Elsa Villa-Fernández, co-author of the Winning Project at INGENIUM Senior School 2023: “INGENIUM is the People’s University”

Advice for future participants: “My advice would be for them to step further from the bounds of the set schedule and make the most of the experience beyond the program”.

Keys to winning the project: “Collaboration, adaptation, and enjoyment. Since it was a collaborative activity, we had to understand that not everyone would feel equally represented”.

“Our project aimed to restore the function of the pancreas in patients with type 1 diabetes and improve their quality of life by eliminating pumps and external devices”.

• “I had previously participated in conferences in my field, but the INGENIUM Senior School was a unique experience as it brought together researchers from diverse backgrounds, forcing us to learn how to communicate and make our knowledge accessible beyond our comfort zone”.

“This journey taught me that I’m much more capable than I believed when it comes to navigating the world and connecting with different people. When it ended, I felt like exploring half of Europe”.

Elsa’s Path in Science: From Childhood Calling to the 10 Days of INGENIUM

Elsa Villa-Fernández’s passion for science was ignited during her childhood. As a young girl, Elsa, who is now pursuing a doctoral degree in Biomedicine and Molecular Oncology at the University of Oviedo, nurtured her curiosity by watching health and science documentaries, with a keen focus on rare diseases. This experience made her realize that her future would be related to the field of research.

“Elsa Villa-Fernández’s passion for science was ignited during her childhood”. AI-generated image.

Her scientific journey began during the summer of her third year in the Biotechnology program. Intrigued by the low incidence rate of rare thyroid tumors, Elsa reached out to the head of a research group specializing in this area. This initial contact led to her first extracurricular internships. This interest eventually led her to conduct both her Bachelor’s and Master’s theses, where she delved into investigating various Endocrine diseases. Furthermore, Elsa is now preparing to embark on her upcoming doctoral thesis, which she will pursue with the guidance of the same research group.

It was through a lab colleague that Elsa became aware of the inaugural edition of the INGENIUM Senior School. This event, which was scheduled for the week of June 19 – 23 as part of the 10 Days of INGENIUM, immediately caught her attention. Elsa recalls, “Although it was a new initiative, I was convinced that any opportunity to establish connections, travel, and meet new people would undoubtedly benefit my career.”

Poster for the INGENIUM 10 Days event at the University of Chieti-Pescara

The 10 Days of INGENIUM serves to foster mobility among members of the Alliance while creating a unified identity as the INGENIUM University. This initiative brings together students and professors from the ten universities of the Alliance twice a year for two weeks of academic and cultural activities. The program includes a Junior School for undergraduate students and a Senior School for master’s and doctoral students.

After a seemingly effortless application process, Elsa was informed that she had secured one of the ten spots offered by the University of Oviedo for the Senior School. Excited about this opportunity, she traveled to Chieti, Italy, the host city and home to the Gabriele d’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara. Alongside nine fellow students from Oviedo, Elsa joined around a hundred participants from the other nine countries comprising the INGENIUM Alliance: “Meeting people from various disciplines taught me how to adapt and thrive in diverse situations. It also revealed to me that I have more potential than I realized to explore the world and connect with different people”.

Exploring New Horizons: Health, Well-being, and Technology at Chieti Senior School

Each edition of the Senior School revolves around a variety of themes. The Chieti edition focused on health, well-being on campus, and technology. “It was a great approach as there were a wide range of topics, and the presentations were delivered in a clear and accessible manner. Even though some topics were outside my field, I found all of them interesting. In the field of science, the translation of knowledge and the discovery of new approaches is crucial.”

The University of Oviedo delegation at the INGENIUM Senior School

One of the standout events at the school was the Global Leader’s Master Class in Mental Health & Neuroscience, which Elsa remembers vividly. She describes it as “clear, accessible, and directly applicable, as it explained how neuroscience affects our daily lives.”

Fellow participants, including master’s students embarking on a research career, also praised a discussion organized by the School about the prestigious Marie Curie scholarships. These scholarships, granted by the European Commission, aim to promote the development of researchers in innovative topics. For Elsa, meeting recipients of this program served as inspiration: “Many people think that European scholarships are unattainable, but they showed that they are not. They were proof that it’s achievable.”

Interacting with students and researchers from diverse backgrounds enhanced what Elsa refers to as her “soft skills”: “Many participants returned from this experience as changed individuals, having overcome the fear of travelling abroad in an academic context, meeting new people, and connecting with different cultures.”

Towards Achieving Success in the Senior School’s final project

At the heart of the Senior School, where numerous group dynamics and team-building activities unfolded, lay the culmination of it all – the final project. This simulation required participants, organised into groups of ten, to develop a proposal model that could compete for the prestigious Marie Curie scholarships.

The formation of these groups occurred by chance: “During lunch on the first day, we were assigned to tables with participants from different countries. After the meal, we were instructed to collaborate on the first group activity with these individuals, which involved designing a boat using provided materials and ensuring it could float with a person inside. Following the boat presentation, the coordinators asked if we wished to continue working with the same group for the final project, and we unanimously agreed,” reminisces Elsa.

On the third day of the Senior School, the groups commenced work on their projects, with the initial challenge being the selection of a suitable topic. This proved to be no easy task due to the diverse backgrounds and expertise of the team members. In Elsa’s case, her collaborators included an AI expert, a molecular biologist, a psychologist, a medical doctor, a computer scientist, a “big data” specialist, and a nurse.

“For the project, we had several broad categories to choose from, and we agreed to focus on the health category, which allowed us to combine our respective specialties. Within the realm of health, we chose a topic from my area of expertise: cellular cultivation for the reversal of type 1 diabetes,” explains Elsa.

Presentation of the E.P.I.C project at the INGENIUM Senior School

According to Elsa, the key to their project’s success was achieving consensus: “Given that it was a collaborative endeavour, we had to acknowledge that not everyone would feel equally represented. We carefully selected a topic, and everyone adapted and contributed to the work.” Part of their winning recipe, as Elsa shares, was also finding joy in the process: “We approached the project with dedication and diligence, while also ensuring we savoured every moment of the experience.”

E.P.I.C.: Restoring Lives Through Endogenous Insulin Control

Titled “E.P.I.C. Project: Endogenous Pancreatic Insulin Control – Eliminating Pumps, Restoring Lives,” Elsa’s team dedicated their efforts to outlining an innovative solution for the treatment of this chronic disease that affects millions globally.

The team proposed the development of a patch consisting of pancreatic cells, often referred to as the “missing puzzle piece” in the pancreas of individuals with diabetes, as Elsa explains. Once transplanted into patients, this patch would facilitate natural insulin production, eliminating the need for the cumbersome insulin pumps currently used by diabetes patients and granting them the freedom to live without medical restrictions.

Utilizing a multidisciplinary approach that encompassed regenerative medicine and artificial intelligence, the team harnessed their diverse backgrounds to address not only the physical challenges associated with diabetes, but also the accompanying mental health issues.

“Elsa’s team dedicated their efforts to outlining an innovative solution for the treatment of this chronic disease that affects millions globally.” AI-generated image.

“Our AI expert teammate was responsible for designing the artificial intelligence system that would control the cell culture. The psychologist focused on proposing a psychological study on the impact of diabetes on patients, while the nurse worked on planning the clinical trials. Ultimately, we ensured that everyone could contribute,” explains Elsa.

In addition to Elsa, the team consisted of Robin Baumann and Max Wenz from Germany, Kristina Carlén and Carlos A. Barrera Díaz from Sweden, Zlatomir Pavlov from Bulgaria, Rosanna Pinto from Italy, and Justin Hayes from Ireland.

Upon discovering that their project had emerged victorious in the inaugural edition of the Senior School, their efforts felt truly rewarding: “We realized that this was a collaborative, translational project, and we had a tremendous amount of fun preparing for it.”

INGENIUM, the People’s University

When asked to provide advice to future participants of the INGENIUM Senior School, Elsa emphasizes the importance of “being open to learning and meeting new people, without being overly focused on the academic aspect. If an opportunity presents itself, they should seize it without hesitation. Some of the most memorable discussions I had were during informal gatherings with peers from different universities at the end of the day. It’s crucial for them to step further from the bounds of the set schedule and make the most of the experience beyond the program.”

The University of Oviedo delegation during one of the trips

Participants in this edition of the 10 Days of INGENIUM were privileged witnesses to the first collaborative program organized within the Alliance, which had been formally established merely a few months earlier, in January 2023.

Through this experience, Elsa has also come to understand the true essence of being part of INGENIUM: “INGENIUM is the People’s University, focused on fostering exchange and uniting diverse individuals beyond academia. It is a university that enriches you on a personal level, helping you connect with others, trust them, realize your own capabilities, and recognize that, regardless of our backgrounds, we share more similarities than we might initially think.”