How come you went to Nice to take part in this workshop for aspiring scientists?

After graduating from Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University with a degree in biotechnology, I ended up working at the N. Petrov National Research Center of Oncology under the guidance of Vladimir Bespalov, a lecturer at ITMO University, who encouraged me to pursue my studies at ITMO as a Master’s student.

After joining the university, I met Prof. Julia Fedotova. She taught physiology, a very important subject for everyone interested in functional foods. It so happened that our research interests coincided, and I got to help Prof. Fedotova in her research at the Pavlov Institute of Physiology. It was she who offered me to participate in the workshop in Nice.

The ECNP workshop for young scientists. Credit: social media
The ECNP workshop for young scientists. Credit: social media

What is ECNP and what was the workshop like?

ECNP or the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology is a scientific association that hosts two annual congresses for professional scientists and two annual workshops for aspiring researchers. Apart from that, they offer schools for young scientists, the next one taking place in Oxford. Among the topics discussed at these events are, first and foremost, brain and mental disorders. I would really like to participate in such a school as a PhD student; I see it as an opportunity to share my knowledge and experiences with others as well as broaden my horizons and bring new ideas to Russia.

Every year, four topics are chosen for this workshop. This year’s topics included modern discoveries in the field of molecular and cellular mechanisms related to causes, characteristics, and control of psychiatric and neurological disorders; behavioral systems; the latest trends in the field of clinical neurology; and this year’s special topic was the preventive treatment of brain disorders. This is the topic I presented my research on. I’m currently developing preventive treatment measures for postmenopausal women suffering from depression.

To be allowed to take part in the workshop, I had to provide a recommendation letter from my scientific advisor and an abstract summing up the results of my research. I participated in the event in the poster section format. The workshop brought together over 200 young researchers from all over the world, with about 10% of them presenting their works.

I managed to make it to the workshop thanks to the Future Today Foundation that provided me with a travel grant. By the way, ECNP also offers travel grants for the best poster and presentation, which may come in very handy from the financial point of view. A nice bonus is that they also pay for participants’ accommodation and food.

What research did you present at the workshop?

The research I talked about at the workshop focuses on the impact of vitamin D on women experiencing menopause, also known as the climacteric, which is the time when women are no longer able to bear children. This is a very important period in terms of women’s health, as it affects all body systems, from hormones to the cardiovascular system, as well as serves as a trigger for a whole range of diseases. What is important here is that most of these diseases can be prevented simply by taking vitamin D.

Supported by the Russian Scientific Foundation and supervised by Julia Fedotova, the research was conducted in two stages. The first stage was a pre-clinical study conducted on rats. The animals’ ovaries and uterus were removed to model menopause. After that, they were divided into two groups: the first group of animals was prescribed standard hormone replacement therapy, while the second was not. All rats received various doses of vitamin D in order to find the optimal amount of this vitamin. The research was also supported by ITMO’s International Research Center “Biotechnologies of the Third Millennium”, headed by Denis Baranenko. The Center’s research associates developed special nanocapsules containing vitamin D.

Denis Baranenko
Denis Baranenko

How often do Russian menopausal women receive hormone replacement therapy?

Unfortunately, not very often. Though these medications help reduce the risk of cardiovascular and oncological diseases and make it easier for women to stay fit and feel well, not a lot of women in Russia are prescribed this kind of therapy.

What happened during the second part of your research?

The selected dose of vitamin D was then used in clinical studies on real women. Women aged approximately 56 years old were invited to take part in the study. Some of them received vitamin D with and without hormones, while others were only prescribed the standard hormone replacement therapy. There was also a placebo-controlled group whose members received placebo (this group was necessary to ensure correct interpretation of the study’s results).

The results we got were very interesting. Vitamin D in nanocapsules suppresses the symptoms of anxiety and depression in postmenopausal women who didn’t receive hormonal medications by 50%. That’s why it’s so important to get sufficient amounts of vitamin D. It’s also important to note that you can receive vitamin D not only with food but also from the sun. The problem here is that when getting vitamin D from the sun there is a higher risk of developing skin cancer, so taking this vitamin with food is recommended instead.

What were the results for those who received hormone therapy?

In women receiving hormonal medications, intake of high amounts of vitamin D either didn’t have any effect or decreased the efficiency of hormone therapy. However, intake of small amounts of vitamin D helped suppress the symptoms of anxiety and depression by 50%.

Women not taking hormonal medications are advised to take vitamin D with food; even if they overdose, this will cause no significant harm. Women who do receive hormone therapy are prescribed a low-dose vitamin D complex, which increases the effectiveness of hormonal treatment.

Does this research have something to do with the topic of your thesis?

My thesis topic is different from that: I study the impact of biologically active substances on benign hyperplasia in rats’ prostates. This topic lies in the field of oncology, but it’s close to my line of research. Firstly, I’m, too, dealing with biologically active agents; while in the first case these are agents aimed at treating oncological diseases, in the other their role is performed by vitamin D.

Secondly, the prostate, being a hormone-driven male genital organ, pertains to the endocrinological field of knowledge, and thus falls into my sphere of interests. Personally, I believe that adopting functional, special dietary regimes can enable us to control our hormonal levels, the sole function of which is to regulate the living processes of all organs in the body. When it comes to humans, hormones are in full command of everything from heartbeat to behavior. So being able to program our own hormonal levels really is quite interesting.

My Master’s program is called “Biotechnology of Functional Products”, which implies that the functionality of products can depend on biologically active substances. Thirdly, I’m also conducting preclinical studies by performing experiments on rats. And these skills were very much needed in my work.

In the future, I intend to enroll at a PhD program to continue researching biologically active substances under Yulia Fedotova and Denis Baranenko. I happened to have gotten into the oncological science, but what interests me most is psychoneuroendocrinology, the behavioral system, and I’m looking to switch to this field. After I finish a research project on the prostate I’m working on right now, I plan to leave oncology and engage in research on the brain on the basis of the experience I’ve obtained.

Will you continue researching the impact of vitamin D on depression in postmenopausal women?

Yes, a new phase of that project is just about to begin, in which we’ll try to ascertain why is that that low doses of vitamin D worked and big doses didn’t. We expect that receptors have something to do with this, but will have to explain how and why this happens.

What other research topics were discussed at the workshop in Nice?

There were a lot of interesting reports not only in the field of clinical psychiatry but also in the field of pharmaceuticals, biologically active substances, which is what’s most important for a biotechnologist. For example, I was very impressed by the report by Irish professor John Cryan, who researches the impact of microbiota on the brain, namely on the development of depression and anxiety attacks. It is a known fact nowadays that healthy eating and proper maintenance of gut microbiota influences a person’s mood and behavior. This is a new and very promising branch of science, and food biotechnologists have to look into that. It’s not just a question of interest, but something that has to be studied by everyone in our field.

John Cryan. Credit:
John Cryan. Credit:

Another compelling report was on the analysis of autism, which suggested dividing people on the spectrum into five different groups based on the root cause of the disorder occurring.

There was also a lecture on innervation of the brain using electrical contact devices. These contacts are implanted in the brain of a rat and then used for monitoring the changes in the animal’s behavior and movement. This is done via electric impulses: some parts of the brain are stimulated, while others suppressed. It’s important because these contacts are part of the treatment of patients with Parkinson’s disease, as supplying electrical impulses with a certain frequency and intensity helps to significantly decrease various motor impairments observed in Parkinson’s disease sufferers, such as tremor and shaking limbs. This information will come in handy in my future research.

Finally, another topic that I found interesting was how oxidizing agents affect dopamine receptors and stress, or, in other words, how food and hormones impact certain receptors, and what consequences this harbors for the human brain and behavior. This stood out to me because my research also explores enterochromaffin cells in the gut, which produce serotonin.

What was so special about the format of the workshop?

We worked from eight in the morning to nine in the evening each day for the three-day duration of the workshop: listened to lectures, participated in the poster section, discussed various research. Even during breakfasts, the organizers mixed the seating so as to create discussions between different participants. There was a separate table for researchers from the developing countries, which Russia is part of, to allow them to share about their research in more detail with their international colleagues, pitch potential collaborations and establish new contacts.

Poster sections were, too, very informal, that really stood out to me. People were just drinking wine, snacking and in parallel to that, just doing their science things. This kind of simple, trusting communication between established professors and junior specialists is something we should strive to achieve in Russia. It’s not just for the sake of everyone feeling comfortable; this adds more interest to the working process. I don’t obviously mean throwing wine parties during exams, but rather having a friendlier communication between processors and specialists that are just starting out.

I see a problem in the fact that a lot of people start their Master’s studies not knowing what it is that they want to do in there. I was lucky in that sense: I came to my future scientific supervisor knowing full well what I wanted to achieve research-wise. Students opt for the supervisors their faculty offers, and then complain that what they do is boring. What could help, in my opinion, is holding regular workshops and coffee breaks within different faculties and the university itself, to allow students talk with professors in a more informal setting, find what others are doing, and get an insight into how they could realize their own potential in those fields.

Were there any events or lectures explaining how is best for a young scientist to build their career?

Yes, there were lectures important for any person pursuing a career in science. For example, there was one on writing scientific papers, discussing the topics of where best to publish, how to promote your research beyond the scope of scientific journals, and how to get into science popularization and establish yourself there. They suggested that we should develop our Twitter accounts, organize lectures, record podcasts and YouTube videos. As a scientist, you have to embrace mass media. You have to do your utmost to tell the wider public about your research and the promising results of other researchers.

Have you noticed any differences in how your international colleagues approach science?

While in Russia, it’s more common for a scientist to work in a specific field for a long amount of time and with good results, in the West staying in one laboratory for more than two years means that you seemingly can’t succeed in fulfilling your potential. Unlike their Russian counterparts, who consider fundamental research an unprofitable and largely unfavorable affair, international scientists are interested in being engaged in fundamental science.

Russian researchers shouldn’t be afraid of going abroad. Many PhD students here have research that can be seen as controversial or doesn’t post a positive result, which is a near-must in Russia. Meanwhile in the West, a negative result is a result nevertheless, for it brings the humankind closer to understanding the fundamental processes out there.