Italian excellence in scientific research: Eleonora Dondossola among the "40 under in cancer"

The experience of those who made it: Dr. Eleonora Dondossola, researcher in the United States, was selected among the "40 under in cancer" for her studies on the microenvironment in tumor progression.

intervista Eleonora Dondossola

Be selected from the "40 under in cancer" it is a great achievement. The recognition of years of study, work, sacrifice. This is an important and beautiful initiative that recognizes and rewards the contributions made in the field of cancer research by young people under the age of 40. Among these, there is also the Italian Eleonora Dondossola, now a researcher in the United States. 

Professional path 

After graduating in Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, a Masters in Molecular and Cellular Medical Biotechnology and a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from theVita-Salute San Raffaele University, Dr. Dondossola in 2011 moved, for post-doctoral training, to MD Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC), one of the most renowned hospitals for the treatment and study of cancer.

In 2017 she was included among the youngest 100 Italian experts in the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). He has published several original articles in the best scientific journals, such as Nature Biomedical Engineering, Science Translational Medicine, PNAS, Cancer Research, Biomaterials and JNCI, and his research has been presented at approximately 70 conferences.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Eleonora Dondossola and let us tell about his experience in scientific research, even as a teacher, abroad.

dott.ssa Eleonora Dondossola
Dr. Eleonora Dondossola

The study of the microenvironment in tumor progression and treatment

Doctor, what is your research focused on?

My research focuses on the microenvironment in tumor progression and treatment, i.e. the role of those cells that are not of the tumor but that are essential to support its growth. In recent years I have focused my interest on bone metastases of prostate cancer and its therapeutic treatment, with particular attention to the development of relevant biological models based on the application of tissue engineering technologies, analysis through intravital multiphoton microscopy and mathematical models. . I would like to understand which biological mechanisms limit the effectiveness of drugs currently applied in patients, how we can improve their action and find alternatives that work better. 

How was your love for research born?

I've always been quite a curious person and I think I've always had an interest in science, especially biology. When I was ten I asked for a toy microscope for Christmas, it was quite ramshackle but I had a lot of fun analyzing leaves, hair, and insects with that thing. In junior high, I loved biology and studied subjects that had not yet been explained on my own. When it was time to choose high school I had no doubts and I enrolled in the Scientific with mathematical-naturalistic experimentation. During the first years of high school, I increasingly realized that I wanted to be a researcher when I grew up, and my choice then fell on biotechnology, a course of study that was still quite new in the early 2000s.

After his doctorate he decided to leave Italy. Why did you choose the United States?

My boss in Italy had an active collaboration with a lab here in the United States, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, and I thought that after 8 years of research in his lab, it might be a good time to have a different experience. , to learn new things and see another reality. MD Anderson is the best cancer hospital in the United States, and given my interest in this field, I couldn't ask for anything better. 

Eleonora Dondossola in laboratiorio

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far?

I think this job is a constant challenge, it tests you at all times. Frustration is always around the corner because the work of scientific discovery often doesn't work out the way you planned it. What we do are hypotheses, but as such they can be validated (cheers!) Or disavowed (buuu!) And there may be days or even weeks and months of work behind them. Managing these frustrations is not easy, but when the pieces manage to fit together and the results arrive, it is a great joy. And this is the engine that then drives you forward. Submissions of articles for publication in the peer review process and funding requests are also quite intense and it takes good bumper skills to continue. Maybe my Bergamo DNA and the resulting hard head helped. On a human level, leaving Italy was not easy, both for me and for those I left at home, but I have always had great support from my parents. I still call them every day, even 10 years after my departure, and sometimes from unthinkable places, to let them experience some American life even though they have never traveled here. In doing so we took the bus together, went shopping and bought dubious Italian sauces, drank a coffee in Washington on Embassy row next to all the embassies, saw the Martian landscape outside the El Paso airport, celebrated Thanksgiving and so on. Street. 

Based on your experience, what does it mean to do research in Italy and do it abroad, more specifically in the United States?

In Italy I worked in an excellent university, and when I arrived here I did not find many differences in the tools made available for research, both in terms of laboratories and services. Financial opportunities, however, in the United States are greater, both at national and state level, and there is also great support from numerous charities, which in Italy is limited to a few excellent realities, and from benefactors, of the philanthropists who make private donations or to research institutes or even to individual laboratories, a practice that is not very widespread in Italy. 

Women and subjects STEM 

A few years ago, Dr. Eleonora Dondossola was included among the youngest 100 Italian experts in the field STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and among the top 10 junior scientists worldwide for Inspiring Science by Nature Research and Estee Lauder Companies. We are well aware, however, that there are still, unfortunately, many prejudices regarding the commitment of women in the scientific field. 

Donne e materie STEM 

What is your message to girls who have a passion for STEM subjects?

When I was in high school, I was discouraged by many people, including classmates and friends, from pursuing a scientific career because it was perceived as a trajectory with very limited rewards and opportunities, and which still seemed more appropriate for boys. But I did not abandon my goal: my commitment was very strong, my family supported me totally and I continued my studies successfully. I am very happy with my decisions and how my career has developed, and I would do it all again. Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to supervise several female students, all of whom are very good and motivated, and which have made me very proud. What I would say is that STEM subjects, in all their forms, have become an essential component of our daily life and you, girls, must play an active role in their development to make a difference. You don't think a scientific or technological career is more suitable for men, that's not true at all! Pursue your ambitions with passion in any field that interests you. 

She also belongs to the network #100expert: how important are experiences of this type to relaunch the role of women in work and research?

The network #100expert has brought a rather necessary breath of innovation to support an improvement in the information landscape, providing a precious tool to give visibility to the female world of STEM and more recently also in other disciplines. The voice of women as experts is still incredibly little questioned. As clearly illustrated on our website by Maria Luisa Villa "it is almost always men who explain and interpret the world as experts, that is, in the 76% of cases, according to the global results of the Global Media Monitoring Project 2020, the most authoritative international research long-lived about the presence of women in the media; in Italy our contribution drops only to 12% ". Really incredible and anachronistic. 


It also deals with training. What aspect of teaching do you like the most?

Being able to transmit the passion for study and research to students, in the classroom or in the laboratory. When I receive interesting questions in class or unexpected observations on the experiments of the students I follow in the lab, I always get excited. Direct interaction is also something I really appreciate. Last year I realized more than ever how important it is to have personal relationships with students, also to transmit this passion. I know that it was difficult and stressful for the students to follow the lessons through distance learning, but also for those who teach it was not easy. Even if I tried to encourage participation, it is not the same thing and talking to a computer without seeing the interlocutors makes everything very aseptic and does not allow for spontaneous exchanges of opinions. 

Gruppo studenti dott.ssa Dondossola
Group of students Dr. Dondossola

How did the pandemic live in the United States and what did it mean for your work?

Working in a hospital that treats cancer patients, the pandemic was immediately taken very seriously. To protect them at a time when almost nothing was known about this virus and to reduce the number of people circulating on campus, the research activity was suspended and the lab completely closed for 3 months, with sealed doors and disabled access. . The day the institute closed was very impactful. Seeing a place always full of people with this almost ghostly air made me feel. The measures were then adjusted to the various phases, and now we work with some limitations mainly linked to meetings in person. In Texas in general, certain restrictions have dropped earlier than in other places, for example the obligation to wear a mask, but most people wear it anyway, and there has never been a real lockdown. Restaurants have always remained open, for example, only doing take-out for a certain period and then with a gradual increase in attendance at the tables. I felt I was returning to "normalcy" around March, when vaccines became accessible to almost everyone, although adherence to the vaccination campaign stalled towards the summer. More drastic measures of obligation are now being reached here too, which had not yet been implemented before, such as dismissal from the workplace in the absence of vaccines in hospitals, universities and in some private companies and state offices.

Where do you see yourself in the next few years? Still in America or would you like to have other experiences around the world, or maybe in Italy?

For now we are here, but never say never 🙂