25 March 2019

An interview with Assistant Professor Pia Nyeng

scientific path

Pia Nyeng, an Assistant Professor in Henrik Semb’s group, tells us about the choices she has made in her scientific vocation; the culmination of the current chapter is a first author publication in Developmental Cell.

By Abigail Jackson, Postdoctoral researcher, Semb group

A prevailing theme and perhaps a strong determinant of her academic achievements is her tenacity for collaboration. With Pia starting a new scientific adventure as principal investigator and lecturer at Roskilde University, we wish her all the best on this well deserved, newly appointed position.

How would you encourage a fellow scientist to take a leap of faith and instigate a collaborative project?

As scientists we are often inquisitive by nature and asking questions is something we feel comfortable with - setting up collaborations is really just an extension of this skill set.  In my case, discussing my data with my network of peers led to suggestions to contact the right collaborators.  This strategy helped in the recruitment of physicist Silja Heilman to the Semb lab and her work was integral to the Dev Cell paper, on which she is second author. It also allowed me to find the right collaborator, mathematician Aasa,Feragen (Institute of Computer Science, UCPH) for a concurrent project that requires specialized in silico analyses of my live imaging data sets. Also, take comfort that if you are looking for a collaborator in a different field, because you have a need for a certain technique or analysis, it is highly likely that they will be searching for the skill set or data you are providing.  The latter was certainly the case with the image analysis/computer scientists I have approached – they all were searching for complex biological data sets.  So, if you don’t have peers to connect you to a new discipline, don’t be afraid to approach people blindly, the collaboration you are proposing will be of worth.

Who was your main inspiration or role model as a student?  How did they encourage you in your pursuit for a career in science?

Looking back at my early career, I now realize that the scientists who I looked to for inspiration were often women. My first memories of science come from the woman who raised me - a medical doctor and researcher.  I remember thinking that she must somehow be famous, being invited to speak at conferences all over the world where so many people would listen to her ideas. My high-school science teacher, Jytte Petri, was the one who pushed me to go for a higher education in science both through her belief in me, but also through her engaging approach to teaching science.  It was during my master’s project on male/female meiosis and because of my mentor professor Anne Grete Byskov, that I first learnt thorough scientific methods and how to conduct hypothesis led research. Whilst I believe that scientific success should be measured on its own merit, it is great to have positive female role models to encourage you to reach your goals. The camaraderie I feel working along side my female collaborators is also a strong motivator during each project. The gender imbalance in science is a topic heatedly discussed and I am thankful that DanStem is buckling this trend with half of the PI positions filled by women. 

How beneficial was it working within the international scientific community – did the time abroad provide you with a unique skill set?

Ever since studying developmental biology (embryology) for a project in high school, I have wanted to specialize in this fascinating topic. At the time of my masters developmental biology was almost non-existent as a research field in Denmark but in the USA there was a large community of embryologists. So, I felt fortunate to be recruited to Jan Jensens lab in Colorado, where my research focused on how a certain signal – FGF – has the ability to maintain a population of naieve cells in the gut and lungs of young embryos.  I went to USA with nowhere to stay, no relatives or friends in the country and never having visited there before! It was completely worth the initial trepidation – not only did I get immersed in the field of developmental biology - I also learnt from the bottom up what it takes to run a lab. Lastly my time in the US made me realize that even though work-life balance is important, you really should enjoy the time you spend at work. It was during my PhD in the US that I really realized I love being a scientist.

Within your Developmental Cell paper we can observe cells moving and sorting to specific areas within pancreatic tissue, over time.  Being able to capture these dynamic events in such detail is really at the forefront of imaging techniques. What enabled you to perform such complex experiments and to analyze the data accurately?

During my PhD I got interested in microscopy of live tissue, especially after an embryology course at the Marine Biological laboratory at Woods Hole where I got to try out live imaging of Zebrafish and Fruitfly embryos in a confocal microscope. Confocal microscopes were becoming more common in academic institutes and I was able to start using one in the last year of my PhD. Over the years in Henrik’s lab I honed my skills using many different microscopes and developed a live imaging tool to track apical polarity in pancreatic cells in mouse embryos. With our ability to visualize dynamic cellular behaviours in the pancreas, we then needed a way to categorise and quantify our observations. Live imaging is a new field, and we still lack good methods to objectively assess the large amount of data generated. Silja’s training as a physicist and her programming expertise brought a new approach to defining cell populations in a meaningful and objective way – such as defining cells in the area of the tip of the organ based on geometry.

Has working with scientists in a different field given you a novel insight into pancreas organogenesis?

In 2018, Aasa and I received a grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to pursue a cross-disciplinary project integrating live imaging, machine learning and mathematical analysis. Getting to that point required a lot of communication across disciplines that in the beginning led to humorous misunderstandings. A “hole” in topology is for instance a very different thing than a “hole” in biology. Working with scientists that have been trained in physics, mathematics and computer science has been a great experience and one that has spurred me on to learn more about data analysis methods and to start coding myself.  Often, the best questions that led to novel insights are the questions that started with “I don’t’ know if this is completely stupid, or, if it can be done, but…” More than just novel insights into pancreas organogenesis, the experience has taught me a different way to think about my data and to select the method I need for analysis prior to designing the experiment itself.

Im looking forward to building on the research that I’ve invested so much in over the coming years but also to delve deeper into the field of machine learning.  I would like to take the latter approach and apply it to better understand the complex interplay between different cell types within the pancreas.

Looking to the future, what scientific questions are you looking forward to explore as an independent scientist?

Whilst the work explored in the Developmental Cell paper gave insights into how patterning occurs in the pancreas, we still don’t know what regulates the loss of P120 from the naïve cells. I’m looking forward to building on the research that I’ve invested so much in over the coming years but also to delve deeper into the field of machine learning. I would like to take the latter approach and apply it to better understand the complex interplay between different cell types within the pancreas.

Support often goes hand in hand with success, what has kept you motivated through your career?

My husband Morten has encouraged me throughout my whole career, I cant thank him enough for supporting my decisions and trusting me implicitly. I also owe a lot to my mentor from the KU mentorship program, who gave me the inspiration and drive to sustain a career in academia during some difficult years when my two children were both infants and my husband and I both worked –more than- full time jobs.  My mentor helped me realize that I was lucky to enjoy what I do ‘day to day’. My main motivation has always been that I find science fun and exciting. Fortunately, I have always had supervisors such as Henrik and Jan who recognized and appreciated my drive to pursue my own ideas – not everyone is fortunate enough to feel passionate about their career.

If your boys decide they would like to follow in your footsteps as scientists, do you have any words of wisdom for them?

Irrespective of the career, I would like my boys to pursue and maintain  a job or role if they enjoy it.  I think the most important lesson I have learnt as a scientist is that you shouldn’t be discouraged by failures or unexpected results, they can so often be a way to learn.  

Nyeng, P., Heilmann, S., Löf-Öhlin, Z.M., Pettersson, N.F., Hermann, F.M., Reynolds, A.B., Semb, H. (2019). p120ctn-Mediated Organ Patterning Precedes and Determines Pancreatic Progenitor Fate. Developmental Cell, 49, 1-17, doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2019.02.005.


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