Stina Hellman – PhD Student in Immunology

It’s a warm Thursday evening when Stina and I find a seat next to the stables. She is holding the lead rope of the horse she has just been riding, who enthusiastically puts his nose into the grass. Not the most common circumstances for an interview, but in a way it suits the occasion: Stina recently started a PhD about vaccination against parasites in horses. Her blonde hair blows in the wind while she looks at the sweaty horse with satisfaction. I am happy she could squeeze in the interview today. There are few people I know who are as busy as she, yet she always seems full of energy.

Stina started studying psychology in Trollhättan as well as biology in Gothenburg, but realised this was not what she wanted. At the age of twenty-three she moved to Uppsala and followed the animal science agronomy programme at SLU and graduated with a master in infection biology. I ask her if a PhD was her ambition from the start? “No, I never plan anything really” she hesitates a little bit before she continues, “erhm, maybe that is not normal but I don’t have this goal of being something. I always chose things that I think was fun.” “Or interesting?”, I ask, finishing her sentence. “Or interesting, but many things are interesting!”, she adds enthusiastically. She explains that one of the reasons for her to choose SLU was that it deals with everything she thinks is important. “It doesn’t matter which programme you choose, you still get some perspective on food, how to supply our growing population with food and environmental questions.” In her opinion a really good strength to have such perspective, no matter what you end up working with.

Stina and the thoroughbred gelding Exhibition

Of course I am very interested in her PhD project and want to know all about it. She tells me she works at the section of immunology. “The department is a long name. I don’t know if you want to hear it.” We both laugh, and as I insist she tells she works at ‘The Department of Biomedicine and Veterinary Public Health’. “So the project is about developing a vaccine against the large bloodworm, this intestinal parasite in horses.” I can’t help to laugh again, since at the start of our conversation she revealed how she wanted to keep horses for a hobby only, not for a job. She realizes, laughs as well and adds quickly “That was not my main focus! Because when I started to work at SLU, I started with pigs.” She explains how it is actually not that different, since the lab part is very similar. She does not do labs on living animals, but uses blood tests only. “That’s a part of the project, to do a lot without having laboratory animals. Very often we get stuck in old patterns, but we can try a little bit more. Or at least evaluate something first outside the animal before we go into the animal.”

“I know there will not be a finished vaccine after my studies, because this is a totally new project, this is the start.”

I’d like to know what the aim is for her four years project. She explains that she works on establishing methodology, how we can make this vaccine. “I know there will not be a finished vaccine after my studies, because this is a totally new project, this is the start.” However, this will not stop her from gathering as much information as possible to continue this towards developing the vaccine. Naturally I also want to know why we need the vaccine? “We have increasing problems with anthelmintic resistance today.” She tells me all about how the large bloodworm causes most damage to the horse and how the resistance in the small bloodworm could lead to increased prevalence of the large bloodworm in the future. Nowadays a common method is deworming with an oral paste, I am interested why we should change to a vaccine. “Most of the substances that are toxic to parasites are also toxic to insects and other organisms in nature. One problem is that when we give too much oral paste this will come out in the faeces, come out into nature.” She doesn’t expect the vaccine to be a ‘one fix solution’, but it could be used together with mucking and deworming.

“What I missed was creativity, which I get in the PhD.”

I am keen to know what she is planning after her PhD. Would she like to stay involved in research? I know it’s not an easy question to answer, and indeed she does not know yet. “I am not very driven towards a goal for myself. I want to develop, I want to get better, I want to be a good PhD. But I don’t really care if I end up in a company or if I end up doing a postdoc for example.” Setting goals for the future is not the way she approaches life. “I think being open will lead me somewhere I never thought I would be.” In her opinion most places are really good to work. “I worked with elderly care and care for children with disabilities. And I think these are really nice jobs! They have their goods and bads, but what I missed was creativity, which I get in the PhD.” I am happy to hear she feels like she can express herself like that in her work now. Stina thinks for a moment and adds, “I think that is because I have a good supervisor, that lets me do it.”

A selfie in the lab. Photo Stina Hellman.

The horse pulls his rope, he wants some new grass, but we aren’t finished yet. I ask Stina about her daily life as a PhD student. She tells me she sees her supervisor almost daily, and how they discuss many things going on in the lab. It seems hard to sketch a ‘normal day’. “It is very flexible. I can decide mostly what to do and when to do it, based on what I have discussed with my supervisors.” She has four supervisors, besides her own there are three ‘co-supervisors’; usually people from other departments or companies. “Right now I am doing cell culturing, I isolate cells from horse blood and expose them to vaccine components: Substances you can include to get a better and more efficient vaccine.” There are days filled with molecular works in the lab, other days she spends analysing data at the computer. Furthermore she spends time writing, discussing articles in a ‘journal club’ and participating in weekly meetings. “And in the autumn I will start some courses, all PhD students have to take courses.”

“It is nothing that is impossible for a normal person. You don’t have to be a super person.”

Finally I am wondering if she has any advice for people who are in doubt if they want to do a PhD position or not. She responds immediately, and says without any doubt: “If you’re interested in the subject, you should do it!” In her opinion, if you are worried about something you should simply talk to people: Ask other PhD students, your (potential) supervisor, etc. “Many people say ‘Oh, it must be really difficult!’, but I don’t think its more difficult than a normal job.” She emphasizes the need of being responsible and interested in the topic. “It is nothing that is impossible for a normal person. You don’t have to be a super person.” I guess she is right. However, I can’t help myself from thinking Stina may not realize herself how much of a super person she truly is.

I’d like to thank Stina for her time and contribution. This interview was the third of a  series I named ‘Inspired by’, in which I’d like to introduce you to other people and their perspectives. If you have any ideas, questions or comments please write them below.


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