Investigating early embryo development – Charlotte Gibson
In the “From the lab to…” series, we highlight our team’s scientific expertise by providing the spotlight to our colleagues with a background in research. For the third edition, we learn from Strategic Funding Consultant Charlotte Gibson, PhD, about her experiences investigating early embryo development, and what led her to Catalyze.
From two, to one, and then on…
It is fascinating to think that we all develop from one oocyte, fertilised by a sperm cell, forming a zygote. From then on, cells start to divide, to 2-cells, 4-cells, 8-cells, then to the morula and blastocyst stage. At the blastocyst stage, the embryo has the necessary cells lineages, with the inner cell mass that will give rise to foetal tissues, and the trophoblast that will form the placenta. It is at this stage that the embryo will implant in the endometrium (inner cell layer of the uterus), and, continue its development for the next 9 months. The period between fertilisation and the implantation is called the pre-implantation period. During this time, the embryo is very sensitive to its environment, and a good communication between the embryo and the endometrium are necessary for the establishment of a successful pregnancy.
More research is needed to understand the mechanism in place during early embryo development, and this is particularly relevant when it comes to understanding the impact of the assisted reproductive techniques used today.
…investigating horse embryo development
Charlotte’s interests in reproductive biology and embryo development led her to do a PhD at Utrecht University to study the interactions between the early embryo and the maternal environment during the pre-implantation period in the horse.
Charlotte says, “I was always fascinated with how the human body worked and wanted to know about physiology, down to the cellular level. Along the way, I became more and more interested in reproductive biology, including the development of the reproductive systems, gametogenesis, early embryo development and gestation.”
During her PhD, Charlotte co-authored several in which the authors studied the impact of negative uterine asynchrony on the development of early equine embryos and the expression of specific gene sets in the embryos’ membranes. Using an asynchronous embryo transfer model, they were able to demonstrate the sensitivity of the embryo to its environment; and, they found that the horse embryo is able to adapt its development accordingly, in order to ensure subsequent roughly synchronous development.
Overcoming the challenges of research
When starting a new research project, you are faced with many challenges: you must elaborate a hypothesis and determine how to demonstrate it. For that, you spend time reviewing articles in the field, then planning the experiments, learning new techniques, testing the methods. Then, you can start with the experiments.
Through vigorous planning and the day-to-day challenges of research, Charlotte developed certain traits that go beyond hard skills:
“Next to the technical skills learned in the lab, you get to develop additional soft skills that are also relevant in a company, like adaptability, perseverance, and this drive to learn new things.”
Charlotte continues, “For example, following sample collection, you need to prepare the sample for further experiments and analyse the results. It often happens that an experiment does not go as planned, and either you have to adapt or repeat. This can lead to some frustration at the time, but in the end, you learn to persevere.”
In Charlotte’s case, collecting the necessary samples (endometrial tissue and embryos) for a specific project could take a couple of months and even a couple of years.
“Reflecting back on this, I realise how committed I was to my research project and I wanted to complete it.”
Reflecting on a change of direction
Towards the end of her PhD, Charlotte gained new momentum, as she began to consider how she could apply her newly developed skills to have greater impact:
“Over the years, I felt that my part in research was limited, and that I could play a bigger role, have more impact if I went out of the lab towards the healthcare and biotech industry and improve the life of patients.
“Ultimately, in research I could spend hours or days working on the same task, reading articles and diving into new research topics, analysing data, writing articles. But, I felt that I could make use of this analytical capacity for other purposes. And I was missing the element of teamwork, and the kind of mission and values that bring the people of a company together.”
Breaking barriers to funding at Catalyze
Today, subsidies are indispensable for research projects to move forward, and to get products on the market. But, searching for subsidies and writing project proposals need not be the main activity of researchers. Their available time should go towards performing the research and innovation, discovering and developing new products that will one day benefit us all.
“Now, at Catalyze, I have the opportunity to support researchers and learn about new projects every day.” Charlotte says.
In her role with the Strategic Funding Unit at Catalyze, Charlotte discusses research projects or products being developed with researchers from universities, SME’s or foundations. She must take the time to understand the projects and different research lines, and where funding is needed to finance them.
“My scientific background helps me understand various research projects and I can directly think in terms of solutions and new ideas – based on our client’s research lines or products, I can envisage potential projects that could fit with the scope of a specific grant.”
Once the priorities have been defined with the client, Charlotte finds specific funding opportunities that are most relevant to apply for.
“I am excited to hear about new projects, new companies, and I am eager to find the right funding opportunities for our clients. Because I know that within a few years, it could have an impact and improve patients’ lives, improve the diagnosis or treatment of certain diseases.”