Nataly during the farewall address at the end of the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Nataly Naser Al Deen is 2018 Lindau Alumna. She was selected to represent the voice of the young scientists during the farewell address on the last day of the Meeting which traditionally takes place on Mainau island. After finishing her Ph.D. in Beirut she is now working at the Ding Lab at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. We had the opportunity to talk to her about her career after #LINO18, about the impact of COVID-19 on her work, about being vaccinated against the coronavirus and why science communication is an integral part in the fight against the pandemic.
Nataly, how has your career continued since 2018?
The Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2018 was truly one of the most enriching experiences in my life. We were introduced to science communication and science policy – areas of interests that I had never explored before. Once I went home, I got nominated by the president of the American University of Beirut (AUB) to serve as a Global Academic Fellow to the Precision Medicine Council at the World Economic Forum. There I supported the Global Council Governance Gap Group Leaders, which resulted in a high-level Vision Statement. And I was honoured to plan the visit of Nobel Laureate Harold E. Varmus in Lebanon. The starting point for his journey to Beirut was our talk during a lunch in Lindau with Nobel Laureates. Afterwards I focused on finishing my Ph.D. studies at AUB in cancer research and cellular as well as molecular biology. I managed to graduate in June 2019. A highlight was being selected in Forbes 30 under 30 Middle East. In August 2020 I moved to the USA to start my post-doctoral degree at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Can you sketch some of your current research?
I am working at the Ding Lab at Wash U where we focus on cancer proteogenomics. We do a lot of single cell sequencing and single nuclear sequencing which is a very powerful tool to sequence the tumour cells and the tumor microenvironment and normal cells at a single cell level. We use cutting-edge imaging technologies to answer many questions, including integrating pathology and omics through Spatial Transcriptomics and making use of multiplex imaging (like CODEX) and 3D imaging (using Lightsheet Microscopy). By integrating all these cool technologies together, we can then answer many questions, including studying the interaction between the tumour and its microenvironment, the origins of different mutations in the tumour, and even more acurately characterize the different subtypes of tumours, all of which have impact in translating into clinical practices. I have joined various projects targeting different kinds of cancer since I started here, in order to learn these technologies. At the moment I am leading the light sheet microscopy efforts at our lab. It is a really multidisciplinary lab – we have wet lab researchers doing the experiments and dry lab researchers who are computational biologists inventing the tools to analyse all the data. Collaboration and integration between these different fields help us to understand the proteogenomics of many kinds of cancer.
How has COVID-19 affected your research?
I was finishing my Ph.D. when the pandemic hit us. Everybody who was at a critical stage got full access to the lab. Luckily, I did not miss any day at the lab and managed to graduate on time. Even now in my post-doctoral phase, I have been able to continue my research. At our lab people who are working in computational biology are working from home. So colleagues who need to be present in the lab to keep on producing the basic-science results are still working on-site. Of course we follow all the rules like physical distancing and wearing masks. Our principal investigators established a wonderful system to stay in contact, so the coronavirus does not slow down our research projects.
You built an organisation which supports breast cancer survivors in Lebanon. What does the pandemic mean for the work of “Pink Steps”?
Pink Steps is an organisation which offers exercise and mental health support for breast cancer survivors in Lebanon. I started it in 2015. Our main goal is to meet and empower each other – to do exercise, to go on hikes, to have dancing classes together. All these activities had to stop due to the pandemic in the beginning. Then we started to have virtual meetings and dancing classes. It is important to keep on moving and to stay in touch. But of course it is not the same as meeting in person. So we are hoping to see each other in the near future when everybody is vaccinated and we slowly can resume our activities.
In January you received your first COVID-19 vaccination. Which impact does this have for your daily work?
I feel very fortunate to be among the very first persons to get vaccinated. The School of Medicine is connected to the hospital and people who work on-site were selected for vaccination. We feel more confident now working in the lab where we are still wearing our masks and reducing physical contacts. It gives us a huge sense of security and relief. I am surrounded by scientists and researchers on a daily basis, so we all trust scientific research and were very excited to get the vaccine. And we are happy that more and more people at the university, at the medical school and the elderly are vaccinated. The process is going quite well here at Wash U and in the USA.
What do you hear from your family about the situation concerning the coronavirus and the vaccination in Lebanon?
In a press release in January 2021 the World Bank approved to provide vaccines for over 2 million individuals in Lebanon. As there are 6 million people living in Lebanon this is a relatively good rate for the beginning. I have heard many conflicting ideas concerning this topic: Some are sceptical, others are excited to get vaccinated. A big problem is the propaganda that is going around on social media. Influencers could help to use these platforms for science communication. But many are spreading misinformation that make people scared. That’s why I started answering questions by myself on social media about the vaccination. Medical science is the area where I am mostly versed in, so I can help to inform people without blaming them for not having the right means to look for reliable scientific facts. I am happy to be able to show how to find trustworthy information and stress the importance that getting vaccination is the best way to move forward for all of us.
What are your arguments pro vaccination for people who are afraid of being vaccinated?
If we take a step back one year ago, everybody was expecting that science could be magical and that the vaccine could be out within weeks after the pandemic hit. So scientists had to explain that it normally takes a decade to develop a vaccine. Now that several vaccines are out and have been approved for emergency use, people are skeptical and are afraid that it went so fast. But in fact, these vaccine studies went through very rigorous trials, like the usual phases it takes. It got emergency proved by the entities and it was examined in great detail. You must see the situation we are in: Normally it takes ten years because there are not enough volunteers, we do not have the funding that fast etc. – as it is not as urgent as in a pandemic. These vaccines went through the usual clinical trial phases and were tested for safety and efficacy before getting emergency approved, and research will still be done to prove safety for years to come, and we are already learning more about them.
Also, the technologies for the mRNA vaccines, for example, have been developed for many years now and have been proven to be safe to administer to humans. These existing technologies made the process faster. A convincing number of people has been involved in the trials (tens of thousands). The mRNA does not integrate in the genome, it is not going to alter our DNA. The vaccine will not make us sick with COVID-19 and it will educate our immune system to detect and eliminate the virus once we are exposed to it. It is important to explain these facts to the public in understandable words to alleviate fears, which is part of our duty as researchers and scientists.