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PhD defence interview - Nadja Gustavsson

Collage of photo of Nadja to the left and the cover of her thesis on the right.

During her thesis project, Nadja Gustavsson has characterized structural changes inside neurons of a new mouse model for mixed neurogenerative disorders. On the 21st of October, she is defending her thesis supervised by Oxana Klementieva. In this interview, Nadja shares her ups and downs during her time as a Ph.D. student in MultiPark.

Tell us about your Ph.D. research!

Our lab utilizes a novel approach combining spectroscopy methods with X-ray fluorescence to study pathological alterations of molecular structures inside single neurons. This method opens new opportunities to unravel the pathological triggers that lead to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s (AD) and Parkinson’s disease (PD).

My latest thesis project has been to establish and characterize a new mouse model of combined protein pathologies linked to neurodegenerative disorders. In PD, α-synuclein form aggregates and contribute to pathology, whereas accumulation of amyloid-β is well-known in AD. But in fact, many of the Alzheimer’s patients display aggregated of both types. And so far, relevant animal models recapitulating both these protein pathologies have been lacking. That is why I put an effort in developing one by crossing two already existing mouse strains, one AD-model and one PD-model. Together with induced cellular models and organoid 3D cultures, I wanted to study how these proteinopathies affect each other. In other words, how does one pathological protein affects the environment inside the cells, and in turn the aggregation pattern of the other one. By characterizing these structural changes with our imaging approach at an early stage, before expected symptom onset and plaque formation, we may find new possible treatment targets or biomarkers that can be used.

How did you end up at MultiPark?

It all started when I attended a lecture by Jia-Yi Li during a master course in neurobiology. I found Parkinson’s disease to be a very interesting disease and expressed my interest in getting involved in a research project, whereby I got in touch with research groups in MultiPark.

What have you enjoyed the most whilst researching at MultiPark?

I have to admit that I was not aware of MultiPark at that time and it took me a while before I realized that this network was available. That was a great discovery, because attending the graduate school’s lunch seminars opened up new possibilities for me to exchange knowledge with other young researchers within the same field. I also enjoy the feeling of taking part in the latest discoveries in our field, and contributing and make a difference for the better. MultiPark has been like a safe and close environment, somewhere to go for advice when I experienced difficulties during my research education. Especially the retreats MultiPark had before the pandemic were very good for taking away the pressure to facilitate networking and getting to know other researchers better in a more relaxed environment.

What have been the most challenging during your Ph.D.?

A Ph.D. is challenging in itself. But for me, I found it incredibly hard to navigate in the system of regulations and formal guidelines to adhere to. Every thesis project is unique, making it difficult to apply the same regulations to everyone. Still, I think it could sometimes have been easier to find more clear instructions on how to handle these guidelines with regards to my work.

And the most rewarding?

For me, it has been extremely rewarding to realize that I managed to complete my research education despite all the turns the way took during the journey. The past years have been some of my worst, but also some of the best in my life so far. I feel that I have learned so much about myself and my research field despite (or maybe thanks to) all setbacks. The feeling of being able to make a difference is extremely powerful as a driving force.

Do you have any advice for new Ph.D. students, something you wish that you had known during your Ph.D. education?

I have plenty of advice! Don’t be afraid to do mistakes and don’t hesitate to ask for help. Research education is too short for you to invent the wheel yourself. Everybody makes mistakes so it would be strange if you don’t. So be kind to yourself. There is always a way out, but it is easier to find it if you reach for help. Research shouldn’t be an isolated job.

And a final piece of advice, don’t rush through experiments! Take your time to plan it rigorously, it is the best investment in time you can do for your project.

What do you like to do when you are not researching?

During my spare time, I love to spend time with my family and friends. I am a social person (those getting to know me during my thesis project may doubt). Therefore, I am very grateful for the international environment at the faculty, allowing me to get in touch with a diversity of cultures. Like that, I can experience the world without even traveling. I love trying new things, like sport and food, together with others. It does not matter what it is, the essential is to experience it together.

What are your future plans?

Well, if there is anything I have learned during my Ph.D., then it would be that often when I have detailed plans for the future, life comes in between. But I guess, that is part of the process, and every time it happens I find new interesting things to dig into, which finally makes me changing the direction. But I think I am done with academia for now. To me, it is more intriguing to change the environment and to discover new things. I am quite open to new opportunities, for example in the industry. One thing I would find meaningful would be if I could use all my experience of ups and downs in academic research to change the system for the better for future Ph.D. students.


Nadja Gustavsson will defend her PhD thesis titled "On the nature of mixed neurodegenerative amyloidopathies." on Thursday 21st October at 09:00.

Zoom link:

Her opponent is Prof. Vittorio Bellotti, UCL, London, UK.