KU Leuven PhD student Apeksha Shapeti studies angiogenesis, the process by which new blood vessels grow from pre-existing ones. Now pay attention because angiogenesis research has important implications for cancer research and tissue engineering. Tumour cells, like healthy cells, need the oxygen and nutrients found in blood to survive. Understanding how a tumour’s environment causes blood vessels to grow could offer clues for how to modify the microenvironment to stop them growing. In a similar vein (sorry), angiogenesis research is vital to improving tissue engineering techniques. One of the major challenges in the field right now is that a synthetic scaffold needs to connect to the body’s circulatory system in order to be functional. “My research allows me to see what kind of materials promote the process of blood vessel growth and allow for better tissue engineering strategies and scaffolds materials,” explains Apeksha.
Right now though these applications are far off. Apeksha is just 10 months into her PhD. Her goal is to understand how new blood vessels grow in response to factors outside the cell environment and how the mechanical forces that the cell exerts impact the extent to which blood vessels grow. While it’s still early, she seems to be on the right track. She has been able to show that it is, in fact, true that the cell environment does affect angiogenesis and impacts the extent of it. “Of course I haven’t characterized it mechanically yet (which is the whole goal of my work), but the fact that I see differences already has been quite nice,” she adds.
In many ways, Apeksha’s research is an apt metaphor for her experience with KU Leuven: the environment influences growth. Fortunately for her, the environment of KU Leuven is a nurturing one. For such a strong research institution, she’s been surprised by how accessible it is. Compared to an American university, it was much easier for her to join a research group and the professors are more approachable. “They are usually quite open, even if you want to volunteer to do work for them. We’ve had Master’s students who have volunteered in our lab,” explains Apeksha. This openness even extends out of her lab to other departments. “If you have a discussion with different professors from different departments about your work, they always find it very interesting. They are happy to give you advice and to suggest people for you to go talk to. People are usually more than willing to help.”
And the support from KU Leuven started before Apeksha even arrived in Belgium. She experienced some delays in getting her visa that almost caused her to miss the start of the program. Luckily the KU Leuven administration was incredibly understanding. “The university really worked with me and helped me find a solution,” she said. They found a way for her to start on time and continue as a longer-term student.
When it comes to research, the university environment also has an impact. Innovative research requires a culture of innovation, something KU Leuven has successfully cultivated. For the third year in a row, the university topped Reuter’s list of the 100 most innovative universities in Europe. Talking to Apeksha, it’s easy to see why. “You see innovation all around you here, even in the lab environment,” she says. “Microscopy is an important part of my work. I really need to be able to visualize the response of these cells so we have a group we work with that has built their own set-up for doing this very advanced microscopy. It’s an in-house system. We do modelling work around cell mechanics in our group as well, and we use modelling software that’s been developed by another group at the university that we collaborate with.”
Now that’s an environment that will help Apeksha thrive!
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