/ SNI INSight

Medical nanosciences: A real enrichment of the nanoscience program

Vier Studentinnen Nanowissenschaften

Tamara Utzinger, Michelle Arnet, Alexa Dani and Elaine Schneider are happy to be able to work on research projects that are close to a medical application with new specialization in medical nanosciences.

Since September 2021, the new specialization in medical nanosciences has been available to nanoscience students at the University of Basel. This offers a fascinating alternative to the existing specializations in physics, chemistry and molecular biology. We asked several students why they chose to major in medical nanoscience, what their initial experiences have been, and what subject areas they’re working on as part of their master’s studies.

A change was on the cards
In 2021, at the end of their bachelor’s program in nanosciences, Alexa Dani and Tamara Utzinger considered switching to the master’s degree program in biomedical engineering. After all, their interests lay in biological/medical issues, and they wanted their work to be as application-oriented as possible. When the medical nanosciences major became available in September 2021, however, switching was then out of the question and they both stayed on the nanosciences program.

The two young women are in agreement: “We definitely made the right decision! There’s lots of scope for choice within medical nanosciences. We can register for lectures in both biomedical engineering and drug sciences, and the two project and the master’s thesis we choose also give us insights into different areas — as well as teaching us to work across multiple disciplines,” they say, summarizing the benefits of this specialization.

Application-oriented research
Alexa Dani, who came to Basel from Munich to study nanosciences four years ago, has experienced what it’s like to work in an interdisciplinary field at the boundaries of medicine, biology and physics — especially during her project work at the start-up ARTIDIS. Indeed, she liked her work at the company so much that she’s planning to do her master’s thesis there. “I’m working toward approval of the ARTIDIS device, which can make rapid statements about the malignancy of a tumor and even provide information relevant to a possible treatment,” she says. As well as this direct impact of her work and the interdisciplinary nature of her task, she also enjoys the pleasant, familiar atmosphere at the company — whose roots go back to the group led by Argovia Professor Roderick Lim from the Biozentrum.

Tamara Utzinger would also like her research to make a concrete contribution to potential applications. Originally hailing from the Aargau, the young researcher began her master’s thesis in Professor Andrew Yang’s group at the University of California San Francisco in October 2022. There, she is investigating which immune cells can penetrate the blood–brain barrier and trigger inflammation in the brain in the event of neurodegenerative diseases. In the future, this knowledge may help physicians treat diseases of this kind.

Cells as the starting point for diseases
Master’s student Philippe Van der Stappen was keen to gain some experience abroad and is currently carrying out research in Professor Alex de Marco’s team at Monash University (Australia).

Right from the start of his nanoscience studies, Philippe was fascinated by the complexity of nature and its numerous “nanomachines” — such as human cells: “The interplay between these machines is beautifully coordinated and works perfectly in most cases. Due to the laws of physics and chemistry, however, the tiniest faults in these machines can give rise to diseases.” Explaining his decision to major in medical nanoscience, the early career researcher says: “I think it’s fascinating that we can improve our understanding of how diseases develop by studying cells in detail.”

In his two projects so far, he was excited to use high-tech equipment for the detailed analysis of cell constituents. Now, he is using a plasma focused ion beam microscope that even allows researchers to remove individual regions of a cell. As part of his master’s thesis, he is developing a procedure to isolate precisely the regions responsible for cell movement with a view to analyzing the proteins in those regions in their entirety. This research has implications for the investigation of cancer and degenerative and inflammatory diseases because tumor and immune cells are also mobile. Philippe enjoys this kind of research: “The work I do here is very exciting and varied — including everything from biology and engineering to programming and data analysis.”

Alexa, Tamara and Philippe feel they are very well prepared for this demanding work thanks to the broad-based education they received not only in the nanoscience degree but also in lectures as part of the master’s program — and they’re pleased that they can always fall back on their interdisciplinary education.

Lectures provide orientation
Having only begun their master’s studies in September 2022, Elaine Schneider and Michelle Arnet still aren’t sure which area they want to focus on in their master’s thesis — but both were so keen on the medical nanosciences course that it wasn’t difficult for them to choose the specialization. Now, they want to get their bearings within the subject area by attending some lectures before deciding where to do their master’s theses.

Elaine has already begun her first project. Having been interested in the neurosciences even before she started her nanoscience degree, she is now working with Professor Anne Eckert at the University of Basel’s Department of Clinical Research. As part of this work, she is investigating changes in the bioenergetics of certain model cells for neurons under the influence of hormones.

In any case, the five students we asked agree that the specialization in medical nanosciences was an excellent way to expand the master’s program in nanosciences. This new option means they can work on research projects that they find fascinating within the world of the nanosciences and that are, in some cases, highly application-oriented.

Further information:
Master’s program nanosciences, University of Basel