Most Ph.D. students are employed as Ph.D. students, and when they finish, they can have some extension, but most of the time, they will leave the lab sooner or later. If I want to, I can stay in the lab, though Jonas is also supportive if I decide to go abroad to do a postdoc. 

But like I said, I haven't made any decisions yet, right now my only focus is the thesis defense. Everything that comes after that will have to wait,” says Anna.

You did your Ph.D. after some time in the lab. Do you recommend waiting to do a Ph.D. and gaining some workforce experience beforehand? 

“Not necessarily, no. There's no point in waiting if you know that you want to do a Ph.D. What I do think one should wait for is finding the right lab, because that's crucial. You should not just jump right in thinking, 'Oh, I'm so happy someone wants me as a Ph.D. student.’ That's not the way to go. You should make sure that you end up in a good place otherwise this whole process could be much more difficult.

In the end, though, it is a very individual choice. You could end up with a supervisor who is a good fit for you but a bad fit for someone else. So, it is about finding a supervisor who is good for you, who can understand you and your needs, and that you can work well with together. Then of course you should also be interested in the project and science itself. 

If you find those things immediately, then just go ahead do not wait a minute,” advises Anna.

Any other tips or advice for future Ph.D. students? 

“Be brave. Dare to make mistakes. Do not try to make everything perfect from the beginning by over-planning. Be bold and try things out,” concludes Anna.


Anna Rydström

Research Engineer, Doctoral Student
Stem Cell Regulators
Division of Molecular Medicine & Gene Therapy
Department of Laboratory Medicine
Email: Anna [dot] Rydstrom [at] med [dot] lu [dot] se (Anna[dot]Rydstrom[at]med[dot]lu[dot]se)

Profile in Lund University Research Portal

Jonas Larsson

MD, Professor
Division of Molecular Medicine & Gene Therapy
Department of Laboratory Medicine
Lund Stem Cell Center
Email: Jonas [dot] Larsson [at] med [dot] lu [dot] se (Jonas[dot]Larsson[at]med[dot]lu[dot]se)

Profile in Lund University research portal

Learn more about the Stem Cell Regulators Research Group

Ph.D. Defence Details:

Anna Rydström defends her Ph.D. thesis “Hematopoietic stem cell dynamics during regenerative stress" on Thursday, January 18th at 09:00 in Belfragesalen, BMC D15.

  • The opponent is Michael Milsom, Heidelberg Institute, Germany
  • The chairman of the dissertation is Associate Professor Jenny Hansson

To find out more about the event please visit our calendar.

Read the full Ph.D. thesis in the Lund University Research Portal.

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